Posted by: A.R. Cherian | September 9, 2009

Smart or not smart?


Is intelligence fixed or can it be changed?

In some very interesting research, Carol S. Dweck, shows that personality traits such as intelligence can indeed be changed. The study also concludes that people who believe that intelligence is not fixed learn more over the course of their lifetime. Bob Sutton also comments about this in a wonderful post on his blog. He states that society tries to pigeon-hole people into “smart/not smart” categories. Unfortunately, many managers think this same way.

…there are so many messages in our society that you are smart or dumb, talented or not, or an A player or a B player, and there is nothing that you or anyone else can do to change you. Yet, in fact,  a large body of evidence suggests that such beliefs only will hold when you (or your leaders) believe they are true!

I am a firm believer that intelligence is not fixed. It can be changed. I believe this from my personal experience. During my undergrad studies in computer engineering, I was pretty much a B student with some A’s and C’s thrown in. My cumulative GPA was about 3.2. Even though engineering was a rigorous major, I knew I could have done better because I knew that I was not applying myself to be better. I know this because the few classes in which I did get A’s where the classes that I really worked hard and applied myself. All throughout undergrad,  I was settling for the B’s.

Fast forward 10 years later and I am pursuing my Master’s degree in information systems. I am now a straight A student with cumulative GPA of 4.0. Did I get smarter? My general mental ability did not increase, but I learned to work harder. I made a decision before the start of my first class, that I want to work hard. I started reading more on my free time (which I never did as an undergrad) and got smarter because I had this new-found desire to learn and become more educated. I did not even dream of getting all straight A’s. I just wanted to apply myself harder than I have ever done to learn new things, and to see what will happen. In the long run, I became smarter and learned more through this conscientious choice.

I am not implying that letter grades alone can measure how smart you are or how much you really learned (too many people make that assumption). It’s just what I used as a metric in my own personal test to see what would happen when I applied myself to that goal.

I remember reading a comment on a blog somewhere long ago that human beings are generally all around the same IQ magnitude. That even though some people garner high IQ numbers, it’s not an order of magnitude better than everyone else. It is a normal, bell curve. That all human beings are confined to a narrow range of IQ numbers. This means that someone who has a lower IQ can be more successful at the same goal than someone who has a larger IQ number just by working harder.

I don’t put a lot of faith in IQ numbers. As long as someone fits in the normal range, they have the potential to be “smart.” It’s all in how you apply yourself to a given situation. Persistence, determination, and most importantly your belief that you can do better will yield the best results. Bret Simmons calls this grit in a post on his blog.

I want to end with a quote I read today in a colleague’s office:

“Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.

Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men of talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

The slogan Press On! has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Calvin Coolidge


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