5 Counterintuitive Ways to Improve Your Intelligence

Most of the conventional wisdom about intelligence is wrong.

We’ve Been Led to Believe a Few Things

  • Fixed mindset — Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, talks about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. We’re raised to believe in the power of fixed abilities when in reality intelligence is malleable.
  • Testing works — we grow up in a society where good grades are supposed to be a metric for future success. We stress kids — who should be learning for the sake of learning — with standardized testing because it’s supposedly useful.
  • Titles matter — certain careers are labeled the “smart” careers. Non-white collar work is seen as a “trade” and is associated with lower intelligence.

Here’s the Truth to All of the Statements Above

  • Growth Mindset — scientists have proven our brains have something called “neuroplasticity” meaning our brains can form new connections through learning. A simplified example of this: if you practice the guitar, the area of your brain that controls motor functioning will grow. There is no ceiling on intelligence.
  • Testing is a waste — there is zero. I repeat… ZERO correlation between grades, test scores, and real world success. There’s actually a coined phrase saying “A students end up working for C students.” In the real world you don’t get multiple choice answers to choose from. You have to deal with other people and social intelligence isn’t taught or tested in school. You have to sell, persuade, lead, coexist, create, and execute on ideas. School paints a narrow picture of intelligence and testing makes it worse.
  • Intelligence comes in many forms — it’s extremely hard to take apart an engine and rebuild it. That requires intelligence. Testing the ph level of the soil in someone’s lawn as a landscaper requires intelligence. Einstein said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will believe it is stupid.”True intelligence starts with figuring out what you’re suited for and growing in that area.

Now that we’ve dispelled some of the myths regarding intelligence, let’s look into some practical action steps. These won’t be your typical “read more books” type of answers. I’m going to go deeper and talk about the types of intelligence that actually rule the world.

Never Accept Anything at First Glance

“Trust none of what you hear, some of what you read, and half of what you see”

Do you think the news is a beacon of truth? Do you believe that your financial planner is acting in the sole interest of helping you build your portfolio?

For various reasons, people have incentives to mislead you. If you don’t pay attention to these incentives, it’s easy to be fooled.

Some reasons why you shouldn’t automatically trust what people tell you are:

Agency Problems

An agency problem occurs when the interests of the “agent” don’t match the interests of the affected party. The interests of a wall street banker trying to polish up his quarterly earnings (usually) don’t match the interest of borrowers, taxpayers, and the general public. The interest of a news network whose entire business model is predicated on attracting and retaining eyeballs doesn’t match the interest of the person watching the news, which is to know the truth. Anytime someone is seeking to inform you, ask yourself, what’s in it for them?

Survivorship Bias

Survivorship bias occurs when you only see the “winners” left in a given situation and the “losers” are tucked away into obscurity.

For this section, I’ll draw from an example used by Nassim Taleb in the book Fooled by Randomness.

Say you’re approached by a “fund manager” who has had a track record of making higher than market returns for a decade. Given the size of the original pool of fund managers, his success could be and probably is a result of pure luck. You don’t see the losers who went bust, which makes it seem like this fund manager is skilled. Maybe he is.

But as Taleb says, “If one puts an infinite number of monkeys in front of typewriters and lets them clap away, there is certainty that one of them will come out with an exact version of the Illiad.” Be careful how you interpret impressions of other people. They made be skilled, or they may be a “lucky monkey.”