Right in the middle of a pretty respectful gathering, he started speaking loudly and obnoxiously saying a lot of nothing. He was not communicating. He was positioning himself as the alpha male. His voice started to go a few octaves above two-lined and people around him were turning their head as if they were irritated. It all started becoming a scene after a few cold minutes.
Kim noticed the situation and walked across the room to get closer to the alpha male tribunal. The straight-shooter that she is, I thought she was going to ask for calm and quiet given someone else was giving a short speech. But to my disbelief Kim engaged in the banter and started laughing orgasmically -to attract the alpha male. From there on, I knew we had a show that would end up in my blog somehow.
A couple of hours passed and later on in the evening, Kim approached me for a chat and in the middle of our schmooze, she started asserting that the alpha-male-lookalike seems to be a smart bloke. I hope it’s not mean to say this: but for the first time in our long friendship Kim transiently looked like a goat to me –in that very quick moment. I suppose I was being very briefly judgmental. I just failed to understand why. I know I was hypercritical of Kim inherently and involuntarily.
A few days later, I was still feeling pretty crappy about having that instinct about a friend. I started asking myself questions like: was I judgmental? Is it fair that I didn’t say anything to Kim? Did I feel that way because Kim started participating in a socially unacceptable behavior? Do I like Kim, so I was being jealous when she complimented the alpha-male-lookalike? Should I talk to her about it? Am I a good friend if I don’t talk to her? Was I envious of the alpha male because he got attention? and the questions kept going, going, and going. Nothing seemed to connect however…
…and in an unassuming morning at a cliché moment it all came to me. I realized I had felt that way about Kim because she characterized the alpha male as smart. But why would that lead to such decree? How do I know if he is or isn’t smart. What does it mean to be smart anyway? Is being-smart equal to sounding-smart? After a lot of thinking, this is how I broke it down for myself: people usually and mostly inaccurately associate one or more of the following traits to smart:
– Quick get-it factor
– Articulation of facts, stories, and points
– Asking too many questions
– High education or multiple academic degrees
– Being master of a few skills such as music, sports, chess, games, etc.
– Being able to connect a few seemingly unrelated data-points (=intelligence)
– Patient analysis of issues
– Social manipulation
– Remembering names, phone numbers, etc.
– Having broad set of information about different topics
– Knowing historical facts
– Talking too much, as a mean of knowing too much
I’m afraid none of the above has to do with being smart by itself. The adjective (smart) is used to qualify the way one’s brain works. It has to do with the process of a) absorbing b) processing and c) communicating information. A smart person should have a unique ability in all of the three. The only attribute that can distinguish one person from another is (b), and sadly, that’s not immediately apparent because (b) is a function of time and well-formed unconscious.
First, curiosity holds the main weight in our ability for absorbing information as a multi-faceted faculty. The dearest tradition that’s also a painful and common non-sense remains to be the assumption that academic education is the best (and perhaps only) source of absorbing information. That’s why the myth of educated=smart surfaces all over the place. Let’s face it: there are only two reasons as to why one might think that way: the structured manner of academic education and accredited nature of academia itself. In my view, continuous reading and listening can be the most important sources of absorbing and refreshing information. Academia doesn’t necessarily or fully insure continuity and freshness of information.
Second, the most fascinating step happens during processing information. If there is anything as a God-given talent and/or genetic advantage hides under this rug. From neuroscience we’ve now learned that a synapse is the event which causes exchange (or production) of data between brain cells. I have this mental model of relating data to processed information. That means when two or more information points connect, data gets generated. Thorough research has verified the number of synapses per second differs from person to person, leading to the notion that there are people whose brains creates more data per second. I admit, I’m not one of them. My brain seems to have an inability to create data out of raw information without context. For instance, there was this professor in my college who would walk into a class and his default action was to write a painfully complex formula on the whiteboard. There were many of my classmates who seemed to immediately grasp it. I never did. Sometimes it took me the entire semester to understand the formula because I’ve always been handicapped by the story. I need to know the context, the problem, the why, and if that’s not enough, I would also need to attach value to the problem to actually direct some of my synaptic elasticity to the issue. By value, I mean I need to see if this is a subject I care to process.
The third and arguably the most important step is articulation or communication. The talent of being able to communicate data requires knowledge. Knowledge comes out of making logical relationship between data points. The knowledge is bound to be relevant to a context, as the source of relationship between data points. Throughout my life, the main lessons I’ve learned have come from narratives. Story-telling stands to be a rare commodity. It’s more of an art. Some believe you either have it, or you don’t. Literature, charisma, and humor as adaptive characteristics can tremendously help articulation of a story, but we should not mistake those attributes with volume, obnoxiousness, and a fake job.
To me being smart requires perfection in all of the above, wrapped up in a charming gift box of self-awareness and principles.
…once upon a time a professor of Physics was travelling in a boat crossing a river. In an odd moment of silence, the professor asked the boatman if he knew anything about physics. The boatman who was illiterate, said “no”. The professor pretentiously replied “half of your life is gone if you’re not smart enough to learn physics”. After that unpleasant exchange, the boatman and the professor had a few goings. By this time they were in the middle of the river and a big storm suddenly flipped the boat over. The professor was struggling in the water. The boatman asked the professor “do you know how to swim?” … The professor said “No”. The boatman said “well, now your whole life is gone”.
Forgive me, Kim!