When I was little, I wanted to grow up to be an intelligent woman. Intelligence was part of an ideal even before I really knew how to define it. It wasn’t that I wanted to be the smartest kid in class (that was my sister). I was so non-competitive with my intelligence that it never even occurred to me to shoot for becoming a Valedictorian. Unbelievably, I only went to an Ivy League school because my math teacher urged me to apply, in junior year of high school. (Ha, not letting that sort of laissez-faire happen with *my* future kids!)
So my idea of intelligence clearly didn’t have much to do with the Ivory Tower or racking up advanced degrees. (And most people, I realize, would agree with that.) I also wasn’t possessive or curatorial about knowledge. Some people, I realized, have a tremendous appetite for learning and digesting information or owning a skill from tip to tip. Others have a virtuosic intelligence–what might be called genius. The other week at a conference, I watched 24-year-old Magnus Carlsen, chess grand master since age 13 and current #1, play blindfolded, timed matches against 3 opponents simultaneously, and win. It’s as crazy and thrilling to watch as it sounds. But while I’m sufficiently smart, I’m obviously not that. And I don’t think one of those puzzles or “brain-fitness” apps make you more intelligent.
My idea of intelligence though, was never just about accumulation of knowledge, skills, or test scores, but about a certain manner of being. I think intelligence is most of all, being conscious of thinking and intentionally using those thoughts in your life. I think Camus said it best: “An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.” It’s not that we all need to be genius coders, grand masters, art connoisseurs, or Ph.D.s in order to be intelligent. Being intelligent is what allows us to live meaningfully, no matter what our education, skills, or interests.
Try to give your intellect as much food as possible. – Leo Tolstoy
Here are some ways you can live more intelligently.
1. Read more books.
Always be reading something, even if you’re busy and it’s going slowly. Read on the subway, during lunch, or before bed (my favorite). Read at the cafe with a latte or a glass of wine, or take it to the park. Read lying down on the grass.
Mix up your reading list: classics, recent fiction, history, biography–just make sure it’s still something that will feed and challenge you. Include poetry even if you’re not a “poetry-person”–you might discover something, as long as you go slowly. If something catches your eye, jot it down (or dog-ear it, I’m not picky), and close the book for a few seconds and breathe in what you just read. Fill yourself with whatever thoughts or feelings.
Talk to someone about what you read, even if they haven’t read it. Make a habit of lending and borrowing good books. Life is richer this way.
2. Be aware of current events.
Read the papers and watch the news every day, making sure that the sources are solid, intelligent authorities (and not just fluffy or extreme news designed to titillate). (Granted, it’s a fine line…Just be judicious). In addition, have a weekly source of more cultural and in-depth journalism like The New Yorker or The Atlantic. Be the kind of person who can hold down a lively conversation on any topic at a dinner party, though that’s just a nice bonus to staying informed and conscious of the world around you.
3. Experience art.
Go to museums, performances, the theater, exhibits. Be open-minded and genuine about your experience with art. Bring a friend with you or go alone. Think about why something moved you, what it made you feel. Make a connection with art that moves you, and that will live in you and guide you for the rest of your life like a friend.
4. Travel more.
Traveling, like other things on this list, stretches the boundaries of your mind. And likewise, it’s an experience through which you simultaneously learn more about the world and about your self. Go to some place you’ve never gone before. Pinning beautiful photos on your board does not compare to the exhilaration that comes from actually being there (I would know). When you’re there, think about what moves you about being in this place. Notice things and jot them down.
5. Stay curious.
Find what speaks to you and learn about it, whether it’s a new language, Thai cuisine, or what have you. It can be anything at all as long as it sparks a curiosity in you. These genuine curiosities are hardly ever random–they may be another world within your life that should be explored.
6. Practice good manners.
This one isn’t here because practicing good manners leads you to becoming more intelligent, per se, but because every truly intelligent person I’ve known has always had an acute sense of manners. On the other hand, I’d known evidently smart people who, due to not practicing good manners (or doing it in an inauthentic way), struck me as not truly intelligent.
Having manners isn’t just about being impeccable and refined (though that helps)–because sometimes people do those things to make themselves feel better. To truly be well-mannered means being mindful of the dignity of both yourself and others.
All that is to say: Practice good letter-writing (that includes email); dress to the occasion; be conversational; apologize or express gratitude meaningfully; know when to be discrete or open and honest…You get the idea.
7. But by all means, speak your mind.
Years ago, when I brought my college boyfriend home, my mom graded him highly for his intelligence. I asked her what she based that on, and she said it was that he knew how to properly explain what he is learning and doing in his internship. I was like, ugh that’s it?! But her simple criterion does make sense. Intelligence shows when you can confidently talk about who you are, what you think, what you want, why and how you do it. People who are able to communicate clearly and honestly (all while following #6) are always very intelligent.
What feeds your intelligence? Please share!
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Photo: Eddy Pula via Flickr