For years, I taught gifted teenagers — long enough to know how it sounds when someone brings up their IQ. The most intellectually-lazy people I’ve met obsess over their intelligence.
It ruins all of their relationships.
I’ve also spent years teaching developmental students, the ones everyone else has given up on — the ones who were told they need more “remedial” classes before they’re allowed to take the real ones.
Twelve years in education has taught me one big lesson: The difference between intelligence and ignorance isn’t about IQ or cognitive ability. It usually comes down to your mindset.
Here’s what truly intelligent people do — regardless of where they come from, or what they look like:
1. They don’t talk about how smart they are.
Because they don’t have to. If you’re always doing and saying smart things, people notice. Smart people aren’t interested in how they’re perceived. They’re busy growing their minds.
2. They learn best by imitation.
Everyone benefits from a little guidance, but intelligent people prefer to watch what the pros do first. They reverse engineer success by studying what works and then trying that.
3. They try to figure things out themselves.
Nobody can teach themselves absolutely everything. But an intelligent person’s first move isn’t to ask for help or step-by-step instructions. They want to experiment and problem-solve. They develop all kinds of mental muscles by doing this, and they can usually swim on their own.
They’re okay sinking for a few seconds.
Intelligent people want to struggle a little first. An intelligent person might look stubborn, but they’re really just self-sufficient. You don’t get there by giving up too soon and letting someone do things for you — or walk you through every step of every process.
4. They’re always hunting knowledge.
Intelligent people focus on what they want to know, not what they already know— or what might impress someone.
5. They don’t brag about what they know.
Intelligent people apply their knowledge. They don’t keep it locked up in a trophy case for display.
6. They connect the dots.
Intelligent people look for connections between dissimilar things. They read across fields and disciplines. They can import an idea from one context to another and unpack it.
7. They’re okay with cognitive dissonance.
The world contradicts itself all the time. Intelligent people can hold two conflicting ideas in their head at the same time, and find ways to admire each one on its own strengths and merits.
8. They ask lots of questions.
Intelligent people know they’ll never figure out how everything works, but they want to try anyway.
This one might contradict the self-sufficiency trait. But smart people get curious. Sometimes they like to fire off a barrage of questions before they jump in and get their hands dirty.
9. They abstract from their experiences.
An intelligent person finds patterns in ordinary stuff and scales them up. They’re always observing tiny parts of life that everyone else overlooks, and figuring out how to explain them. The explanations become theories, and they can lead to huge breakthroughs.
10. They seek out puzzles and paradoxes.
Something that defies explanation is like a Christmas present for an intelligent person. They love wrapping their minds around things that can’t or shouldn’t make sense, because they know something causes it to happen — they just don’t know what that is yet.
11. They don’t get hung up on crumbs.
Intelligent people are fine letting someone act like a jerk, as long as they do it over there — and don’t get in the way.
12. They move slow, until they hit warp speed.
Think about the last time you saw an intelligent person in action. They sat quietly for several minutes while everyone else did their squabbling and grandstanding. Or they went dark for a few days while everyone else was rushing around. If you don’t know an intelligent person that well, you might think they’re dumb or lazy at first. Then they say or do something so utterly brilliant it changes everything. That thing they do — that’s called thinking about a problem before doing anything.
13. They have no problem with failure.
Any failed experiment is just information. Maybe it doesn’t pay the bills or rake in the grants, but it’s always one step closer to the eureka minute they’re looking for. They’re immune to failure because it’s baked in.
14. They don’t try to sound smart.
You know you’re talking to an intelligent person when you feel smarter after the conversation, because they explained something complex in such a simple way that almost anyone could get it.
14-b. They make everyone around them feel smart.
See above. I just wanted to stress this point. You’ll often find intelligent people praising other people’s intelligence.
15. They don’t always use big words.
Intelligent people use the right word. Sometimes that’s a big word, and sometimes it’s a simple one.
The master habit: They practice empathy.
If there’s one habit that oversees all the others, it’s empathy. Intelligent people try to think from lots of different viewpoints. They try to understand how their actions affect everyone — not just themselves, or the handful of people they care about or agree with.
We don’t normally think of empathy as a mental process, but it is. Feelings happen in our brains, and they’re connected to thoughts.
We tend to assume science and logic go against empathy, that they’re cold. They don’t, and they’re not. Intelligence is all about caring what happens in the world around you, and how you fit into it.
There’s no such thing as objectivity, only taking everyone’s views and feelings into account before you do something.
(Or say something.)
They also like listening to arguments and debates more than jumping into the middle of them. They make space for voices other than their own. They know that you get smart by listening, learning, and observing.
We live in a world where more and more people want to look smart without actually practicing the habits.
Don’t let them trick you.
The smartest people in the room are usually the ones who don’t make a big deal about it. They don’t care that much about who thinks they’re smart, or what their IQ is. Intelligence isn’t something you can buy. It’s not something you can be. It’s a way of doing things.