These are some musings I’ve been having of late as I’ve met quite a variety of people through bhangra, improv, and other classes.
The central question: What does it mean to be intelligent?
I’ve often thought of intelligence quite linearly. Growing up, I though kids that go to fancy private schools were intelligent (I was clearly brainwashed by brown parents), and those that scored high on standardized tests. That clearly changed when I went to college and recognized other forms of intelligence. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple forms of intelligence really stuck with me as I moved on from college.
One key learning from college: There will always be someone smarter than you, and there will always be someone who is not as smart as you. The key to my survival is to be intelligent enough to surround myself with people more intelligent people than me so I can learn (just a different take on “be the stupidest person in the room” situation).
However, as I graduated college, I developed a theory: “the most intelligent people are the most selfish.” To me personally, selfishness is the opposite of empathy. Thus, those that were the most empathetic, were (in my eyes), not the brightest crayons in the box. Clearly, I wanted to surround myself with people that were intelligent so I could learn.
It’s taken me quite a few years to change this mindset. Studies have also shown that those that are more critical in their thinking (aka complain more in an everyday context) are considered to be more intelligent. I surrounded myself with these individuals early in my career, fascinated by their observational powers and my perception of their intelligence (not that they weren’t objectively smart). However, very early on, I got burnt out.
Listening to critical (and harboring on depressive and negative comments) day-in and day-out exhausted my psyche. I found myself drained as I would try to counter-balance the negative energy in the room. I have also always thought the promise of a better future and hope is what keeps the human race moving forward. But dealing with so much negativity made it hard to keep that hope (and motivation to progress) alive.
In recent years, I’ve taken a step back. I have realized that there is a balance to intelligence. First off, I have to remind myself that there are different flavors of intelligence (one of which, EQ, has gotten quite the hype over time). Over-indexing on one from of intelligence is not ideal. As with anything in the world, maintaining some balance keeps equilibrium.
I also took a step back to understand why I thought that “intelligence = selfishness”. What I realized was there was a value of self-awareness mixed up within this analogy. Part of emotional intelligence is being self-aware and reflective. Some of that reflection leads us down the path of answering the question “what is the meaning of life?”. And whether we believe there is a higher being (or not), an afterlife (or not), we come to the realization that our experiences are purely are our own. We are responsible for ourselves (which makes sense when you put Buddhist philosophy into perspective which encourages us to detach ourselves from all earthly possessions because we will ultimately leave with nothing).
Another part of this reflection and self-awareness comes from knowing that you are intelligent. You know where you stand in the hierarchy of X (X = your industry, your family, etc). And if you perceive that you are at the top of said social hierarchy, you may develop a sense of arrogance. However, the truly brightest crayons should also realize that there are those above them in that hierarchy. Looking downwards may promote arrogance (or empathy), but looking upwards hopefully promotes humility (and motivation).
Mediocrity is something that we all run away from. We think of it as “failing” in life and maintaining a level of “inconsequential existence”. However, wouldn’t being mediocre (aka in the middle) be what we strive for in reference to intelligence? Being kept empathetic and motivated is how I think our human race will progress. Surrounding myself with individuals that are critical (when necessary) but also smart enough to extend their empathy to others gives us hope for a better brighter future.