I'd have thought by now that most people would understand that you can grow your intelligence. But no, the notion is still a shock to the system. As one acquaintance put it succinctly: "That can't possibly be true. Everything I believe in tells me it isn't true. I don't believe it." He got riled up about it, but I suspect that's merely a bit stronger than what 99% of the adult population believes. In fact, check it out (or check yourself out). Most people believe that a person is born smart, average or dumb--and stays that way for life.
Research over the past ten years has shown beyond doubt that the brain is more like a muscle. It gets stronger, a lot stronger, when you learn. Use it or lose it.
David Brooks (NYTimes, 6/26/09) has a fascinating column on human nature today in which he summarizes the developmental issues, pushing back on over-zealous evolutionary psychology and innate beliefs. I quote the article:
The first problem is that far from being preprogrammed with a series of hardwired mental modules, as the E.P. types assert, our brains are fluid and plastic. We’re learning that evolution can be a more rapid process than we thought. It doesn’t take hundreds of thousands of years to produce genetic alterations.
Moreover, we’ve evolved to adapt to diverse environments. Different circumstances can selectively activate different genetic potentials. Individual behavior can vary wildly from one context to another. An arrogant bully on the playground may be meek in math class. People have kaleidoscopic thinking styles and use different cognitive strategies to solve the same sorts of problems.
Brooks emphasizes the role that social interaction and personal action plays in the development of our smarts:
But individuals aren’t formed before they enter society. Individuals are created by social interaction. Our identities are formed by the particular rhythms of maternal attunement, by the shared webs of ideas, symbols and actions that vibrate through us second by second. Shopping isn’t merely a way to broadcast permanent, inborn traits. For some people, it’s also an activity of trying things on in the never-ending process of creating and discovering who they are.
The real key to developing your smarts is practice. That's what babies do when they learn to talk, what astronauts do when they fly off into space, and what businesspeople do when they engage in continuous development--always building the toolkit.
So, the next time you see someone's who's really smart, he/she got there through learning and practice. And when you think or talk of someone as dumb, there's nothing really innate about his/her dumbness. It's just that the learning muscles haven't been engaged.
How are you going to get smarter?
To develop your intelligence, you're going to need to work at becoming a brain athlete, the same way a weightlifter or tennis player gets stronger. Practice . . . and coaching. Effort is not for dummies. As Carol Dweck, the eminent Stanford psychologist puts it, "Even geniuses have to work hard for their achievements." Talent is not born, it's grown.