You’re Smart. So What?

more important than intelligence
This guest post comes to us from Michelle!  She helps creatives move from innovation and ideas into action and implementation. She lives in sunny Austin, TX, loves funky glasses, and writes about taking your business and life to new heights at Bombchelle.

By most peoples’ definition, “intelligence” has a very narrow meaning. I am intelligent in several ways, some of which are “typical” intelligences (very fast reader, good memory) and some of which are not (good at arts and crafts).

However, my parents drilled it into my when I was a child that there were so many more important things than being intelligent, and that being intelligent does not make me better than anyone else. At the time, I just found the repetition annoying. And then, I simply didn’t think about it for several years.

Since becoming an adult, though, I’ve come to be intensely thankful for being taught this at a very young age. I’ve come across a few people who clearly think that their intelligence is their single defining attribute, and treat anyone they perceive as less intelligent with condescension and a hint of contempt. Aside from being really obnoxious, it’s effing sad.

I feel like saying to them:

Do you really think that being intelligent is more important than being a good person? Share on X


Do you really think that being intelligent means anything if you do everything by the book?


There’s nothing else you love about yourself more than your intelligence? Your smile, your laugh, your ability to give a great compliment, or to look on the bright side of things, or your dogged perseverance? Because I see so many more important things to you than intelligence.

What’s more is that these people go by the standard definition of intelligence – that it’s something inborn, you have a certain amount at birth, and that that amount is set for the rest of your life. It never gets any higher or lower. So they’re so proud of something that they had absolutely no control over (as far as they’re concerned). To paraphrase Anya, “That doesn’t make you better. It makes you luckier.”

Redefining Intelligence

What is being smart, anyways? Most people today will say, oh, that’s having a high IQ. Newsflash: having a high IQ means you’re good at taking an IQ test. Does it have any meaning outside of that? Even this says “While they do not lend themselves perfectly to some views of intelligence, they have historically been fairly good predictors of school achievement (expected “ability”).”

So…what about being good at school? That mostly measures your ability (and patience, oh gods, the patience required) for memorizing information by rote and then repeating it exactly the way the teacher instructs you to. Not to mention, most schools today focus on math and science, leaving other subjects by the wayside.

What if you suck at math, but you can paint like Picasso? Chances are, you won’t be considered intelligent. Even within math and science, there’s different ways to fail. I hate chemistry with a fiery passion, but love biology. I’m fabulous at geometry (visual-spatial thinker here), but not so hot at advanced algebra.

What counts and what doesn’t? All the rules are arbitrary when it comes to intelligence. I would argue that “intelligence” should be redefined as “curiosity and the will to learn”. Your curiosity and will to learn will get you much farther than any inborn trait. And these traits can be fostered and grown throughout your life. (For more interesting reading/listening on the subject, check out this TED talk and the theory of multiple intelligences.)

5 Qualities That Are More Important Than Intelligence

1. Creativity

Creativity, as an attribute, suffers from some of the same ideas that intelligence does. Creativity is not something that some of us are born with, and some of us aren’t. It’s the ability to have original ideas that have value, and it’s something everyone is born with. (If you don’t want to or can’t watch the video, the pertinent information is that a vital part of creativity is divergent thinking. Sir Robinson mentions a study in which 1,500 kindergarten age children were given a test for divergent thinking, and 98% of them scored at a genius level for divergent thinking.)

2. Gumption

Defined as 1. “initiative, resourcefulness” and 2. “courage, spunk”.

3. Kindness


4. Compassion

I would hope for obvious reasons. The world would be a better place if we were all kinder and more compassionate. Can the same thing be said for intelligence?

5. Adaptability

Being a genius by mainstream standards won’t get you anywhere if you can’t adapt to new situations, environments, and people, and adjust your responses accordingly.I don’t care how smart you are. It doesn’t interest me. I want to know why you do what you do, I want to know what makes you happy, I want to know what your goals and ambitions and hopes and dreams are, and how you plan to get there.

Are you ‘by the book’ smart? And/or intelligent in other ways? Do you think there are qualities that are more important than intelligence?

photo credits: eli samuelu // jazmin quaynor // cc

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  1. Life [Comma] Etc

    What a great post!

    While I prided myself on my "intelligence" all through my younger years, I've come to understand my parent's similar "intelligence isn't everything decree" and give myself credit for the arts and crafts and gumption side of things.

    A great thought to start my day with… thanks!

  2. Celebrating the Day

    I want to give Michelle a big AMEN. I wish every teacher, school administrator, and parent would read and understand this. Michelle rocks (and it helps that we live in the same city.

  3. Shannon

    Such a good post and I'm so glad you linked to "the invitation", my mom sent me Oriah Mountain Dreamer's book this year (which is an expansion of the poem) and I'm in love with it.

  4. Sarah Rooftops

    Great post!

    I am intelligent in the traditional way, but I'm surrounded by people who have done better (so far!) in the world of work than me because they were more motivated, more productive, more patient, less arrogant, more charming than me along the way – intelligence isn't a guarantee of success.

    I also know quite a few people who are indisputably intelligent but think that the best way to show that is to sneer at everything, as though being able to see downsides is the same thing as being smart. Intelligence can be put to much better use than smirking, I think.

  5. Sarah Von Bargen

    "Intelligence can be put to much better use than smirking, I think."

    Sarah! Yes! Well said!

  6. Mandy

    Very well put! I definitely agree that just relying on your intelligence and ignoring other important qualities, ESPECIALLY kindness. I work at a large, fairly elite university, and so many students and professors fall into this trap. It can be so frustrating, because rudeness makes you seem less intelligent, and more of just a jerk.

    Also, I would say that you shouldn't downplay your intelligence either though. I see too many girls do this so they can be "cute" or "sexy" or the "quirky, creative" girl. Just be you! Be smart, be kind, be normal! No need to put on airs!

  7. Megan Udell

    When I was in elementary school and when I homeschooled later on, my mum and dad always stressed to my sister and I that it wasn't so important that we know all the answers as that we know where to find the ones we don't know. Such a weight off the shoulders of a self-proclaimed know-it-all, and an even more valuable life lesson as I've grown up! So I suppose resourcefullness and humility to ask for help are just as, if not more, important as intelligence.

  8. Nancy Lu

    I go to an elite university with many people who are intelligent in the traditional sense. In fact, most of them have above-genius IQ's and plenty of them behave exactly as you would expect a mini-Einstein to behave, that is, a mixture of awkwardness and sweetness (I am not one of those spectacularly gifted individuals but can keep up pretty well regardless).

    While I definitely do agree that intelligence is not the most important trait, and intelligent people who are condescending are terribly obnoxious, I think it does a disservice to my classmates to discount something that is so unique and special about them as a universal "as long as you want to, you can be this" attribute. I believe that when most people talk of intelligence, they don't mean the desire to learn but the ability to process, understand and further develop what they have learned. Most psychologists and other people who study intelligence define it as cognitive reasoning.

    It's not even book smart- many very intelligent people drop out of school because they are bored with the material and either act out or don't care. Bill Gates is one of them. The guy in high school who skipped all his classes and didn't do his homework or study for the tests but aced all the material and then spent his time after school doing hardcore research on his own is another.

    If I could define intelligence, I would equate it with musical ability. You are born with a certain amount of potential, which with the right amount of privilege can be cultivated into something much greater. I also think creativity is very different from this, because as you said, it is universal. The most successful individuals, in terms of the ones who have gone the furthest with what ability they were born with, whether that is smartness or the talent to dance or sing, are also the most creative.

    IQ tests aren't perfect because it's just as difficult to measure the ability to reason more effectively and at a deeper level than as it is to measure the ability to play piano or paint.

    I think you hit a lot of great points here but missed out on an opportunity to applaud all the especially brilliant people like my friends who make the world go round, whether though scientific discoveries or analyzing an increasingly complex financial system. But that's just my (very long-winded) two cents 🙂

    PS Sorry if this came through twice! Intelligence also does not seem to give one the ability to properly use blogger.

  9. Nancy Lu

    To correct what I said because I don't mean to offend anyone- not only intelligent people make the world go round! So do artists and mothers and your friendly neighbor next door. I just mean to say that intelligent people who work more behind the scenes are often ignored for the celebrities and popular politicians and such, even though they contribute a big part in making our lives more comfortable and progress our understanding and ability to navigate this confusing, complex, and beautiful world we live in.

  10. Carolina Belle

    Nancy, I'm with you! It takes all types. I get that this post was very much written from the POV of someone who apparently has seen a lot of people sneering about their level of intelligence (which, ugh), but I also hate to say "these things are way more important than being intelligent".

    I think people are all different. They all have things that make them special and valuable. Those things that make a person intrinsically themselves are different in every person, but none is more special than another, in my opinion.

    Kindness and compassion are basic human traits that everyone should have. Adaptability, gumption, creativity, and intelligence… Those are all things that people have in varying levels, and I don't think any is better than any other…. If that makes sense?

  11. Nancy Lu

    Carolina- yes, that makes absolute sense! Obviously, not one "talent" or attribute or whatever is greater than any other, but we should acknowledge that those people who are blessed with a lot more of something than most people do deserve recognition and acknowledgement for that talent. It shouldn't be dismissed as something that everybody can achieve with a little hard work, while kindness and such are human values that people can control, to a much greater degree.

    Thank you, you said it much more concisely than me!

  12. FMD

    I'm intelligent AND a good person. But what I am finding, as I market myself and am getting involved in Improv comedy is this: connecting with others in a meaningful way is super important. But, to put a little spin on it: I don't think I could connect if I wasn't a smartypants, or a pseudo smartypants. Love the post, always good to see things from different perspectives.

  13. Carolina Belle

    Nancy, exactly.

    My thing is — I'm not always a very bold person. But I am smart and creative. So it's not any nicer to say to me "I value gumption more than intelligence" than it would be for me to say "I value intelligence more than gumption".

  14. Michelle

    Woah! So many comments! 🙂

    Sarah: I LOVE this: "Intelligence can be put to much better use than smirking, I think." Yes. Definitely.

    Fellow Austinite/Celebrating the Day: TOTALLY going to drop you an email about getting coffee!

    Mandy: Yes, I definitely agree that people shouldn't "dumb down" either. I think intelligence is a good thing, don't get me wrong. The point I was trying to make is that a lot of times people view it as the be-all end-all to success (or as far as valuable attributes go) and it is NOT.

    Nancy – I don't in particular disagree with anything you said. I don't think intelligence is 100% genetic, although AFAIK there's no objective information either way. Like most things, I'd argue it's nature/nurture. I also think your friends are worth applauding…BUT I think that artists and writers and moms are worth applauding too. Which is something you seem to agree with. But the thing is, the person who has a PhD in physics or cellular molecular biology (one of my friend's former majors) is more likely to be viewed as a valuable member of society than a stay at home mom, which I do NOT agree with.

    My point is not that intelligence is not valuable or that it's worth dismissing. My point is that this way of viewing and acting around intelligence that we have in the schooling system/society at large in the US is not healthy and it hurts EVERYONE – people who are "intelligent" and people who are "not intelligent" (however we choose to define those words) alike.

    Contrary to Carolina Belle's guess, I've never scored below the 98-99th percentile in any standardized test I've ever taken (including, yes, my IQ test), so I've never had the (hurtful, awful, and demeaning) experience of someone sneering at my intelligence. And the way we act as a society around intelligence hurt me, personally, growing up. I was pushed to excel in math instead of allowing my natural talent and urge to be artistic to flourish, for example. I've had people act like I am a personal disappointment and offense to them because I chose to do something I wanted to do with my life instead of being a doctor or a physicist or something more "acceptable" for smart people to do.

    I would also argue that none of the traits of adaptability, gumption, creativity, or intelligence are 100% set in stone from the day of our birth. You can have natural inclinations towards them, sure, but you can also learn to be more creative and you can intentionally push your comfort zone if you choose to.

  15. Michelle

    To give some perspective on what spawned this whole post for me – I was having coffee with a friend (who would be considered intelligent by most peoples' standards) and we got on the topic of parenting. This friend *seriously* contended (no, she was not joking, I checked) that people who score below a certain IQ score shouldn't be allowed to be parents. And you know, I'm on OKCupid right now and there's a question like that – "Do you think people with low IQs should be allowed to have kids? – and the majority of answers I've seen from people who have answered it is "no, they should not". Which is EFFED UP, Y'ALL. And says a lot about our priorities.

    I grew up in the Bible Belt. I have met my fair share of people who were very book-smart but still blinded by fear and hate and ignorance. Being smart does not automatically make you a good person or a good parent or a valuable contribution to society. And if we swapped out other traits for intelligence in that question – "do you think people who lack artistic talent should be allowed to have kids?" – it seems entirely absurd, and nobody would entertain it as a serious notion, and yet people do when it comes to intelligence.

    And again, there's a whole 'nother bundle of issues around women and intelligence in our society which is not my basket to unpack here.

    Hopefully my point is clear-ish, obviously I am less than succinct when I don't have hours on hand to edit something into a cohesive blog post 😉

  16. Nancy Lu

    Michelle- I think what Carolina Belle and I are trying to say is that intelligence is not better NOR worse than any of those other traits, and that's what bothered us about this post. We both agree that it is best for everybody if we stopped trying to rank attributes and just accept that some people are talented at this and others are talented at that and we're all different and special and the world would be a better place if we could also all be kind and compassionate.

    Intelligence is also certainly not something that you're stuck with at birth- very smart people work hard for their depth of knowledge, just as very talented writers work hard to write books and very talented musicians practice hours and hours a day- but it is something that different people are born with different amounts of. Does that make sense?

    Just because I'm a halfway decent artist does not mean that I have any shot of comparing to Picasso. I simply do not have that ability, no matter how hard I try. Maybe I can push myself, but Picasso had some sort of brilliance that comes intrinsically and not from years and years of experience. Talent like that comes with the way your brain is wired at birth, and is nurtured, if your lucky, so that you can reach your full potential. And yes, it has been scientifically proven that brains are wired to do different things. Einstein, for example, had significantly more white matter in the portion of the brain that handled abstract reasoning. So I also disagree that it's a strictly nature or nurture thing- I think it's a combination of both. Which might be what you're saying too, and I'm just misinterpreting it.

    (Side note- I'm also not saying that just because people don't think that you're some kind of genius at a particular field that you should stop doing it. Just that it's not fair to say that through sheer will anybody can achieve the same level of success in anything they put their mind to. It's really offensive to the people who have succeeded in some field or another, because you're pretty much just waving it away and saying, oh, I could be just as good at you but I don't try as hard or I'm just not as lucky. Like, oh, I struggled through freshman biology but if I were less lazy, then I could totally get a Ph.D. in molecular biology and publish my research in Science or Nature.)

    As for the whole motherhood and IQ- I think that's terrible. And I agree with you wholeheartedly that there are a bunch of issues about women and intelligence that society needs to deal with. Everyone should be given the freedom to try to do what they would love to do, regardless of IQ or whether they're an artist or banker or the President. I'm also very sorry that you've felt so pressured to become someone you don't want to be, simply because others have an outdated idea of what smart people can and cannot be.

    Wow, I'm sorry this is so long!

  17. Julien Azur

    @Carolina Belle
    "I get that this post was very much written from the POV of someone who apparently has seen a lot of people sneering about their level of intelligence (which, ugh)"…

    "But I am smart and creative" …

    Really? If everything is that obvious to you, and if you're that smart and creative as you say *yourself,* then you should let it shine through your actions instead of judging a person you don't know at all.
    What if I told you that since you used such a despising language about the author, your are actually the person who suffered from such types of people? In psychology this is called a "projection."
    Sorry but "living out loud" and being arrogant is not the same thing.


  18. M.

    Julien, Carolina Belle clearly wasn't talking down and I see no arrogance in what she wrote; she was noting, and agreeing with, the idea that condescension or sneering pride in the very intelligent is not a good thing.

    Mostly, I agree with her and with Nancy Lu: in fact, although I'm also (I hope!) a kind person and have other good attributes, my intelligence *is* my strongest quality. My ability to absorb, understand, synthesise and communicate information and ideas is easily the main skill I possess. Quite the opposite of sneering at less "book smart" people, it's more often been the case that they're the ones teasing me.

    … Which isn't to say I shouldn't cultivate my other qualities (as per the OP), or that this makes me more important than somebody whose strongest quality is their artistic or sporting ability, or EQ or dedication or selflessness or whatever.

  19. Little London Observationist

    I agree with your list and I'll add open-mindedness and curiosity to my list as well as the ability to love.

  20. readtainment

    "it is best for everybody if we stopped trying to rank attributes" — Nancy Lu

    Yup. Also, as an employee of the evolving education field, in a charter school where we harness innovation and change to help kids get to college and success, I take offense to your grand generalizations about what happens in classrooms today. (Rote memorization, teachers' hidden agendas.) I doubt you're a K-12 student anymore, so at least offer the current system — or those of us in the better parts of it — the benefit of the doubt.


  21. Anonymous

    Yeah, well, newsflash! The same goes with beauty. I don't care how beautiful a peson looks, it doesn't interest me. I too care about inner qualities such as humility, compassion, etc.

  22. Anonymous

    I m a vegan. I think loving someone is more important than being intelligent. I m a philosopher. I love someone. I want to become a philosophy professor. I found two programs that are for studies that interest me. I want to be a student at Universite de Paris Pantheon Sorbonne and then at Dutch univerities. I would want the man I love to come with me to Europe.

  23. Mallie Hart

    Anything can be adapted in positive and negative ways. Sure smirking isn’t the best way to showcase your smarts, especially if your business relies on relationships with others.

    But how many times have you seen the “passion” argument go awry? If people engage in business with their brains and their hearts, the chances of success are greater. Intent and purpose are paramount. Balancing your brains with your other talents seems the best way to go about building a business.

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