The Real Way to Figure Out How Smart Someone Is

It works every time.

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IQ tests are torture. I took my first one at the age of five. I remember one question that drove me to tears:

“Circle the picture that looks the most like a lamp.”

There were four pictures. A desk. A bed. A couch. And last but not least, a lamp. The question didn’t make any sense. One of the pictures didn’t just look like a lamp. It was a lamp. In my mind, there should’ve been a picture of something that only resembled a lamp.

Every question posed the same kind problem. It was open to ten interpretations, at least for me. In the end, I didn’t finish the test. The school tried to place me in special education courses, but my parents objected — mainly out of shame and embarrassment.

For about ten years, they treated me like a total idiot. They yelled at me for making simple mistakes. My dad called me stupid under his breath. It was around that time they started planning to have another kid. That turned out to be my brother, who they considered bright.

Everything changed when I turned 14.

My school gave everyone another one of those IQ tests. This time, I didn’t waste a lot of brain power on it.

I just answered the questions.

A few weeks later, the gifted program came for me. They changed my classes. Kids who ignored me suddenly wanted to be my friends. Teachers looked at me differently. They took the time to learn my name. The rules seemed to relax. The courses got more interesting.

There were fewer worksheets. There was less homework. A lot less. Everything was a project. We were told to be creative.

We were encouraged to have fun.

We were told we were smart.

It worked.

We’re obsessed with intelligence.

Everyone needs to feel like a genius these days, at least over here in America. They have to be the smartest person in the room.

Have you noticed?

It’s gotten especially bad lately. We’ve got half the country thinking they’re smarter than doctors. Politicians post bullshit memes about thalidomide or Ivermectin and tell everyone to “do your own research.”

They can barely use Google…

I’ve thought our key problem is that we reward stupidity. Maybe the real problem is that everyone tries too hard to sound smart. They use words they don’t know. They make claims they can’t support. They pretend to be scientists, when they’re really just surfing the web. Millions of Americans think Bret Weinstein is a genius because he wears tweed and tells them what they want to hear, while spoonfeeding them bad science.

There’s a hundred apps and a thousand supplements all promising to boost your brain performance. Some of us spend thousands of dollars on audiobooks that offer the same gimmick. All of this is the 21st century version of playing Mozart for babies. It doesn’t work. There’s no real science behind it. The companies that sell this crap know.

They don’t care.

We’ve commodified the hell out of intelligence.

Among all the commodities, intelligence is the biggest one. As a culture, we’ve equated intelligence with wealth and power.

Elon Musk? Jeff Bezos? Richard Branson?

They must be super smart.

After all, they’re rich.

Never mind the scientists who created the mRNA vaccines that are saving millions of lives right now. Never mind Jonas Salk, the guy who created the polio vaccine and then literally gave it away. Never mind Rosalind Franklin, the woman who proved DNA’s double-helix structure and then got written out of history for fifty years.

In America, being rich is the prerequisite for intelligence.

Bonus points for being a white guy.

When we encounter someone with lots of money, we attribute intelligence to them after the fact. We assume you have to have brains to make a fortune. We only want to praise smart people who’ve made billions.

We seem to have forgotten that most geniuses died in poverty. I mean, seriously. It’s a long list.

It’s not that hard to look or feel smart.

Here’s the problem with trying to determine someone’s intelligence. Every measure we have is biased and superficial.

We love articles that describe intelligence in simple ways, or offer us a little quiz or checklist. We especially love ones that break out the traits of intelligence. (I even wrote one.) They make us feel good about ourselves. There’s a very simple reason we love them so much:

They make us feel smart.

We go through these articles and think about ways these traits apply to us. So what if we bombed that IQ test? We’re quiet during meetings, so that must mean we’re truly intelligent.

I’d like to think that some of these articles have merit. If nothing else, they offer a perspective. But can you trust them?

Are they definitive?

Probably not…

Anyone can look smart. All they have to do is observe the current popular traits, and then emulate them. So quiet people are smart now. Okay, so just shut up and listen to people. They’ll assume you’re a genius.

Unless you’re a woman…

The truth is, using your brain is hard, sometimes even boring. It’s not always that fun expanding your knowledge or worldview.

It’s not always comfortable.

We’ve gendered the hell out of intelligence.

Let me ask a very simple question:

How many times do you see the word “genius” appear next to women’s names, compared to men’s?

Not that often.

That’s because the word genius is gendered. The word itself evokes images of disheveled men. Everyone knows what Albert Einstein looks like. Do you know what Lise Meitner looks like? Do you even know who she is? She discovered nuclear fission, but it was her male colleague Otto Hahn who received the Nobel Prize for her work.

The word genius comes from a sexist heritage. Kant himself thought women were barely human, utterly incapable of rational thought.

(So did Aristotle.)

For most of history, women have been excluded. Pick up a book on history or philosophy by a best-selling author. How many great female historical figures does it mention? Probably not that many.

I’m not trying to pick on anyone, but my point is pretty clear. The ways we determine someone’s intelligence is riddled with all kinds of subjectivity and bias. Intelligence tests. College admissions…

It’s all bullshit.

There’s a hundred ways to put your thumb on the scale.

Honestly, why bother?

You’re never going to figure out how smart someone is in five minutes, or twenty minutes. It takes a long time.

There’s a simple way to see how smart someone is.

If you’re looking for the best way to see how smart someone is, then here’s an approach that won’t fail. Are you ready?

Stop judging them.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do. As a teacher, I’ve used it for more than a decade. It works. Give them a chance.

It’s time to abandon hacks.

There’s no quick way to measure someone’s intelligence. Every single instrument we have has been debunked. Intelligence exists in too many forms. It’s too culturally situated. It’s open to bias.

So what else can we do?

We can stop trying so hard to sound smart. We can stop trying so hard to see how smart someone else is up front. If you’re a boss looking to hire someone, stop trying to be clever during interviews. Stop giving candidates little puzzles to solve. Stop asking those little trick questions.

Look at their qualifications.

Ask them real questions. Get to know them. Give them a trial period. Listen to them when they talk. Let them show you how smart they are on their own terms. Let me emphasize that again.

Their own terms.

Not yours.

They might surprise you.

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