What is Smart?

EinsteinLet’s put a poisonous, human-potential-stifling myth to rest. Contrary to the IQ fundamentalist view… that intelligence is biologically-determined and fixed over time… all reputable research shows that intelligence is adaptable and expandable with the right kind of effort. In other words, if you use your brain the right way and expose your brain to the right stuff, you get smarter.

The you-either-have-it-or-you-don’t school views intelligence in very narrow terms (with a strong bias towards analytical skills that are readily measured using things such as an IQ test) and ignores (or rejects) the crucially important fact that human beings have something called agency. Agency means that we can, if we so choose, play an active part in the learning process… by seeking knowledge, evaluating knowledge, constructing knowledge, and applying knowledge. Analytical skills are important, but so are many other assets (do I dare to call them talents?)… such as honesty, curiosity, imagination, creativity, conviction, perseverance, passion, empathy, resilience, and devotion, to name but a few.

In this broader view, the most authentic measure of intelligence is the degree to which one is successful at living a meaningful life.

Successfully intelligent people are causes, not merely products. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses and use flexible strategies to achieve their dreams given the unique context of their own lives, with all its blessings and burdens. As such, there is no single definition of “success” and therefore no single way to define or measure “smart”.

In summary, intelligence is not some fixed, measurable quantity. Intelligence is an eminently human process in search of meaning… a process of interacting with and influencing one’s world in service to one’s authentic dreams. Intelligence, in the most profound sense, is an attitude toward this mysterious opportunity called life. It ain’t all about how “smart” your brain is; it’s about what you choose to do with the brain you’ve got.

Inspiring Reading: Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl mans search for meaningI first read this most challenging gem from the existentialist canon two decades ago at the age of thirty-five. Naturally at that time I was deeply moved by Frankl’s gut wrenching and heartbreaking personal account of the horrors of the Holocaust… and of his heroic efforts to find freedom and dignity in the face of the most insidious and unfathomable evil, an evil so total that it sought and almost succeeded in destroying everything that he was, along with all hope for anything that he or the entire world might become.

Being a sensitive and decent person, it felt sufficient at the time for me to deeply admire this special man, to pay my sincere respects to the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust, and to be filled with profound gratitude for my own privileged existence. But, although I fully embraced these important lessons in resilience, humility, and gratitude, I was still too young to grasp the full import of the question that Frankl puts before us. Allow me to explain…

Twenty years have since transpired… and I have gone about the business of life with a mixed bag of successes and failures. In the meantime, Doctor Frankl’s writing waited patiently on my bookshelf until the present day when, for some inexplicable reason, I felt compelled to read him again. Now, at the age of fifty-five, most of my years are behind me.  Now painfully aware of my own mortality, I came to realize the profound ignorance that engulfed me at the age of thirty-five. Enthralled with my own worldly ambitions, not yet having suffered my mid-life crisis, and assuming that most of my years were still ahead of me (and thus unconcerned with my own distant mortality), I was too ignorant to realize that I was chasing the wrong prizes. The problem was that I was still pursuing happiness. Only now do I realize that happiness alone is too narrow and shallow a pursuit (although it may be the occasional reward for doing my best). Only now do I realize that the real meaning of life is to live a life that matters.

Man’s Search for Meaning is essential reading for every serious student of life. It will inspire you to face the ultimate question with courage and without pretenses. Importantly, you will learn that the question that confronts us all is not “What is the meaning of life?” Rather, the real question is: “What is the meaning of my life, given my unique endowment of blessings and burdens?” No matter our individual circumstances, the meaning of our lives is an open question that is answered emphatically, for better or worse, with everything we do or fail to do each and every day. Furthermore, no one else can give you the answer, but… Read this book and you will find priceless insights into the true nature of life and the proper direction for your authentic inquiry into the question of meaning. In short, the only way to create meaning is through LOVE, sometimes in the face of horrific, unfathomable suffering. The answer is that simple and that hard.

Some Existential Inspiration

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw 1856-1950

“This is the true joy in life… being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die. For the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It’s a sort of splendid torch which I’ve got to hold up for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”