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PAINFUL TRUTH: Are smart people actually that smart?

Intelligence is often situational, and doesn’t translate to other fields
FILE - Elon Musk speaks at the SATELLITE Conference and Exhibition March 9, 2020, in Washington. Trading in shares of Twitter were halted after the stock spiked, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022 on reports that Musk would proceed with his $44 billion deal to buy the company after months of legal battles. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Speaking as someone who is not that bright and only indifferently educated, I’m starting to worry about the smart folks.

Elon Musk is a good case study.

Musk is a trained engineer with loads of schooling. He has drive, which is not the same thing as intelligence, but which can be handy. He has been involved in running some of the most valuable companies in the world. He’s either the richest or second-richest person in the world, depending on how stock in Tesla and Amazon are doing at any point.

He’s one of the key figures in mainstreaming electric vehicles, using a strategy that started with making EVs cool objects owned by celebrities, then rolling out cheaper models that more people could buy.

So… he’s a smart guy, right?

The problem is, his actions over the last few months suggest something other than high intelligence.

Most recently, he’s started talking about how to “fix” the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and about China’s designs on independent Taiwan.

People in Ukraine and Taiwan did not appreciate his suggestions, to put it mildly.

Before that, Musk decided to buy Twitter, then changed his mind, then changed it back again. This process has made a lot of money for some lawyers. It has yet to make Twitter better, if that’s even possible.

Oh, also he once sold a bunch of hand-held flamethrowers. That made the world a better place, right?

So, is Musk smart or not?

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I don’t think we ask that question the right way.

The idea of general intelligence, measured by IQ, has been around for more than a century.

Ironically, it’s pretty stupid.

Some people are more intelligent than others, but that sort of “intelligence” measures, more or less, the speed at which you learn new things, and a certain level of mental flexibility.

It doesn’t give you specialized knowledge, and it doesn’t mean you are always right.

I most often find intelligence in the things people work hard at learning, often out of passion, but sometimes via pure repetition.

A skilled mechanic or woodworker or gardener is very smart in their field, but someone who’s worked in fast food for 10 or 20 years also has a specialized kind of intelligence, understanding everything from the restaurant’s equipment to how to deal with a cranky customer. Do you think you could drop a surgeon into a McDonald’s and they could operate the fryer, the grill, and the cash register without any instruction?

Being smart in a field is great.

But thinking you’re smart in general is a trap for a certain kind of confident personality.

It leads the successful into thinking that their skills in one area – often business, medicine, or law – can easily translate into another area. Usually, it’s politics.

Being smart is great. Learning that IQ isn’t the be-all and end-all is better.

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Matthew Claxton

About the Author: Matthew Claxton

Raised in Langley, as a journalist today I focus on local politics, crime and homelessness.
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