What Even is Intelligence?

I’m sure by now that you have heard the concept of intelligence before. It appears everywhere in modern life. “He’s smart.” “That was genius!” “He must be an idiot.” “She’s pretty darn intelligent.” “I wish I was that smart.” etc… All of these words are grasping at a loose and not clearly defined thing. Before you read any further, I would encourage you to take a moment to pause and think of your own definition of intelligence, and make sure to write it down!

So, What is It?

So, you may have written down things like IQ, ability to think new ideas, ability to solve problems, clear and fast thinking, or much more. And all of these answers would be correct. Why? Well, intelligence isn’t really a concrete thing. It’s a bit more complicated.

The intelligence that makes a good mathematician is not the same intelligence that makes a good philosopher. The intelligence that makes a good lawyer is not the same intelligence that makes a good composer. For example, I’m sure people would consider both Mozart and Isaac Newton great geniuses, but I am also sure that most people would not think that either one of them could have switched places. They are both incredibly smart, but also both intelligent in their own way.

Okay, so what is intelligence then? Well, luckily for me, someone has already began to answer this for me. Howard Gardner, a developmental psychologist, has proposed nine different kinds of intelligence:

  1. Musical. This is the intelligence that deals with sensitivity to pitch, rhythm, and sound. A high musical intelligence would mean that you would be great at creating or playing music. Think Beethoven.
  2. Spatial. This intelligence deals with spatial visualization. This would be crucial for architecture. Think Frank Lloyd Wright.
  3. Verbal. The ability to easily master words and languages. Someone with high verbal intelligence would be good at writing. Think Virginia Woolf.
  4. Logical. The intelligence that centers around logic, numbers, and critical thinking. If you are a good logical thinker you would be a great mathematician or scientist. Think Albert Einstein.
  5. Kinesthetic. This is a mastery over your bodies movement and reflexes. Someone with high kinesthetic intelligence would be able to masterfully control their body movements. Think Odell Beckham Jr or for people outside America, Ronaldo.
  6. Interpersonal. People with high interpersonal intelligence have heightened sensitivity to other’s moods, emotions, and motivations. Someone with high personal intelligence would be good at relating to others and groupwork. Think Dale Carnegie.
  7. Intrapersonal. If you have high intrapersonal intelligence, you are skilled at understanding yourself and what makes you happy. Think Marcus Aurelius.
  8. Naturalistic. This is the ability to be able to look at an environment and understand how to use it to benefit your needs and desires. A skilled hunter or gatherer would have high naturalist intelligence. Think Sacagawea.
  9. Existential. This kind of intelligence deals with answering questions like “what is the purpose of life?” A philosopher or priest would generally be good with this kind of intelligence. Think Ghandi or Plato.

Now this website mainly focuses on the type of intelligence that deals with learning complex subjects, so for our purposes, we can ignore kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential intelligence.

Intelligence or Skills

Now, I do need to acknowledge the criticism of the theory of multiple intelligences. There is a fair amount of pushback against Gardner’s theory. The main critique is that these “intelligences” are actually describing skills or aptitudes. And that is a very fair criticism indeed. For anyone of these “intelligences,” you certainly develop them more as you practice them. Additionally, there is not test to measure your level at these intelligences. And if there was a test, it would have to show that higher levels of this intelligence would mean the person would be better at learning these subjects.

But, for our purposes, this does not matter. We are results oriented. Whether or not you call these fields “intelligences” or “skills,” it is clear they can be developed. And that is our goal.

A Useful Definition of Intelligence

So, now I am going to propose a new definition of intelligence. This definition is going to be all encompassing, and it is going to be purely practical (not from a psychological perspective).

Our new definition of intelligence is going to be: “the ability to solve difficult problems and understand difficult material.” You could even just shorten it to “the ability to solve difficult problems” because being able to solve difficult problems implies that you are able to understand the difficult material needed to solve those problems. However, I like the first definition more because it is very explicit. Now, I did not make this definition up on my own. This is a definition that I have heard Serge Faguet, an extreme biohacker, use before.  I think it is a perfect definition because of its practicality. Let’s break down this definition. There are two parts to it: understanding difficult material and solving difficult problems.

I’ll let you decide what qualifies as a difficult problem/material for you. If you’re a writer this could be creating the most creative and thought provoking passages. If you’re a scientist this could be knowing the latest research in your field. If you’re a chess player, this can be coming up with strategies to outthink your opponent. So, go ahead and decide how you want to define difficult problems/material. For me, this is going to be anything that can take me closer to living a more fulfilling life and laying the groundwork for changing the world through revolutionary technologies.

Now, difficult material for me would be things such as books and courses. So my goal is to try to optimize my learning for that material. Solving difficult problems for me is coming up with solutions to problems that plague the world such as food shortages and fresh water droughts. So now go ahead and decide what difficult material and difficult problems means to you.


Once you have that decided, it should be a lot clearer what you need to know and where you need to grow your “skills” or “intelligence.” So start thinking about these intelligences and where you need to improve.

In the future, I will write more blog posts on how to grow your intelligences in the areas of logic, music, spatial, and verbal. For these, I will give you specific techniques on what to do to increase your intelligence and learning capacity.

If you haven’t read my posts on the memory palace technique and Anki, go ahead and do that also because it is applicable and incredibly useful to any kind of intelligence.

Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions, comment below!

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