1 min read

Intelligence vs. Intellectual Work

A few months ago, I was browsing Hacker News and found this great visualization of a LLM. In the comments section, one person said, "I wish I was smart enough to know if it's accurate or not."

This reply struck me:

To know, you must perform intellectual work, not merely be smart. I bet you are smart enough.

For a long time, I thought that being smart was synonymous with grasping a subject immediately.[1]

But this is not the case. In fact, this belief limits many smart people. I never built good study habits because from elementary school through college, I could cram for tests and still get a good grade. It took me several tries to learn how to code, because when I didn't comprehend concepts instantly I would quit. Until a few years ago, I didn't consider myself a good writer because writing is hard for me.[2]

It is more helpful to view intelligence as the potential to understand. If you have enough raw brainpower, you will be able to understand a subject with work.

Think about intelligence like weightlifting. You may have the best genetics in the world for building fast-twitch muscle. But you still need to spend countless hours in the gym with a dedicated training program to get stronger. Someone with incredible genetics who has never touched a weight won't be able to lift a fraction of what someone with inferior genetics who has trained for years can.

This sort of athletic training is meant to be difficult. Similarly, intellectual training requires banging your head against the metaphorical wall for hours, days, or years at a time. Then, suddenly, something clicks.

Intelligence is just potential. Intellectual work allows you to fulfill that potential.

  1. Anecdotally, it seems those who study STEM subjects are disabused of this notion much earlier than those who study liberal arts. ↩︎

  2. Writing is hard for professional writers! Kurt Vonnegut: "When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth." ↩︎