Innate Smarts Have Never Mattered Less and "Smart" is a Meaningless Word

Earlier I posted that curiosity quotient matters more than IQ. Recently I traded emails with Chris Yeh and Dave Jilk on this.

Raw intelligence has never mattered less. All the knowledge anyone needs to have is available at your fingertips. Students in India can take MIT classes, for example. Books are scanned and online. Moreover, with billions of capitalists being churned out in the east, hard and smart work will count for far more than raw intelligence. There’s a whole other group of reasons that Daniel Goleman outlines when he succinctly proves that Emotional Intelligence is more important to life success than IQ.

Moreover, I think the word "smart" is the most overused person-description in the entrepreneurial lexicon. It conveys absolutely nothing to me. If you look at LinkedIn profiles, resumes, or blog posts about other people, you will always see "John Doe is super smart" or perhaps even the rarefied word "brilliant," which I thought was reserved for the truly extraordinary but is used so often that it again has lost its meaning.

Most everyone is "smart" in some sense. There are far more precise words that can better convey someone’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses. Articulate? Organized? Empathetic? Thoughtful? Dynamic? Tireless worker?

I think we can assume that any knowledge worker who’s competing has a baseline of general competence, which is what the "smart" catch-all refers to.

Let’s get more precise.

4 comments on “Innate Smarts Have Never Mattered Less and "Smart" is a Meaningless Word
  • The problem with a simple word like “smart” is that it bundles together a lot of different concepts. Run-of-the-mill academic excellence actually encompasses a wide variety of factors, ranging from a good memory, the ability to read quickly, organization, and the willingness or inclination to follow rules.

    There is a basic definition of “smart” that I’ll borrow from the computing world: processor speed. Some people are faster than others. But how useful a computer is to you depends more strongly on the software you’re running.

    I have fast processor. I can read, write, and do most intellectual processes much faster than the typical person.

    This allowed me to score well on IQ tests and do extremely well academically. But while it is helpful in the business world, it is not sufficient.

    Other factors, like being able to recognize opportunities, the willingness to act on my convictions, and the ability to listen to what others have to say, are far more important.

    Now, the fast processor is certainly an advantage if you have the right software. But without the right software, the best it can do is win you fame and fortune on Jeopardy.

  • When people use “smart” they rarely use it to mean processor speed, I think. In fact they’re talking about one facet of someone’s cognitive strength. So they leave a presentation by someone that was sharp and they call the presenter “really smart” – well, he was charismatic and presentable. Or someone is really organized and efficient and is called “super smart” – well, he’s organized and efficient. It is rare that someone is at the top of the charts across all these metrics (I’m not talking about academic excellent, just life excellence).

    In the Silicon Valley, who can’t read quickly, follow rules, be organized, etc.? Almost everyone has broad competence in these areas. You’re smart, I’m smart, he’s smart, she’s smart. Who isn’t “smart”? It only becomes helpful if we drill down.

  • If you’re mainly just arguing that people should be more precise when they use the term, then I certainly agree with that. However, I think that general intelligence is a distinct and useful idea, but to the extent people use the term ‘smart’ not to mean that but rather a whole pile of different ideas, yes, smart is useless.

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