Wicked Smahht?

Recently Doc Searls wrote some things about intelligence, IQs and what not. I thought I'd weigh in with my own thoughts. At the risk of sounding conceited, I'm going to discuss my own intelligence and its measurements.

I have a high IQ. How high? I once tested as high as 155. That's a pretty high IQ. Impressed? You shouldn't be, it's meaningless.

My IQ has also tested much lower, I once got a score of 120. Ok, that's not exactly low, but it's not uncommon either. Also, my SATs weren't Ivy League numbers either; in my one and only try I scored 1230.

Ok, so the truth is I'm a pretty bright guy. I learn things quickly, I figure out stuff and I've produced some really good work. I'm smart. Right?

Well, I can't play a single instrument. I can't sing. I can't dance. I suck at most sports. I speak one language, english (duh). My 3rd grade teacher told my mother that I'd was dumb and might be held back. My high school GPA was 2.6, and that was after getting an extra grade point for the advanced classes I was in (our valedictorian got a 4.6, if I recall correctly). I'm not sure what a preposition or interjection is. In college, both Calculus and Chemistry gave a hard time.

On the other hand, I did extremely well in Physics I & II. In both semesters, I hardly even went to class. I just read the chapters out of the textbook before each exam and I usually got an A. And when it came to Computer Science, forget about it, it's like my brain was built for it. I never had so much as a blip of trouble with CS stuff. It just came to me and I enjoyed it.

So which is it? Am I smart or not? Well, if you've worked with me, you'd probably say "smart". If you taught me in school, you'd probably say "not".

On the test I scored a 120 on, it was in a Readers Digest. I remember there were lots of wordy problems I had trouble with. Instead of my mind attacking the problem, I would look at them and not even be sure I understood the question. I didn't like that test, it made me feel uneasy.

On the test I scored a 155 on, there were no words. It was a test that was just math or shapes or pictures. Lots of "find the next picture in the sequence" and "what does this object look like rotated sidways". And I blew through it with ease. It was like my brain was built for it. I liked that test, it was fun.

So what is my real IQ? I don't think that question has an answer. There is absolutely no way you can distill my intelligence down to a number and then rank me amongst all other people. If there were an IQ test that measured the parts of my brain that focus on symbolic manipulation (which is essentially what programming is), you'll get a very high score indeed. If you measure the part of my brain that processes, decodes and encodes natural language, you'll get a much much lower score. If you measure the part of my brain that is empathetic, you'd send me to school on the short bus.

Recent thinking is that math ability in the brain is largely separate from language ability. I'm sure also the ability to rotate 3d objects in your head is also separate from language, as is the ability to think about complex machines. And certainly writing code is very different from writing text.

There are many such parts of the brain that can truly excel independent of other parts of the brain. Being a great doctor has little in common with being a great musician, or even a great lawyer.

Recently I did some work with some lawyers. Very good, high priced lawyers at that. After working with them for a little while, it became clear to me that they are very smart in ways that I simply am not. Their ability to read extremely dense documents and actually grok the information they contained far exceeded my own abilities. As was their ability to produce documents, to organize thoughts and structure information in writing. After spending so much time away from stuff like that, I'd forgotten how hard it can be for me. I'd bet they'd do really great on that Reader's Digest IQ test, but I'm also betting not as good on the wordless test.

Doc Searls claims that everyone is a genius. I wouldn't go that far, but you need not score well on a IQ test to be smart. Like Forrest Gump said, stupid is as stupid does, and I think the converse is true, smart is as smart does. And having a high IQ really just means that you are good at figuring out the kind of stuff that's on an IQ test. In life though, there aren't IQ tests that need to be taken before you can do great things. You are either capable of doing them or you aren't, and no general purpose test is really going to let you know either way.

So really, what's my point? Forget about IQ scores, at least on the individual level. They are worse than useless, they pigeonhole people into smart, average or dumb categories. There are plenty of people who are really, really smart in some unique way, and yet don't realize it because their grades or aptitude tests or whatever didn't show it, so they're assumed to be dumb. There are enough obstacles in life, you don't need someone else's idea of intelligence holding you back.

Posted May 20, 2005 1:51 PM