5 Signs You’re Smarter Than You Think
Because intellectual character goes far beyond your IQ or GPA.
Originally published in Mind Cafe on April 20, 2021.
When asked about his IQ by Piers Morgan, Stephen Hawking said this:
“I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers.”
If that isn’t the time for the mic to drop, I don’t know when is.
Intelligence is a lot more complicated than analyzing your IQ, standardized test scores, or the number that appears on your paycheck. Though it’s difficult to quantify, there are so many different ways to be smart, especially nowadays.
True intelligence isn’t just about being good at maths or physics or knowing who the 23rd President of the United States was (if you’re curious, it was Benjamin Harrison), intelligence about growth and overcoming.
Intelligence is defined as “the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations”. That is much, much more complicated than the collective social understanding.
The tragedy is that because of the simplified cultural definition of intelligence, many of us never realize our intellectual potential. That’s why I’ve researched and found 5 ways that you might be smarter than you think.
1. You Know When to Quit
From age 12 to 18, wrestling dictated every decision that I made in my life. Everything from how much food I ate to the people that I surrounded myself with was determined based on my goal of achieving excellence on the wrestling mat.
When my wrestling career ended, I had the option to continue wrestling in college, but something about the thought of college wrestling just didn’t feel right. Wrestling is hard, but I realized that continuing my wrestling career would have been the easy option. If I wrestled again, it wasn’t going to be because I loved it, but rather because I was afraid of the future. When I recognized this fear of the unknown, I decided to hang up my wrestling shoes for good. It was a scary but necessary decision.
Instead, I chose to focus on attending university and pursuing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. This has decision changed my life in more ways than I could have imagined. Since I turned 18, I’ve traveled the United States training and competing in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I’ve won a world title, and I’ve made friendships and memories that will outlive anything I can accomplish externally. Strangely enough, it was all because I decided to quit a sport I once loved.
In a culture that celebrates grit and hard work above all else, knowing when to quit isn’t just a sign of intelligence, it’s also a sign of courage. Even psychologist Angela Duckworth, the founder of “grit” as a psychological concept, believes that there is a time to give up. Without self-awareness, too much resilience quickly becomes stubbornness.
“Go, go, go until you can’t go anymore…then turn left.” — Angela Duckworth
2. You Struggle with Existential Dread
Reading Meditations, the stoic journal of Marcus Aurelius, was eye-opening for me. Throughout his writing, the great Roman Emporer consistently references his own struggles with existential dread and his own demise. I found this to be both humbling and inspiring. If a Roman Emporer struggled with existential suffering, I can’t help but feel validated in having my own bouts with existential despair.
“Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” — Marcus Aurelius
To grapple with your own mortality is not for the faint of mind.
When I was a teenager, I (like most) was full of existential angst and dread. If you couldn’t have figured that out by my generally disinterested mood or my fondness for Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophies, my tank tops of various punk bands were enough to surely give it away.
I always thought that this dueling sense of dread and curiosity was a sign of ignorance and stupidity. Why couldn’t I just be “normal” and focus on progressing in day-to-day life? I needed something to give me purpose. I needed passion.
Though at 18 years old I didn't have much in common with Marcus Aurelius, this existential “dread” was a powerful motivator for me as well. Existential pain — also known as a “will to meaning” — is what drives many people to be the best versions of themselves. If you’re really thinking about your place in the universe, you’re probably pretty smart. Psychological research backs this up as well. It’s very common for analytical thinkers to experience depression, and existential anxiety is much more common in gifted individuals than the general population.
However, just because intelligent people are more likely to develop existential dread doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to wallow in their brilliance.
In fact, existential pain really seems like a test of the intellect. It prompts the question:
Can you figure out how to be happy?
3. You Can Overcome Your Doubts… Consistently
Unless you view The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy as the holy scripture, humans are the most intelligent species on the planet (surpassing both dolphins and rats in the process). However, humans also suffer rates of mental illness at a rate that’s leaps and bounds above other species. This seems to be one of the pitfalls of consciousness.
We all experience doubts. Doubting yourself doesn’t make you smart or not smart, it makes you human. Oftentimes, I think doubts can be a good thing. I’d argue that a healthy dose of self-skepticism can be beneficial for many of us — I know I need it. Blind faith in your beliefs or abilities likely means that you haven’t thought too deeply about them. If an idea is not well evaluated, in my experience it’s likely flawed.
“The unexamined life is not worth living” — Socrates
That said, anxiety is a huge problem worldwide — it affects nearly 284 million people — and it should be taken more seriously. Overcoming anxiety and doubt is a complex problem that takes a lot more skill to overcome than we give credit for. My smartest friends also seem to be the most anxious people I know.
Feeling these doubts or anxieties is part of what makes us human. That’s why a true sign of intelligence is the ability to overcome these doubts and persist with life.
The world’s top performers — whether it’s in sports or anything else — all experience feelings of anxiety at some level, but what distinguishes them from the average Joe is the ability to overcome their neuroticism. This is a skill in itself. If you’re good at overcoming your doubts, that should be cherished, celebrated, and shared with others. The world needs more people who know how to practically overcome their own minds.
“One must have chaos in oneself to give birth to a dancing star” — Friedrich Nietzsche
4. You Know When You Don’t Know
Though empathy wasn’t a character in Pixar’s Inside Out, I still find it to be the most fascinating emotion that humans can experience.
It’s also one of the cornerstone signs of emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence isn’t just about going to therapy and recognizing your own triggers and emotions, it’s also about being able to understand the way the people around you feel as well. It’s a collaborative form of intelligence that in my experience is quite hard to come by.
People who have low emotional intelligence will do things to put you down. They’ll say things like “oh come on, it isn’t that bad,” or even worse, they’ll use their own experience to invalidate yours. Low emotional intelligence is one of the many factors that can lead to gaslighting or other forms of psychological manipulation.
On the other side, having the ability to go above and beyond in connecting with your peers and yourself is a sign of brilliance. I’d say it’s a superpower of sorts. Empaths are highly sensitive, but they’re also highly emotionally intelligent. If emotional intelligence and sensitivity are nurtured rather than stigmatized, it can create the courageous and heroic leaders that our world needs as we face unprecedented future challenges.
5. You’re Creative
Something that most people don’t know about me is that I have ADHD.
Growing up, I struggled in school. In particular, I couldn’t sit still for extended periods of time, I couldn’t finish assignments on time, and my interest waned and wandered as I sat in class day after day. By all conventional means, I was rather unintelligent. My ACT scores were mediocre (I didn’t finish most of it) and when I finally got to college, I kept changing my major every semester until I found something that I wouldn’t fail out of.
So, what did I do instead of succeeding academically? I was inventing jiu-jitsu moves and trying to tell stories. Like a lot of creative people, I long thought that my creativity was something to be ashamed of, but I’ve recently realized that there’s so much more to intelligence or success than what society says or what your parents say about you at dinner parties.
It’s difficult to measure creativity in a laboratory, but that doesn’t mean there is no validity to creativity as a sign of intelligence. This study identifies a correlation between creativity and “divergent thinking”, which is really a fancy laboratory way of saying creativity. There are also various other studies that connect creativity and intellectual competence.
“Creativity is intelligence having fun” — Albert Einstein
If this research isn’t convincing enough, you need only look at the world’s top artists and musicians as anecdotal evidence. One can’t help but notice that there is some sort of a relationship between intelligence and creativity. I’d love for psychologists of the future to dive deeper into this topic that can change the lives of so many people.
Growing up, I was always insecure about how smart I was or wasn’t. I can’t help it, school always felt like a competition. The way that American education is structured does help us strive to be better, but the pitfalls of the system can break children who don’t fit the mold of what is conventionally smart.
There’s a lot more to intelligence than books and papers. Some of the most emotionally intelligent people I know also struggle with dyslexia, which makes reading Dickens or Aristotle virtually impossible for them.
It always hurts my heart when people I love and care about make a small mistake or can’t do something and claim “I’m so dumb,” or “I’m such an idiot.” The words that we use on ourselves are important, and most people are intelligent in some way. I hope that in reading this you’ve been able to realize that in at least a few ways, you are smarter than you think.
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3 More Quotes About Intelligence
“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”― Albert Einstein
“An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it. An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself. I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. "Can they be brought together?" This is a practical question. We must get down to it. "I despise intelligence" really means: "I cannot bear my doubts.”
― Albert Camus
“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence– whether much that is glorious– whether all that is profound– does not spring from disease of thought– from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”― Edgar Allan Poe, Complete Tales and Poems
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