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On Being Smart (2009) [pdf] (epfl.ch)
236 points by jonnybgood on Nov 11, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 130 comments



I had the good fortune of having dyslexia and ADD before they tested these kinds of things, and eventually went on to become a high school dropout. Ultimately I went to university, got five degrees including a PhD from Yale. I published two papers in Nature journals now cited together over 250 times. One, a single author paper, overturned 10 years of high profile theory and originally caused a falling out with my advisor, a MacArthur fellow and one of the giants of Yale. Having grown up never feeling smart I was always intellectually humble and assumed I was wrong. I found my new theoretical discovery because I noticed an anomaly -- apparently others had encountered before, but swept it under the carpet. I on the other hand assumed I must have done something wrong and so I kept digging until I Worked out the answer. If you're too smart you can also be too confident in your own abilities to extrapolate and interpolate.


http://msb.embopress.org/content/4/1/213.abstract for anyone else who is interested.

Funny, I think I remember reading this paper when I was playing with a-life around 2009.

How did this Yale giant respond when you explained your concerns? And after you published?


When I reported my findings to him he told me to stop what I was doing. I couldn't even get him to read the paper. This guy was a giant, and he completely dismissed it. And so I went out and got it published solo. About 8 months later I was doing a bioinformatics analysis on what they called junk DNA at the time. We came to very different conclusions about what we would find--my hypothesis was based on my research, his hypothesis on his research. When it was all done, I was right, and that work him up. This was a couple weeks before my dissertation defense and to be honest I wasn't even sure I was going to pass. When he introduced me he got up in front of the faculty and role a story of a 'boy who slated a dragon' and praised me for my intellectual courage and apologized. Unfortunately the damage was already done. I had been a Ronin for most of my academic career, still unformed, and not as brilliant at others. It would take me months to do what others could learn in days or weeks and I didn't want to risk a life of a low paying and money post doc and so I left academia.


What a shame. With that kind of CV, you could easily have jumped straight to staff scientist or possibly assistant prof by looking outside the Ivies, as informatics skills are heavily in demand now. Also, if you're willing to collaborate with wet-lab biologists, there are nearly limitless opportunities to easily keep funded and have the respect of your peers (again, because informaticians are really needed to analyze all the data that's being generated nowadays).

But I have heard that for people who did PhDs at an Ivy, they are often unwilling to look outside them, as if it were some kind of failure. I'm not sure if that applies to you, but I think it takes a similar form of humility to the kind described in this article to realize that you can do good science and make a good career for yourself without always publishing in top-tier journals and working at top 10 institutions.


I did try. I even applied to second tier Universities in Asia. It's really not that easy. It's a very very competitive market. When you graduate you're broke and you don't have a lot of money so you can't wait around. As well, universities take a percentage of your grant money so they prefer to hire researchers that require expensive equipment. Finally to get a faculty position, even at a third tier university, you're going to have to have a sponsor on the faculty. The more novel your research is, the less likely you're going to find someone who sees you as a collaborator.


Wow, that seems a very bad case of 'their loss', and collectively 'our loss'.


I of course don't know you, and neither am I able to verify your story, but kudos to you for overcoming that!

It also sounds a bit like impostor syndrome.


No, I just know where I rank in the scheme of things. I have a bunch of friends from CalTech who blow my mind. When you go to a place like Yale (or Google, or even SF) you may have been in the top 2-5 percentile before but you're average in places like that. That said, not all of my brilliant CalTech friends are wildly successful. While one is a Director at SpaceX working on their new hydrogen engine, another is doing back office work for a second tier financial firm. But to make it to the top you need to have both determination and the right set of other skills.


Yet, you seem to be speaking based upon assumptions almost opposite to the OP article. It's your hard work, not brilliant 'faster than everyone else' cleverness, and your determination which make for your success. See what all the guys, Einstein included, said about this.

If you want, I bet you can go back to Academia and excel. I know academia well and had a bad experience too, but you have more than enough ammo to succeed. And I have a bunch of the smartest Caltech friends, and my SF tribes mean that I'm never the smartest person in the room, and that's amazing. Still, there are things I can do, and ways I think, because of the reading and work I have done, which none of them can. You have your place, should you want it!


In my own experience, it's important to not be the smartest person in the room. You always need to surround yourself with better people. Otherwise your own growth will stagnate. Intellectually, socially and as a human being.


There's a lot here that resonates with me beyond matters of intelligence.

In my spare time I'm a contact juggler. If you don't know what that it is, it involves rolling balls around the body. David Bowie in Labyrinth is usually a good reference point.

And I'm good at it. I'm good at it because I've been doing it for nearly a decade and I've put in the hours. I don't think I learned particularly quickly, or even particularly well, but I stuck with it and worked hard to improve. I'm not shy about telling people that, but many still seem to assume it's some form of innate talent, no matter how much I reassure them otherwise.

It's as though people would rather accept their own status quos rather than believe that effort and commitment is enough to improve their lot. Yes, it might take years to reach a level of skill in a given discipline, but those years will pass anyway. Wouldn't it be nice to have something more to show for all that time than a depression on the sofa in front of the tv?


That's consistent with my experience as a musician. I'm no prodigy. I don't have a musican background. When I started out, I couldn't sing in tune and I couldn't clap in time. All I did was dick around on the guitar on and off for over a decade. I've gotten pretty good at it just by sucking at it for a long time, and reducing the suckage one little bit at a time.

Professional musicians simply do the same thing, but far more intensively, rigorously, systematically. Hours and hours of practice day after week after month after year.

I once transcribed a post I read about this called The Mundanity of Excellence, by Daniel Chambliss: http://www.visakanv.com/blog/2014/01/the-mundanity-of-excell...

EDIT: Also, to be fair, I think what stops a lot of people is– when they start out, they really suck, and they simply can't envision the path from sucking to being good. Because it involves many qualitative transformations. The mythologizing we do of successful people doesn't help. We get told this story about how all the people at the top one day discovered that they loved something so much that they wanted to work on it really hard forever. If this narrative changed, I think more people would get good at more things.


The learning period is a good point. Contact juggling has a rather cliff-like learning curve and many people don't progress because of it.

A supportive environment makes a world of difference. I hsf people around early on to who offered constructive advice and encouragement and that made all the difference.


> A supportive environment makes a world of difference. I had people around early on to who offered constructive advice and encouragement and that made all the difference.

One of my dad's greatest pieces of advice he gave me came as we drove back from a wrestling match I lost, like every single one before that one. As I hung my head in tired shame, he said, "people show more character in defeat than in victory."


If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same;

Rudyard Kipling, If. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175772


Can you completely discount the part played by one's innate ability, though? I have been able to sing in tune and play percussion instruments (mainly the tabla) from a very young age, though I am no prodigy. Sadly, I was never motivated enough to put in the effort to become better at music and am still an amateur.

I think I'd have had an (initial) advantage over someone who absolutely sucks at music and is learning to sing or play a percussion instrument.

I feel the same thing when I look at people who are much smarter than me when it comes to intelligence.


That's an interesting perspective. It sounds to me like you did very well at things when you were young, and you maybe became used to being "good" or "smart" or "talented" without having to work very hard at things.

As you get older, the only way to sustain that sort of advantage is to work hard at things you're not good at, but that requires stepping outside your comfort zone. Which is unpleasant. And additionally so if you had "innate ability" when you were younger (which I think is usually more about exposure than people realize).


This is exactly the demographic of Mensa: the highly intelligent non-achiever. For probably just the reasons you lay out.


I remember insisting very strongly to teachers and friends that my body was just simply not cut out to play barre chords on a guitar. I was convinced that it was impossible. Turns out... it's not.

With music the contrast between the desired outcome and the actual results for a beginner is extremely, painfully, embarrassingly obvious. The whole point is that you want to make beautiful sounds, not horrible sounds. You want to be in tune, in rhythm, melodious, but instead you feel clumsy, weak, confused, tone deaf, and awkward.

So that can easily kill your whole motivation if you don't really internalize the idea of progressive learning.

John Holt's book "How Children Learn" has some thoughts about learning instruments.

> There is a special sense in which it may be fair to say that the child scientist is a less efficient thinker than the adult scientist. He is not as good at cutting out unnecessary and useless information, at simplifying the problem, at figuring out how to ask questions whose answers will give him the most information. Thus, a trained adult thinker, seeing a cello for the first time, would probably do in a few seconds what it takes a child much longer to do—bow each of the strings, to see what sounds they give, and then see what effect holding down a string with the left hand has on the sound made by that string

> That is, if—and it is a very big if—he could bring himself to touch the cello at all. Where the young child, at least until his thinking has been spoiled by adults, has a great advantage is in situations—and many, even most real life situations are like this—where there is so much seemingly senseless data that it is impossible to tell what questions to ask. He is much better at taking in this kind of data; he is better able to tolerate its confusion; and he is much better at picking out the patterns, hearing the faint signal amid all the noise. Above all, he is much less likely than adults to make hard and fast conclusions on the basis of too little data, or having made such conclusions, to refuse to consider any new data that does not support them. And these are the vital skills of thought which, in our hurry to get him thinking the way we do, we may very well stunt or destroy in the process of "educating him".

> But the greatest difference between children and adults is that most of the children to whom I offer a turn on the cello accept it, while most adults, particularly if they have never played any other instrument, refuse it.

One thing that really sparked my motivation for music even while I was sucking horribly was the realization that you can make pretty neat melodies in very simple ways, for example by just improvising on the 0 2 3 5 7 9 10 frets on the high E string and sometimes hitting the low E string for bass—this way you can sound kind of like an Indian raga without too much practice.


>> One thing that really sparked my motivation for music even while I was sucking horribly was the realization that you can make pretty neat melodies in very simple ways...

Once I noticed that the black piano keys are a pentatonic scale... Just sit with your eyes closed, spread your hands out and feel the black keys. They're raised and so easy to find. try not to play adjacent black keys. Do this with both hands. If you want higher or lower notes, move hands in that direction. Play with rhythms. Play a pattern on one hand and just let the other bounce around. find a few interesting chords to come back to - resolve to. But most of all, do this with your eyes closed. You'll be surprised what comes out after a bit.


Yeah, that's a good one.

I'm a bit of a hippie in that I'm biased towards innate creativity and improvisation as opposed to strict learning of traditional established forms of music.

I realize that's a false dichotomy but it's semi-useful.

I only took a small number of music lessons but they were definitely focused on learning the exact way to play finished songs by established artists. There's nothing wrong with that, it's quite satisfying to play things you recognize, and it's probably easier to teach in some ways.

But improvisation is such a magical, living thing. I haven't tried to teach someone in this way, but if I did, I would focus on exercises exactly like the one you describe.

I would show the student how beautiful music can be created spontaneously through the application of patterns and "restricted subsets" (scales, chords, etc).

I've met some people who work with musical therapy. I believe they focus on this type of thing a lot. I don't know why in years of music class in school I never came across anything like it: free improvisation based on restricted creativity.


Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, talks about this in his last book. From memory, I believe he postulates that there are two kinds of people when it comes to cultivating talent.

The first kind is the one who is willing to try the same thing over and over and over. An example of this is learning to spin a basketball on your finger. If you're willing to try it a thousand times, eventually you will get very good at it.

The second kind is less patient and gets bored repeating things. So for them it's more about constantly learning something new.

I don't know that these are mutually exclusive, but perhaps people lean toward one form over the other.


People also seem to be different in how much they can or want to focus on a single thing or a small number of things, versus how much they want to jump around and study tons of stuff in a broad way.

I'm very much the second way. The pretentious word is "polymath" but for me it's just that my attention works that way. It does seem to have something to do with being somehow fundamentally restless.

I really don't want to be a graduate student because it seems terribly excruciating and I don't think I have the capacity, not because I'm stupid but because I'm restless. But I would love to hang out with graduate students, from different fields.

In a utopian world, I could get food and shelter by just being a guy who spends 12 hours a day reading about different things, re-explaining them, connecting them and introducing people to different ideas.

(Politically charged digression: I think a basic income would free up truly enormous potential for innovation, if the innate creativity and productivity of people were disconnected from the tedious demand for employment and funding. Talking critically about the economics of it before trying it seems ridiculous because the entire point, it seems to me, is that totally novel things would happen.)


  spends 12 hours a day reading about different things, re-explaining them, 
  connecting them and introducing people to different ideas
Well, Randall Munroe is living in your utopia. Perhaps,

  The Utopia is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed.


> The pretentious word is "polymath"

The less pretentious word is "jack of all trades".


The problem is, "jack of all trades" is not just less pretentious, it is frowned upon. What is the middle ground?


A "generalist"? A very useful person to have especially in smaller firms - you don't need a specialist in nosql databases as a CIO but an IT generalist who knows when to hire a contractor, you don't need a specialist in Delaware tax dodges as a CFO but a financial accountant who's heard of all the tricks but might not know how to implement all of them...


'generalist' + leadership skills = manager

'generalist' without leadership skills = yes man


Like you I relate a lot with being a 'Jack of all trades', and what might have been a blessing if we had born some centuries ago, is nowadays a curse.


Reminds me of this XKCD: https://xkcd.com/863/

On a more serious note, it sounds like writing nonfiction is your dream job! (Or maybe teaching?)


:) Yep. When I turned in my CS master's thesis, my professor said I should seriously consider writing for a living (somehow). At the time, I took that to mean that my thesis wasn't very impressive, and it wasn't, but I really enjoyed writing the paper, researching the historical aspects and stuff.


I think this is really dependent on the activity. Sometimes I can really drill into something new, and other times I can't help but say "fuck it"

I picked up stick juggling a couple of years ago and have gotten quite good at it. People always say I must have some talent, but I was just as bad as anyone else when I first started. I've noticed two common behaviors when people do it

1. They try it a few times, get embarrassed / bored / discouraged, and give up 2. They try it a few times, and every time they drop it it almost adds fuel to the fire. They see it as a challenge they have to overcome


I think this guy http://english.bouletcorp.com/2015/05/27/warriors-good-fortu... probably illustrated it best how it takes skill, determination and luck. And how we shouldn't just discount the last one.


I remember the painful feeling in college of solving problems in reverse. That is to say; when presented with a problem, there are no intrinsic reasons propelling me to solve it with any meaningful gusto. Only extrinsic motivators like getting a paper in on time, or adding another small jigsaw piece to the body of knowledge I must somehow cache in my head until exam time.

An utter waste of time and not relevant to the real world. That is why I dropped out.


Point your skeptics to Carol Dweck's research and book, Mindset.

http://mindsetonline.com/whatisit/about/

The writing can be repetitive but the core ideas and science IMO should be read and understood by everyone especially those who think that talent is solely innate.


There's no limit to what you can achieve if you sit around playing with your balls all day.


maybe they're just trying to compliment you. i mean what else could they say...."great work ethic mark! your fascination with balls is astounding."


The best thing I've ever read online about 'being smart' came from a Reddit comment:

https://www.reddit.com/r/confession/comments/nxdzz/im_not_as...


While this is a good read. I think what differentiates the top 5% of the bell curve(people at MIT) in terms of success is probably different from what differentiates the rest of the bell curve.

For instance what accounts for the variation in play between a bunch of 7 foot tall basketball players is not what separates them from a gentleman of 5'5. Most research backs this up. The gap in achievement between an IQ of 115->130 is far large than 145->160.


There was a study posted here recently that disagrees with you: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10488998

The summary is that very intelligent people do not seem to have any unique genetic or environmental factors that explain that, they just happen to be at the edge of the bell curve. This is not true of very unintelligent people; there are lots of genetic and environmental factors that can decrease intelligence.

From the abstract: "We found that high intelligence is familial, heritable, and caused by the same genetic and environmental factors responsible for the normal distribution of intelligence."


ESR's takedown of Linus in 2000 is a recapitulation of this.

http://www.vanadac.com/~dajhorn/novelties/ESR%20-%20Curse%20...


If you're talking about people not nearly as smart as they think they are, ESR is up near the top.


That was good. Thanks for the link.


I second that, thanks for the share ph33r.

The story highlights that 'smartness' is linked more to a learning mentality then actually knowing a lot of things.

Humility.

Similarly to the study shared in the OP, if you tell yourself that you are good at something, you are less likely to try hard, thats when you'll fall behind. I read a book that shared a story like this recently, 'David and Goliath' by Malcolm Gladwell.


I liked that as well

> And I put that in quotes because "smart" is really just a way of saying "has invested so much time and sweat that you make it look effortless."

When you look up at smart people that have succeeded in their career. It's certainly because they worked so hard to get there.

I've learned a lot about that reading another book of Gladwell, "The Outliers". Which is one of my favorite book. One of the story is about a genius who is still living in his mom's basement because he lacks the social traits of other successful intelligent people. I think I will check your "David and Goliath" book.

Also, from the reddit comment, what I got is that he reached out. He asked for help around. Most things are hard to learn by yourself, and if not a book, people around you are the most likely to help. It helps being humble, when asking for help.


I actually don't think the divide is between smartness and hard work, it is between smartness and originality. Originality is the wedge and hard work is the sledge hammer. All smartness provides is a torch to find the wedge in the darkness of our ignorance.


This is actually closer to what Grothendieck writes in Recoltes et Semailles:

"Yet it is not these gifts, nor the most determined ambition combined with irresistible will-power, that enables one to surmount the "invisible yet formidable boundaries" that encircle our universe. Only innocence can surmount them, which mere knowledge doesn't even take into account, in those moments when we find ourselves able to listen to things, totally and intensely absorbed in child play."

http://www.fermentmagazine.org/rands/promenade11.html


Wow! I've been looking for an english translation of Recoltes et Semailles for a while. I see now it's easily reachable by google (oops), but still, thanks!


re: Only innocence can surmount them ... when we find ourselves able to listen to things, totally and intensely absorbed in child play. — Grothendieck

Apropos is something another Frenchman once said:

"Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation." — Flaubert


I love this analogy. One of my former professors once explained pure mathematics as a pitch black room, and writing proofs is like wandering around in that room looking for a light source -- often stubbing a few toes along the way. Once a proof is complete, a light has illuminated the room for others to enter safely. The mathematician often finds the room boring and moves on to another pitch black room.

The hard work is wandering around in the dark. Intelligence is the ability and willingness to wander around.


Andrew Wiles said much the same on solving FLT: "Perhaps I can best describe my experience of doing mathematics in terms of a journey through a dark unexplored mansion. You enter the first room of the mansion and it's completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture, but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it's all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they're momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of—and couldn't exist without—the many months of stumbling around in the dark that proceed them."

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/andrew-wiles-fermat.htm...


Great metaphor, but I think smartness is something even lesser than a torch. Creativity, it seems, is the torch that helps you find the right wedge. Smartness is probably what tells you to look for a wedge in the first place.


I was going to reply saying _Creativity_ is the wedge.


Well said. Similar to work smart not hard. Here's one - "don't work hard, be smart"


All my life I heard from people "you're so smart, you have so much potential, but you need to try" while I failed through school due to challenges focusing, and, frankly, giving a shit. In the end, I carried this "you're so smart, but" attitude around with me to both my benefit and detriment.

I have no CS degree but have elbowed my way (often with a distinct lack of grace, in retrospect) into the industry as a software developer. I now somehow work at a place that prides itself on intense meritocracy, famous for its grueling elitist interviews .... and the impostor syndrome is intense. But when I look around, most of the people around me do not seem so much 'more intelligent' as 'more adapted for the school-grades / work-politics system' which the interview process / promo process selects for.

To me intelligence and smartness are clearly cultural phenomenon. Yes some people are more adapted to certain types of intellectual activity, but whether those things are 'smart' or not is questionable to me.

As a parent I often get frustrated with myself when I instinctually reward my children with comments like "you're so smart". Unfortunately they struggle with focusing, behavioural compliance, etc. in similar ways to me, while their intellectual and artistic curiosity is intense -- I know they have a long uphill battle ahead of them.


I should add that one of the most frustrating things for me is to stand in the microkitchen at work and listen to the (overwhelmingly male, white, middle class background) engineering/CS grads around me bitch about garbage worker strikes or unions in general, while they snack on organic chocolate and pat themselves on the back for having run the gauntlet of HS/university/interview-process. To me, the world of unskilled labour and precarious employment seems only a mis-step or two away...


it's possible, but let's not ignore the heritable / family aspect of this. In my family noone has done unskilled labor going back to 19th century at least and possibly earlier. So it's fair to say I am not in danger of that. But I agree with your point that a bit of compassion from those more fortunate wouldn't hurt


Absolutely not fair to say you're not in danger of some catastrophic life event that'll force you into unskilled labor.


the probability of me personally having to do unskilled labor is so excruciatingly low that we can ignore it for all practical purposes. Doesn't change the need for empathy, etc.


Being smart (and intelligence in general - I dont know if we need to establish exactly what definition we use for that, but something like an ability to quickly see and adjust to logical patterns) is a great secondary ability in my view.

You can simulate a lot of actually useful abilities by being smart. Being smart doesnt have a lot of value in and of itself, once you're over some certain threshold though.

Getting stuff done, not being a dick to people (or even possibly getting along with them), following up on commitments - that's abilities that are useful. Being smart can let you find easier ways of doing so, but it doesnt have any meaning in and of itself.

The truly smart people I know seem to know that and tend to be a bunch of slightly weird, but nice, people. The people who want to be admired for their cleverness (or admired in general) typically don't (and typically aren't as smart, in my experience).


You shouldn't praise children for being smart, but for trying hard or working hard or doing a good job. Because being smart is not something they control, but working hard is


"Ignorance is bliss."

The older I get, the more wise I get, the more I believe in the above statement. As in, not having the mental capacity or brain-power to muse over inequities both in personal and worldly topics is a less emotionally affective position to be in. I grew up in a protestant Christian faith, and while I don't actively participate, I do reflect often on some of the teachings (mostly the Beatitudes) and literature, and only in my 20s did I realize that "Eating the apple from the tree of life" is pretty much a metaphor for our evolutionary development into consciousness, of "knowing right and wrong" as a species.

Intelligence? It's a curse as much as it is a blessing. Folks can disagree with that assertion if they'd like. From my personal studies in literature and philosophy though, I think it's a pretty common understanding amongst a certain tier of thinkers. My apology if I come off sounding a little elitist, but intelligence is a bell curve, and, to quote the famous Demotivational poster, "Not everybody gets to be an astronaut when they grow up."[0]

[0]Link to photo I found via Google search: http://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0535/6917/products/potentia...


I will say too, that as I got older I bit more and more into "Ignorance is bliss" being a true statement. Knowing both good and bad results in many emotional responses. The problem is that emotional responses, when they are negative, are often perceived as bad. However, the past couple of years I've begun to flip that assertion by maintaining the idea that any emotion perceived is beneficial, valuable, and makes you feel alive. Feeling alive, in my opinion, is one of those ultimate gifts that a human can have. My conclusion is that, while ignorance is bliss, I would much rather feel both the power and beauty of the spectrum of emotional responses. They are equally valuable and enlightening.


Very nice insight, and I thank you for sharing. As a musician and writer, I've never really shied away from dealing with emotions, as they can influence so much in 'tone' (in the case of sound) or 'behavior' (in the case of fictional characters). You're right about emotions being valuable and enlightening, that's a nice way of putting it. Upon reflection, I think maybe what I was striving to convey is that even as a smart person, a caring person, and with time to think things through, there's still the reality of life to confront - as in, thought and good will alone can't change the world for the better. It's difficult trying to 'fight the good fight' (in whatever form it may be - daily social interactions, actions with consequences, etc), and honestly, not very rewarding in a practical sense. I guess it's the burden for some to be borne many years after they're born!


> "Eating the apple from the tree of life"

From the tree of knowledge, I guess. The tree of life is evolutionary, not Christian :-)


Genesis 2:9 does mention a "tree of life," though in this case certainly 6stringmerc did mean "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" from which Adam was commanded not to eat.


A physics professor in college used to say "learning is a spiral" - you go around and around a concept a few times, getting closer to understanding each time. I quite liked that as a model for learning - don't get demoralized if you don't hit the target on the first pass.


What I've noticed is that hard work doesn't bear the same fruit for everyone. I worked my ass off in university. I knew others who did too, but they accomplished far more with fewer mistakes. I've also met people who were dedicated in their studies and just seemed to hit the wall with grasping some concepts in math. It was really painful to see this, they weren't lazy or unmotivated, but they often had understanding that fell short of their enthusiasm. It's not just "hard work." Innate talent exists that cannot be compensated by effort, optimistic mindset etc.


agreed. take tesla for example:

"“Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop."

i'm betting practice/hard work didn't give him that ability. could you imagine trying to compete with him in school? good luck.


One must be careful of conflating the distinct effects of expectations of intelligence and intelligence itself. The former exerts psychological pressure[0], the latter is a catalyst for success. It's often possible to have one without another.

[0] http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/cgi-bin/academicskillscoach...


While the article was interesting, I wonder if the 50% of dropouts is really caused by people feeling like they are not smart enough. I've met quite a few people who dropped out of good PhD programs, but most of them dropped out because they felt like they weren't in love with research and didn't think it made sense over going into industry and making a lot more money. I met one person who got into a top 10 program but never intended to finish his PhD; he just wanted to get a free Master's.

On the other hand I also have heard from many that grad school is the first time many students have to see a therapist and deal with depression.


It's funny how it seems that only really smart people do the hard work required for winning Nobel Prizes, Fields Medals and other such distinctions. Average people are just lazy, that's why they don't succeed!


I think you've missed that part

>for succeeding in graduate school


I think a better title for the article would be "On being really smart."


I think that a large part of it are psychological / personality factors - how much pleasure do you find in thinking, learning new things, solving problems.


Also, what's valued by your social group, what kind of intellectual environment do you inhabit, and so on.

Generally one could imagine a massive neural network and consider how effectively it's being trained... and how it's then being put to use.

If you have 10% more neurons, that's cool, you might have more potential in the way that an elite bodybuilder probably has advantageous genetic factors for muscle growth or whatever.

But it should reasonably be far from the dominating factor.


Fear takes every kind of pleasure. So the fear of not looking smart, not feeling smart, might be already enough to dislike certain kind of things.

But there's certainly also a difference in people without fear - like you said - how much they get a "kick" from learning new things.


I'd claim the fear can be just irrational. Maybe learned behavior, you we afraid of doing homework once. The next time you remember that experience and it becomes grueling experience. After some time you have learned to fear, but there is not really anything you are afraid off.

Or there is, but you don't know it. Humans are really good at inventing explanations for their feelings and believing those explanations.

I think just acknowledging that it's fear is good first step.


We see so much of the smart vs hard work argument. It seems heavily biased towards the argument of hard work. But, I wonder if there a way to quantify and measure so that we might be able to get an objective argument?


As a concept, "intelligence" bundles together a huuge number of concepts. In my programming job, at different times I apparently must use different parts of this bundle to be effective; using useful parts at the wrong times can lower my effectiveness.

And a lot of it is sensitive to social context. In a culture which prioritizes ads over immortality research, massive intellectual potential is unrealized because bullshit jobs are alienating. Would you work harder to serve banner ads (which you likely block), or cheat death and usher a new era of human civilization? (http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/)


I like that. But he says a couple of dumb things. Like "It’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, ..." Sure, some of those jobs do seem to add no value. But be careful what you include in a BS jobs list, because if you understand why insurance is important then you might realize that actuaries do something kind of important.

And then there's this "...success mobilizing resentment against school teachers, or auto workers (and not, significantly, against the school administrators or auto industry managers who actually cause the problems)..." because if those bad managers and administrators would just keep giving bigger raises the unions wouldn't have to shut down businesses and schools.


Graeber included a standard for bullshit in the article: does the worker feel like their job is bullshit, knowing what they do and what the output is?


Ah yes. So actuaries feel like their jobs are BS even though they are sort of important. Oh well.


The bias is understandable, though. People things are good at are the result of practice from birth, whether conscious or not. Basic neuroscience tells us that. The few people I know who I would consider geniuses in the true sense of the word (prolific, intense, profound, dominating) are constantly working and constantly thinking. This article ironically notes Mozart as an anomaly, but is well known to have considered himself a hard, practical worker, unlike the "random flashes of genius" myth perpetuated by those who came after him.


I am pretty sure psychologists, etc. everywhere are working on this problem! You cannot publish work if you cannot find ways of quantifying these! An example I'm aware of is, Angela Duckworth at U Penn who studies 'grit' https://sites.sas.upenn.edu/duckworth/pages/research


I've read similar things before, and totally agree with them, but surely 'the ability to work hard and persevere' varies a lot from person to person according to genetics and environmental factors?


To persevere is not a static unchanging quantity in itself. Its something you build over time. You start with the bare minimum, and it gets stronger with every failure.

If you look Usain Bolt and think I could never undergo such a brutal training regime, you must know Usain Bolt couldn't either. It takes a lot of tiny little failures to build that kind of mental stamina.


As opposed to genetic mutation that begets Intelligence, will power (ability to work hard and persevere) could perhaps be developed.


According to Dunning-Kruger effect, and expert should consider his accomplishments trivial in hindsight. Grothendieck and Gauss were mathematicians, not psychologists. It's likely that the predicate of the article is then completely wrong.

Then there is also the impostor syndrome, many students are likely to feel not smart enough.

And then there is the cultural taboo around smartness. Taking pride in ones ability is socially accepted as long as that ability is not intellectual. So in a way idea like this turns into twisted logic: "I'm smart, my laziness in college shows it." And now you get to do that sweet guilt tripping for feeling too smart. There is difference between pride and arrogance. So this self deprecation seems bit needless.

What if we don't consider pride as a sin, but as natural phenomena in range of human emotion. Maybe pride is inevitable for ego? Now if that is true, what should a good student to be proud of? What if being openly proud of your intellect is healthy after all?


According to Dunning-Kruger effect, and expert should consider his accomplishments trivial in hindsight.

All of the graphs in that paper still showed a positive correlation between actual and self-perceived skill. Self-perception was just compressed into the range of around 50% to around 75%, instead of the full 0% to 100% of their measurement scale.


Why would an expert consider his/her accomplishments trivial? I thought that Dunning Kruger just implied people who aren't good think they are much better than they are, but people who are experts would already know they are better than most.


Impostor Syndrome may be a better fit for that than Dunning Kruger: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome


Here you have an exact explanation of what Dunning-Kruger effect is.

http://www.talyarkoni.org/blog/2010/07/07/what-the-dunning-k...


Dunning-Kruger is a trend in data. It tells you nothing about what you should do, and you're way off base by suggesting that it does. It's a measurement, not a morality.


I didn't say Dunning-Kruger would suggest anything about should. That's why I posed the should as a question. Anybody can chime in, including you.

But that comment was not very well developed. I admit that.


>According to Dunning-Kruger effect, and expert should

Right there.


'Should' here does not mean 'ought', it means "can be expected to".

As an example, if you are planning a heist and say "The alarm should be disabled for fifteen minutes." you do not mean that the platonic ideal alarm should as in ought step aside and let you steal the loot, you mean that your expectation is the alarm will be disabled. There is no moral judgment.


> `The brain is ultimately just a muscle. Make it stronger by working it out.'

I like the analogy that things are "muscles". It concisely captures various phenomena that I've observed: the brain is a muscle, willpower is a muscle, trust (in another person) is a muscle ...


Even more ultimately, muscles are brains.


The army is a muscle.


One more important thing to notice is, the illusion of 'smart', 'evil genius' or 'magic' appears from the fact that beyond a point of learning your skills grow exponentially in proportion to your practice/work. The initial grunt work, which is boring, tiring and mentally exhausting without offering much results is a right of passage you need to take reach those levels.

I've had this repeatedly told to me about how some person who was an perceived an idiot/slow mover has now suddenly become very talented, achieved much or gotten rich. Oh well, that's because all exponential curves look dead until they actually start to rise, and from there on they indeed look magical in their output.


This looks like a re-hash of the findings published in a 2008 book by Malcolm Gladwell called "Outliers - The Story of Success". He's the one that made the 10,000 hour theory popular.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outliers_(book)

Its a #1 Best-Seller on Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Outliers-Story-Success-Malcolm-Gladw...


This broadcasts an encouraging message. While I still think actual success depends on a good deal of sheer luck, we needn't despair because we're missing some irreplaceable gift. Even in this respect, all humans are created equal.


I posted this yesterday: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10539083

It seems timezones matter a lot. :)


If you haven't already seen it, here's an interesting article about ideal times to post to HN: http://silverman.svbtle.com/the-best-time-to-post-on-hacker-...


"It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer". Albert Einstein


There's a book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow" that mentions some of the concepts covered here.


> The brain is ultimately just a muscle. Make it stronger by working it out

This seems like such an empowering way to look at learning, and one I think many of us are prone to forget. Even masters don't just arrive at their talent, they too have to work at it, over and over, day after day.


It is, however, also ultimately wrong to state the brain is "just a muscle". In "Make it stick" they mention some research into this aspect: practice of a specific mental skill has little influence on other mental skills.

As with all analogies it should not be taken too far.


Agreed, maybe it would be more clear to take out "just" and emphasize that the brain is a muscle.

> practice of a specific mental skill has little influence on other mental skills

Care to elaborate on this? I'm trying to imagine what you mean here.


> emphasize that the brain is a muscle.

Instead, maybe emphasize that the brain is similar to a muscle. Speaking metaphorically could be confusing to some.


>practice of a specific mental skill has little influence on other mental skills

I disagree. Take reading, for example. Does reading not make you a better writer?


[deleted]


The greatest function that IQ Score has served for my organization is that it's helped us spot people that completely lack intellectual humility, because they'll do exactly what you just did. If a candidate mentions their IQ score as a qualification, we know that we should thoroughly screen for a few qualities that are commonly correlated with that mentality:

- Lack of touch with reality (the candidate thinks that IQ is actually a measure of anything substantial in terms of competency and likelihood to experience / deliver success)

- Lack of motivation or desire to actually contribute (the candidate presumes that a high IQ is a contribution in and of itself, and therefore does not work as hard as others)

- Lack of intellectual humility (the candidate feels that their high IQ qualifies their ideas or work more than that of others. The candidate is not willing to admit when they're wrong or recognize when another individual's idea is better than theirs)

That's truly the best function that IQ has served for us: spot the people who talk about their IQ score and don't hire them.


I think I've only ever once seen a CV with an IQ on it. I remember at the time we laughed and thought, "How weird!", but the rest of the CV was a bit "off" too, so it went straight into the reject pile.

I can't really imagine how someone's IQ would otherwise come up during a recruitment process.


Some companies uses IQ's estimation tests on their hiring process. I have taken a Raven's progressive matrices test once when applying for a C++ development job, so there are people who takes that seriously.


By your door analogy, if the door is broken (through hard work), it is now open. The key provides an 'easier' or more obvious way to open as opposed to persistence.


What do you think is the difference between a 130 IQ and a 160 IQ person?


According to [1]'s self-described "pessimistic" view,

>The results [of a 1950s study of 64 eminent scientists] strongly suggest that high IQ provides a significant advantage in science. Some have claimed that IQ is irrelevant beyond some threshold: more precisely, that the advantage conferred by IQ above some threshold (e.g., 120) decreases significantly as other factors like drive or creativity take precedence. But, if that were the case it would be unlikely to have found such high scores in this group. The average IQ of a science PhD is roughly 130, and individuals with IQs in the higher range described above constitute a tiny fraction of all scientists. If IQ were irrelevant above 130 we would expect the most eminent group to have an average similar to the overall population of scientists.

[1] http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2008/07/annals-of-psychometry-i...


Probably the main observable difference is the number of times they mention their IQ score.


30

I once did an IQ test. The result was 138. The test was online, selling something, back in the late 1990s. I've refused to do one again - what's the point? - that test made me feel sufficiently happy.

There are more tangible 'qualifications / achievements' I'd prefer to focus on personally than what combination of squares and circles follows in the sequence (this did remind me of 1st year Analysis - is the series converging or is it not; dum-de-dum, drum roll). And if I was presented with an IQ test on a CV (never have been) it would be instantly dismissed (the 'qualification / achievement', not the candidate).


They administered an IQ test on me when I was in first grade and said I was gifted. It was great for me because I received special placement and got to participate in an "enrichment" class throughout grade school. I have a feeling that the special treatment may have contributed a lot to my scholastic success. It may have been a bit unfair to other kids who didn't get the special treatment.


About 30 IQ points ;).

Some studies showed that beyond 130 the benefits of a high IQ plateaued and that's assuming you put much faith in IQ scores which I don't since I know roughly where I fall on the spectrum and I know my score and my score says I'm considerably smarter than I actually am :).


Some studies can't demonstrate differences beyond 130 (which is different from showing that they don't exist).

Most studies, however, show that these differences still matter. Look for papers from the "Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth" dataset, in particular "Ability Differences Among People Who Have Commensurate Degrees Matter for Scientific Creativity" by Park, Lubinski, and Benbow. It shows a very strong correlation [1] between IQ/SAT scores and numbers of patents/PhD/science publications even among people in the top 1 percentile of the SAT-M - i.e. roughly IQ 135 or more. (This is even more significant given how imprecise the SAT is as a measurement tool at the edges of the bell curve.)

[1]: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/19/10/957/F1.large.jpg


[deleted]


I'm not a gambling man, but perhaps I should be. Even though there should only be about 2000 of you IQ 160+ people in the world, by pure chance I seem to have bumped into at least 100 of them. Incredible, what are the odds?


The obvious answer would be that there is a global conspiracy of IQ 160+ people (the Intelligati) and you are a member!


I have no idea what my IQ is, but I'm pretty sure I'm not a member


You would say that, wouldn't you ;-)


You're on to us eh? That's clever. Maybe a bit too... clever? I'm on to you, brother Intelligati


Drat and double drat!


[deleted]


But you just said:

> So what about 160? It's in 0.0031%

0.0031 / 100 * 7e7 = 2170.0




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