The Modern Survival Guide #13
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. The topic covered here is a bit controversial, so before we get started please understand that I’m not trying to demean anyone here. But the simple fact is that some people are intelligent about some things, and some people are trained for some things, and it’s worth knowing the difference between the two.
In life, you will often meet new people and then almost immediately rely on them for something important. The classic example of this is when you (or your workplace) hire a new employee. This is a person who has already consumed a fair amount of resources to get through the hiring process, and who the business will rely on (potentially for years) to perform their new job. With all that in mind, it’s important to hire the right person.
A lot of the time, they suck.
In part this is often due to the hiring manager not being able to discern between a person’s intelligence and their training. These are two distinct representations of a person’s utility, but they are quite often confused for one another. This is because a trained person can mimic intelligence. In fact, that’s 90% of the point of training.
So which of these qualities is superior? The answer is almost always intelligence.¹
So what’s the difference? Well, let’s start with definitions — I’m using words in a very particular way for this article. Intelligence is the capability to synthesize and rationally assess your past experiences, education, and current events at high speed in order to arrive at the correct solution to a specific problem. It is important to realize that, precisely because of the experience and education requirements of this definition, no one is equally intelligent on every subject.²
Training, on the other hand, is a learned reaction to a particular set of circumstances. A person who is trained to respond to a particular situation, in essence, has been programmed with an intelligent reaction to that particular situation. Armies spend a lot of time on this, because in a fight you can’t necessarily pause for thought; you have to rely on instinct and intuition, which can be molded by training.
The important takeaway concept here lies in the difference in limitations between these two groups. People who are trained, but not intelligent, require guidance and direction (where guidance points you at a target and direction tells you how to get there). This is because they are reliant on training to arrive at conclusions, and if they wander outside the bounds of their training they will typically arrive at the wrong conclusion. This is usually because they apply whatever training they have to the new circumstance, whether or not it fits that circumstance. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
People who are intelligent, on the other hand, are less limited. They require guidance, but not necessarily direction. People who are intelligent will actively seek out new information to help them make decisions, and judge the efficacy of the consequences of those decisions to inform future decisions. They will still often arrive at the wrong conclusions the first few times, but will then get better.
The core difference is this: people who are intelligent can be trained, but are not bound by their training. The man who becomes racist because of his upbringing is trained; the man who shakes off his racist upbringing due to receiving better information is intelligent.
So, how do you spot the intelligent people in the crowd? Simple. Present them with a problem outside their training, and see how they react. If you’re interviewing a software developer, ask them how they would farm pumpkins. If you’re interviewing a pumpkin farmer, ask them how they would sell a skyscraper. If you’re interviewing a real estate mogul, ask them how they would stop illegal immigration. And so on. Check their answers to see if they are relying on past experience, or are actually thinking about the problem. Their actual answer doesn’t have to be right; that’s not what you’re looking for. You’re looking to see if they can get out of their box.
For example, if you asked an unintelligent real estate mogul how he would solve illegal immigration, and he answered “build a wall,” that is likely a result of his training. People build walls and fences around buildings to keep out undesirables; it’s not a perfect solution, but it works fairly well, mostly because you can’t (or shouldn’t) try to access a skyscraper in a boat, and it’s very difficult to overstay a visa in a building. But this answer doesn’t demonstrate that the person is actually thinking about the problem; it just indicates that they’re picking up something that worked for them in the past and blindly applying it to a new situation.
An intelligent pumpkin farmer, on the other hand, might consider the problem and say that they would seek to understand the issue, contact experts on the subject to form an advisory council, and maybe say something about the fact that people seem to come here for agricultural work and maybe that has something to do with the problem. So maybe raise wages to attract Americans to agricultural jobs? This answer may not be correct, but it draws on their past experience in agriculture (seasonal workers are a major pool of illegal immigrants), shows that they are intelligent enough to know what they don’t know, and indicates that they would actively seek to rectify their ignorance.
Intelligence requires introspection. Training requires repetition. Schools exist to train; universities exist to foster intelligence. Jobs require training. Innovations require intelligence. Training produces predictability. Intelligence is often disruptive.
The fun part is, you can train a person to recognize intelligence. But you can’t train a person to be intelligent.³ So keep an eye out for the intelligent people in your life, if only so you can keep an eye on them.⁴
¹There is a BIG exception to this rule, and that is when you need a robot but can’t get one because either (a) they’re too expensive or (b) they aren’t quite advanced enough yet. A lot of factory and agricultural jobs fit this bill. Also telemarketers and most of the positions in most armies. For these jobs, training is entirely sufficient.
²Which isn’t to say that a person isn’t smart. A smart person is someone with the capability to rapidly acquire the necessary education and integrate the required experience to become intelligent. “Smart” in this sense is a measurement of your capacity to learn. “Intelligence” is a measurement of your ability to correctly respond to a problem. Smart people may not be intelligent about particular issues. People tend to mix up these concepts.
This is why it isn’t necessarily a good idea to ask a particle physicist for relationship advice — they’re probably very smart, but if all you know about them is “physicist” then you don’t know if they’re intelligent about relationships. They’re almost certainly intelligent about electron interactions, though.
³At this point you may be wondering whether you, yourself, are intelligent. This is the wrong question. Intelligence is topic-specific. There are probably topics on which you are very intelligent, and some where you are very much not. But if you asked the question, you’re probably at least smart. If your default answer was “yes,” well…
⁴The trouble with intelligence is that is has a distressing tendency to want to change things. This may or may not be advisable — remember the bit where intelligent people are also entirely capable of getting things wrong in the first few iterations of a particular problem-solving exercise.