Many Kinds of Smart (A Continuing Series)

Steve Hsu points us to an NYT op-ed by Walter Isaacson, in which he ponders the crucial question, “Was Steve Jobs smart?” Isaacson has written biographies of both Jobs and Albert Einstein, so he should know from smart.

One might think that the answer is an obvious “yes,” and Isaacson admits this. But then he tells this anecdote:

But I remember having dinner with him a few months ago around his kitchen table, as he did almost every evening with his wife and kids. Someone brought up one of those brainteasers involving a monkey’s having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take. Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem rigorously.

And what are we to conclude from this?

So was Mr. Jobs smart? Not conventionally.

Arrrgh. I’m not sure what kind of conventionality is being invoked, but I don’t want any part of it.

We all know about Steve Jobs’s accomplishments. Built a major multinational corporation, created (or at least nurtured) several different devices that noticeably changed our everyday lives, became an icon for user-friendly and design-savvy technology. And he didn’t do it all just by getting lucky, or even by simple hard work. There is no useful definition of the word “smart” under which Steve Jobs doesn’t qualify.

Isaacson explains Jobs’s success, despite his lack of smarts, by saying he was a “genius,” or at least “ingenious,” and going on about intuition and wisdom and visual thinking and overcoming Western rationality. (His examples of plodding non-geniuses include Henri Poincaré and David Hilbert, maybe not the best choices.) (Also, we are told that Einstein was a genius, but not whether he was smart.)

But why in the world wouldn’t we describe someone who was wise, was a brilliant visual thinker, and exhibited world-class intuition and imagination as “smart”? Because he wasn’t interested in a brain teaser about monkeys carrying bananas? (Not even that he tried to solve the puzzle and failed — just that he wasn’t interested.)

The answer is apparently … yes. Maybe it’s from talking to too many physicists while working on the Einstein biography, but Isaacson falls into a trap that snares many people, especially academics, and especially mathematicians and scientists: a view of intelligence that narrows down to an ability to solve logic puzzles and do well on IQ tests. It’s the kind of attitude that judges graduate students by how well they do on their qualifying exams, rather than the quality of their actual research. It’s easy to fetishize puzzle-solving ability, because it’s easy to demonstrate and measure and quantify.

But there is more than one way to be smart. We’re not talking here about feel-good attempts to grant equal amounts of smartness to every living person, or to reclassify “common sense” or “down-home wisdom” as superior kinds of intelligence, or even an ability to deal with people on an everyday level. We’re talking about a very traditional notion of smarts: solving problems, having ideas, speaking and writing well, seeing things clearly. Sometimes you can be very good at those things, and not very good at (or interested in) logic puzzles or IQ tests.

Even within the narrow range of logic-puzzle-smarts, there are very different kinds. Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann were smart by any measure, but they were also very different thinkers. Professional mathematicians can be grouped roughly into “algebraists” and “geometers,” and the two groups sometimes have trouble talking to each other. Anyone who has observed successful scientists over a period of time cannot possibly miss the fact that there are many different approaches to success.

This isn’t an academic discussion — different problems require different ways of being smart. Bill Gates read science books in his leisure time, but the design of his products was crap. Albert Einstein was the most successful physicist of the twentieth century, but it was Neils Bohr who really pushed quantum mechanics forward. The problem isn’t that we need to look beyond smarts — it’s that we need to acknowledge smarts when we see them.

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50 Responses to Many Kinds of Smart (A Continuing Series)

  1. Kaleberg says:

    What does solving logic problems have to do with being smart?

  2. Jennifer says:

    nice illustration of Sean’s point, Eric.

    I want to say something else that kind of freaked me out and made me think about the future of Siri. I was reading a textbook for a class, I’m in a physics phD program, and I petted the book to change the page. As in, I swiped my finger on my physical textbook. I’ve had the ipad2 since…whenever it came out, April 2011 I think. I was not impressed with it for months. But it is damn intuitive, damn natural, using that thing.

    It makes me think that Siri will be the same, so natural and intuitive to use that we will never believe how we made our little fingers fly over tiny keyboards or learned to pause a second between writing words with letters that follow each other in the alphabet. I am not an apple junkie, but I think there is something inherently natural and captivating about their product designs.

    That’s all an aside. I also think Tim’s comment is great, it certainly does show her lack of knowledge about kids. My nieces can focus far longer and with far greater pleasure than any adult I know, save the nerdiest scientists and the nerdiest musicians. All on their own too. When I am like them with my studies, it feels perfect (it’s rare at this point, but practice will get me there I think).

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  4. With regard to the topic in general, there is an episode of All in the Family which deals with this (and, like almost all episodes, is very, very funny). AITF could be watched for its humour, or social commentary, or both. “Recorded on tape before a live audience”: yes, it was essentially filmed theatre, live. There’s probably a way to watch old episodes on the internet these days. If you aren’t familiar with the show, take it from me and watch: but watch a whole episode in one go (something of a lost art these days).

    “Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann were smart by any measure, but they were also very different thinkers. “ Indeed. In James Gleick’s biography of Feynman, there is an absolutely hilarious episode which illustrates this beautifully, as funny as any of the stories (also extremely funny, but not just that) Feynman told about himself.

  5. Unclellama says:

    ‘Being good at lots of things’ has always struck me as an indicator of smartness. Some people pick up all manner of concepts and skills lightning-fast, as if they don’t have a particular talent for it, but just ‘get it’ instantly.

    I doubt that will ever be a useful thing to measure, though, even if we figured out a way to do so… for any given problem/job we tend to need people who are skilled in some specific way, so why not just test for that?

  6. Philip says:

    What is the Turing test all about?

    We agree that a good working definition of an intelligent computer is one that can talk.

    All human beings can talk; therefore ___________.

  7. Maxi Noggin says:

    I completely agree. I have an IQ of 70 and stupidly always thought I was smart!!

  8. The recent TED / RSA video overview of Iain McGilchrist’s 2010 book, “”The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” — is relevant in this discussion. Beautiful summary in 12 minutes.

    http://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain.html

    ‘A wonderful book about brain function and its wider implications … that two different styles of perception and cognition, holistic versus narrowly focused, are both needed for survival, hence evolutionarily ancient, [is] a very nice insight into why brain division was selected for … And it’s refreshing to see sense being talked about the Libet experiments.’

    — Professor Michael McIntyre, Fellow of the Royal Society, and Professor of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge

  9. Muffit says:

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and point out that timing and luck HAS got a lot to do with how ‘genius’ manifests itself, possibly more so than anything else.

    It’s like that saying “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton said that, I believe.

    Surely there are countless magnificently smart individuals enjoying a quiet life out of the public eye, just as there are relatively average people catching the luck of the draw at the right time, to become publicly revered. Or even genius people stumbling in the limelight only by being lucky that one time.

    Quantifying this would be rather hard, I’m just not a huge believer in unique insights (which disregard history, luck, timing, I feel). Often it could be more of a sign of the times than a sign of individual genius.

  10. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Jobs had, for lack of a better word, a true “knack” for discerning desirable embodiments of consumer technology. He had stunning intuition for appealing style and the right balance of simplicity and capability. He had some happy accidents in his youth that inspired him and connected him to the nascent field of personal computing. He had some truly bizarre, and at times quite difficult, personal traits which, in the role of CEO, proved to be assets. He was obsessive, demanding, and preternaturally charismatic. However derided by those who weren’t susceptible, the “reality distortion field” was a great motivator and actualizer, and got those true technologists and design whizzes who he shepherded to do things that they never imagined they could do, even if they were browbeaten and broken by the process. Jobs left a trail of personal carnage in his wake, as many “great men” do, in the process of achieving greatness. It’s totally wrong-headed to ignore the role of sociopathy here. So, in many respects, even if Jobs wasn’t conventionally brilliant, he had, you might say, just the right mix of the exceptional and appalling to be a captain of industry. His accomplishments speak for themselves. I don’t think there’s much more analysis that will be of use, and probably no chance we’ll ever see another man like him, genius or monster, or both.

  11. I think Isaacson’s conclusion is ridiculous. As you note there are different kinds of smarts. Plus in the case of the anecdote, maybe Jobs just wasn’t interested in solving the problem seriously and made a half-hearted attempt to take a crack at it, like many of us often do. That hardly proves even that he wasn’t “conventionally” smart. How many times do we not latch on to every single problem that is tossed at us? It’s a matter of interest and priority much more than of intelligence.

  12. Shecky R says:

    “Professional mathematicians can be grouped roughly into ‘algebraists” and “geometers,’ and the two groups sometimes have trouble talking to each other. ”

    I’ve not heard quite that distinction made before, and although I have a sense of what you mean, I’d be curious to hear it elaborated further, and perhaps some names attached to the 2 groups…

  13. Christopher says:

    Steve was a genius and Bill Gate’s designs were crap? So a true genius is one that designs products the way you like?

  14. Curtis says:

    To label Steve Jobs a genius, when other “acknowledged” geniuses are the likes of Da Vinci, Newton, Einstein, Jefferson, etc., stretches credibility and virtually disqualifies those who consider Jobs to be one. Was he smart? Sure, he was clearly “smart enough.” He was smart enough to find clever, inventive, creative people and to push them and to demand their best… and get it. He was smart enough to buy existing technologies and have his people improve and repackage them. He was smart enough to hire great ad agencies. He was smart enough to make people believe “his” consumer electronic goods warranted standing in long lines, sleeping in long lines, and paying a lot of money for the brand image he and the marketing agencies he had hired created. That buying an Apple product says something about you that is “special.” He was smart enough to eventually lead Apple into becoming the world’s most valuable company. He did his job exceptionally well. That is enough.

    (Submitted from my MacBook Air)

  15. vonbahr says:

    Some excellent comments; some incomplete; some mistaken in their attempt to get it all right. But, if bloggers here think Jobs did this and Gates did that and do not consider the enormous role of others on their “teams”, they will not get any closer to a comprehensive set of factors that make for “smarts” or any of the other attributes of types of intelligence. Instead, much of the discussion is confused because of these characters as “successful” in heading up organizations. I’d want to know just what were the patents Steve Jobs had in his name, what they were for, and who else (if anyone) worked on them, for example. Being the head of either of these (or any) multi-billion dollar corporation is not proof of genius, although it could be….

  16. Jan says:

    I think you people are way too concerned about who is smarter than whom.

  17. Eugene says:

    Apparently according to Isaacson, being a “Genius” is insufficient to be called “Smart”.

    I hate authors sometimes.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Isaacson writes:

    Einstein is, of course, the true exemplar of genius. He had contemporaries who could probably match him in pure intellectual firepower when it came to mathematical and analytic processing. Henri Poincaré, for example, first came up with some of the components of special relativity, and David Hilbert was able to grind out equations for general relativity around the same time Einstein did. But neither had the imaginative genius to make the full creative leap at the core of their theories…

    This is hilarious!! The dude who came up with Homology and Homotopy lacking in “imaginative genius”??

  19. PeterKinnon says:

    The general consensus arising from the above posts underlines the great variability in the qualitative rather than quantitative functions of human imagination (a word I prefer to the rather vague “intelligence” or “smartness”). Extreme example of this are “autistic savants”.

    On another tack, Muffit’s post raises another very significant concept, he says:

    “I’m gonna go out on a limb and point out that timing and luck HAS got a lot to do with how ‘genius’ manifests itself, possibly more so than anything else.
    It’s like that saying “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Newton said that, I believe.Surely there are countless magnificently smart individuals enjoying a quiet life out of the public eye, just as there are relatively average people catching the luck of the draw at the right time, to become publicly revered. Or even genius people stumbling in the limelight only by being lucky that one time.Quantifying this would be rather hard, I’m just not a huge believer in unique insights (which disregard history, luck, timing, I feel). Often it could be more of a sign of the times than a sign of individual genius.”

    If we shake off our very natural anthropocentric biases it becomes clear that, except in a very trivial sense, there are no inventors, no designers.

    We do, of course have discoverers, those who happen to be the right types, in the right place at the right time, who pick the low-hanging fruit.

    But objectively, we have to interpret science and technology as evolving autonomously within the collective imagination of our species.

    Do you honestly believe that without Faraday we would have no electric motors or transformers, no mathematical understanding of the electromagnetic field without Maxwell, no steam engines without Stephenson, without Marie Curie we would know nothing of radium, we would have no radio without Marconi?
    Or that without Steve Jobs we would not have computers with GUIs and pointing devices and other gross features not too far removed fro the Apple Mac?

    This is expanded upon in my latest book “”The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” (free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website).

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  21. collins says:

    I’ve noticed the acute concern for full-time academicians over who is “smart” or not, and the preoccupation with the pecking order of “smartness” (the real issue). I guess it comes with the territory.
    In non-academic fields that are still results-oriented science (like clinical medicine or ?perhaps engineering and computer firms) no one cares who is “smart” if they are not getting this other thing done called “solving the problem.” And not a theoretical problem, a real one.

    I would say “smart” means developing and using your natural-born abilities to the best you can, whether you’re a bricklayer or a theoretical physicist or (Jobs) a businessman.

  22. floodmouse says:

    I would be more interested in the brainteaser about the monkey and the bananas if I got to EAT the bananas after I solved the problem 😉

  23. Jonathan Wai says:

    Was Steve Jobs Smart? Heck Yes!
    Steve Jobs was not “the 99 percent” intellectually or financially

    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/finding-the-next-einstein/201111/was-steve-jobs-smart-heck-yes

  24. B^2 says:

    Was it this brain teaser?

    Corey Camel’s Bananas

    Consider the case of Corey Camel – an enterprising, albeit eccentric owner of a small banana plantation in a remote desert oasis.

    Corey’s harvet, worth it’s weight in gold, consists of 3000 bananas. The market place where the stash can be cashed in is 1000 miles away. However, Corey must walk to the market, and can only carry up to 1000 bananas at a time. Furthermore, being a camel, Corey eats one banana during each and every mile she walks (so Corey can never walk anywhere without bananas). How many bananas can Corey get to the market?

    Yeah he must have not been that smart because most people talk about celebrity gossip, and the occasional ad hominem arguments based on hearsay.

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