School smart and real-world smart are, as we all know, not the same thing. It’s perfectly possible to ace every test in college and struggle in life after you graduate. So if academic grades aren’t enough to prove a person is smart, how do the world’s most successful people spot the truly, practically intelligent?
Jeff Bezos looks for the ability to change your mind frequently. Elon Musk is all about examining skills over credentials. Steve Jobs, however, took another approach.
The legendary Apple co-founder laid out how he defines real intelligence in a talk to the Academy of Achievement way back in 1982 (hat tip to Alan Trapulionis). According to Jobs, the key to being truly smart isn’t deep expertise in one field, but instead the ability to make unexpected connections between fields.
Breadth beats depth.
“A lot of [what it means to be smart] is the ability to zoom out, like you’re in a city and you could look at the whole thing from the 80th floor down at the city. And while other people are trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B reading these stupid little maps, you could just see it in front of you. You can see the whole thing,” Jobs says in the talk.
That’s a fascinating conception of smarts, but it raises an inevitable question: How do you develop the ability to get a bird’s eye view of a situation in this way? The answer, Jobs goes on to say, is to be an intellectual omnivore, exploring the world in unique and unexpected ways.
“You have to not have the same bag of experiences as everyone else does, or else you’re gonna make the same connections and you won’t be innovative. […] You might want to think about going to Paris and being a poet for a few years. Or you might want to go to a third-world country–I’d highly advise that. Falling in love with two people at once. Walt Disney took LSD,” he says.
While doomed love and psychedelics may not be your bag, the principle stands whatever your intellectual tastes. The point isn’t that any particular interest is exceptionally valuable, but that combining unrelated (and relatively rare) areas of expertise can give you a broader view of problems and unique insights into solving them. Jobs famously took inspiration for Apple’s typography from a college course on calligraphy he took, for instance.
Science agrees with Jobs.
If you think about it, this is a fairly common sense insight. You’re unlikely to bring fresh perspectives to your work if you have the same interests as everyone else around you. But many of us miss this truth in practice, fretting so much about building up our abilities in our primary area of expertise that we tell ourselves we have no time for “pointless” exploration or random detours.
Science agrees with Jobs that such single-mindedness can limit your intelligence and your creativity, however. Repeated studies show a close link between the personality trait psychologists call openness and truly great brains.
Back in the 1960s, when scientists stuck a bunch of geniuses in a house and observed them to try to figure out what qualities they all shared, they discovered that, from poets to entrepreneurs to scientists, every super achiever in the group was extremely open to new ideas and experiences. Another more recent study showed that not only is a high appetite for new ideas and experiences highly correlated with intelligence among the young, staying open to new ideas as you grow older helps fight mental decline.
Focus, as Steve Jobs himself knew, is essential when you’re trying to execute on a good idea you’ve already had. But don’t rush to put blinkers on your curiosity. If you want to be smart enough to come up with a good idea in the first place, it’s essential to cultivate intellectual openness and diverse interests.
It’s only by being initially distractible that you’ll end up something worth focusing on.