I often get phone calls from my mother that go something like this:
“Ian, quick, what’s 30 percent of 165?”
“Uh....hmmm....I have no idea, Mom.”
“Why not? You’re smart!”
“I’m not that kind of smart.”
“But you have a master’s degree!”
“Yeah, in English.”
“So? You can do whatever you want!”
I always laugh at these exchanges, because it’s true that I have a higher education and can always help her with grammatical questions. But I am stupid when it comes to math. Very, very stupid. And not the simple stupidity that comes from ignorance, but a complex stupidity wherein your advanced thought processes converge to give you what is almost the correct answer, but somehow is the wrongest answer possible.
This is why I always tip at least 30 percent. Because for all I know, it’s actually 10.
Intelligence is probably one of the most misunderstood qualities we assign to ourselves. What does it mean to be intelligent? I think everyone has a different answer to that question. For some, it’s all about credentials. For others, intuition. Still others chalk it up to life experience. My own answer would be a schizophrenic mix of all three.
(Sidebar: I see a difference between being intelligent and being smart. Anyone with a well-honed skill, or the aptitude to develop one, is intelligent. A lifelong auto mechanic can be a wizard in the garage, even if he has no formal education; his way with cars is a skill set that takes brainpower and experience. The same can be said of anyone in a specialized profession or pursuit. I define intelligence as the ability to learn and to function.
Being smart is a different animal. Smart is a higher level of rational thinking, the kind that compels people to strive in life and cleanses them of falsehoods and self-defeating mentalities. Plenty of intelligent people are not at all smart.)
The definition of intelligence encompasses a variety of things, but society tends to narrow it down to capitalism (probably because it’s so tangible). In both conversation and politics, we praise entrepreneurs, calling them the lifeblood of America. And they deserve accolades (at least, the ones who didn’t steal their ideas from someone else, though even then it takes a certain cunning to grow it into a moneymaker).
But many intellectuals have skills that will never make them one red cent. The vast majority of musicians and writers come to mind. Even small-business owners. In all of these cases, the exceptions (successes) prove the rule.
We often forget that intelligence is not always proportional to the zeros on our checks. This is why it’s so dangerous to base our economic policies on the blanket notion that the richest are the smartest and best people. Just as it’s wrong to assume intelligent people have to be good at everything, it’s wrong to assume intelligent people specifically strive for — and succeed in — the game of business (or any narrow field, for that matter).
A man I once worked for, a Gordon Gekko type, said he thought I could be a millionaire someday. But while I feel more than capable of accruing such wealth, I have little inclination to do so. I have never been one of those people who looks where the money is and then chases it. Some would say that’s not smart of me. But the only way I will ever make that much money is if someone offers it to me to do what I love. I'm creative more than I'm capitalist.
For years, my mom has asked me: “Why don’t you write the next Harry Potter?” By which she means, the next moneymaking literary sensation. (Yeah, really, why not, Ian?) The way I see it, though, specifically aspiring to that would most likely result in some overly calculated fiction that wouldn’t reflect my style and would get lost anyway under an avalanche of other books by authors trying to catch the same lightning. I’m better off being me and leaving that genre to the pros. Whatever the eventual financial outcome, I’ll at least know I was smart enough to stick to what I know and love.
Intelligence is not some monolithic characteristic limited to certain people and specific aspirations. At best, a truly intelligent person possesses an ability to adapt to multiple situations, to at least give the appearance that they always know the score.
In other words, they can bullshit their way through life.
And that’s a skill I think we all aspire to master.
What very loosely inspired this: Could Michael Jackson have created Twitter?