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Knowledge & IQ

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Insight over IQ

You know there's a bell curve of IQ points — the IQ spectrum that makes everyone question their intelligence.

In short, most of us are of average intelligence. Then there are people on the curve's extremes that are brilliant or dumb.

What you probably don't know is that as long as you're near average, having a higher IQ score doesn't actually make you "smarter" in the quality of your work output or social conversations.¹ 

All it does is increase the upper bound of your ability to learn and apply math. 

That's it.

And who cares about that unless you're a scientist? I know that sounds dismissive, but be honest with me here. What does it really matter to most people?

The implication is that the difference between you and the authors or CEO's you admire isn't due to IQ difference. Their success has nothing to do with math skills. 

So, if world-class authors and businesspeople like Malcolm Gladwell and Warren Buffet would not score significantly better than you on an IQ test, the question arises:

Am I biologically capable of becoming just as insightful as them?

Yes. 

What follows is my mental model for demonstrating that insight, not IQ, is what you are really after. Insight is a subset of IQ that is more easily achievable than people think. And ultimately more actionable in your work and conversations.

So long as you're not way below average IQ, you too can become very insightful. In other words, many people could become Malcolm Gladwell or Warren Buffet.

World-class performers have already figured all this stuff out. But I've never read an article on it. So here's my stab at it.

How to visualize knowledge

Please don't be intimidated by the graph below. It's only there for eye candy. 

By breaking knowledge into its components, we'll uncover how Nobel Laureates and other such geniuses are "smarter" than us.

Let's demystify knowledge through constructing a simplified mental model of it. This is how we're going to introduce the topic of What is critical thinking?

We'll start by representing how your brain manipulates knowledge using circles and lines. 

Consider how, for any topic, we know two things: its facts and how its facts interrelate. Accordingly, the blue circles below are facts and the blue lines are their relationships:

Let's use the topic of starting a startup. In this example, blue circles contain facts such as (1) founders must hire employees and (2) founders raise money from investors. 

The blue lines represent the one-to-one relationships between these units of knowledge. Specifically, when one changes, how do its closest neighbors change?

For example, if (1) founders hire great employees, it becomes easier to (2) raise funding.

It's with the green lines that things get interesting.

Whenever a blue circle receives input, a transcendent green line represents the domino effect that occurs beyond the immediately neighboring circles. The green lines are the multi-node relationships.

Green lines can go on indefinitely. The more of them you have and the longer they are, the more thorough your reasoning of a problem within that domain will be. Or, in everyday terms, the more insightful you are.

Why? Because green lines reflect your aptitude at leveraging relationships among units of knowledge. High aptitude means you can identify cause-and-effect and predict underlying trends

This makes your arguments stronger. It makes your business predictions wiser. It makes your scientific theories more robust. It gives you a seemingly higher IQ.

Let's consider the profound implications of such a simple model of knowledge.

The implications of the knowledge graph

Consider this: You need a critical mass of blue circles to become knowledgeable about a subject

But achieving critical mass requires neither deep understanding of the topic nor intelligence. It simply requires memorization. 

Think of a political junky who can recite the minutiae of every war fought today. Acquiring that knowledge didn't require intelligence — just passion and time.

Try asking that person to connect the dots: Have them explain why each war is still ongoing, how they're likely to end, and what they predict about future wars. There's a good chance their responses will be shallow. They'll just repeat pundits' talking points.

Because blue circles alone do not make someone brilliant on a subject. 

♖ Having a uniquely high amount of blue circles but no green lines at least leaves you with a competitive advantage. You benefit from an unequal distribution of knowledge. This is great for business. But it's useless for argumentation.

You see now how it's the green lines that actually make someone "smart."

In fact, when people have very few green lines, it's painfully obvious to you: These are the simpletons who remark "dunno — stumps me" about the most basic of things.

(Then, given their limited depth of knowledge, they may resort to reasoning through emotion instead of logic. Fun fact: This is how most people vote.)

On the other hand, if you pose complex questions to someone whose green lines are numerous, they'll answer you well — plus they may begin to reach the outer limits of the knowledge graph. When they do, they make new, profound discoveries.

That's my favorite part of this whole concept. And that's what I'm going to teach you about. The process behind your own brilliance.

Let's dive in further.

Extending your green lines

There are two ways to expand your circles and lines:

Before we learn mental models to turn you into a green line creator, let's finish considering the graph's profound implications. Let's demystify "intelligence."

A blue circle... is a blue circle... is a blue circle

Building a knowledge graph applies equally to every topic — from Romance literature to Pokémon.

The former is considered high culture and the latter is considered pop culture. But from the standpoint of knowledge acquisition, their only difference is that Romance literature is esoteric:

♖ Esoteric (adjective): "Knowledge intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with specialized prior knowledge or interest." 

Notice that esoteric doesn't mean hard to commit to memory. No. A blue circle is a blue circle. All blue circles are equally capable of being put to memory by anyone. (Remember, it's only the relational green lines that reflect one's intelligence.)

We commonly mistake people who have esoteric knowledge as necessarily intelligent. In reality, these people simply took the time to acquire blue circles we haven't.

Esoteric simply implies there are fewer approachable, introductory resources for the layperson to learn the topic. 

Now you may be wondering, If all topics are equally easy to learn, why can't anyone be a quantum physicist? It's because some topics, namely the physical sciences (e.g. physics, math, chemistry), are disproportionately dependant on green line knowledge

Now you can appreciate the difference between knowledge and intelligence: Knowledge is the collection of blue circles acquired through personal experience. Intelligence is the ability to apply that knowledge via green lines. And in order to advance in the physical sciences, you need to be able to navigate many long green lines at once

That's hard to do if you're stupid. Because navigating a web of green lines is feasible through elevated pattern recognition. And pattern recognition is a function of IQ. (We'll talk more about IQ soon.)

And some people really do have a much higher IQ than you.

But this distinction is only critical for a career in the physical sciences. For nearly everything else — for all your creative output in life (e.g. your businesses, writings, and conversations), your ability to reason and generate insights won't be suppressed by the limit of your IQ.

Instead, it'll be suppressed by your laziness when accruing green lines through the rigorous application of research.

Fortunately, there's a shortcut. 

Mental models help you skip the research and memorization. Not completely, of course. But enough to make you brilliant on any subject. Or, more importantly, brilliant across subjects so you can produce creative work that transcends boundaries and expectations.

When you're disciplined about employing mental models, you can dynamically assess unit knowledge relationships on the fly.

But before we cover models, let's finish squeezing insight out of the knowledge graph.

Building our graph

Let's talk about how we can expand our knowledge graphs. In real terms.

Consider how people who've performed extensive research on a topic will have many blue circles for it. Whereas the uninitiated have fewer.

Now, when someone shares a blue circle you lack, they're giving you unit knowledge

If they go a step further to explain how that blue circle relates to its neighbors, they're giving you relational knowledge. That's more useful than just the circles.

When someone remarks, "That's a great question!," they're commending you for asking a question that begs an answer in the form of relational knowledge.

Sharing green lines is where knowledge acquisition becomes trickier. With complex topics, concepts become broad and interconnected. Committing their green lines to memory is either unrealistic or highly inefficient. (That's where mental models come in.)

But what happens when you acquire all the knowledge already known on a topic? What happens when you reach the graph's edges?

That's where the magic happens.

The graph's edges

We discover new circles through experimentation and deduction

Consider this: A topic's unit knowledge (blue circles) can go on forever. We can have a nearly infinite amount of blue circles about the universe.

Now consider this:

Above is what happens when you bump against the edge of what humanity currently knows. You keep going to forge new relational knowledge to discover unseen circles — or to connect previously unconnected circles. Let's call these red circles and lines.

Whenever this happens, society advances:

Earlier, I called someone whose green lines are aplenty insightful. Because they can connect blue circles to see the bigger picture. They can easily identify the relevant pre-discovered units of knowledge all along a knowledge graph.

But what we do we call someone whose red circles are plentiful? Someone who expands the graph altogether?

We call them brilliant. Because they open our eyes to the world.

We reserve this label for people who articulate profound degrees of red

If you want to become one of those people, diagram your green lines so far out that you encounter where they end. (Mental models will help you do this.) Then research to expand them even further. 

Then when there's absolutely nothing else to learn, experiment. That's where you'll uncover red.

Another reason I write guides is to improve at experimenting: I want to see how efficiently and exhaustively I can learn about muscle hypertrophy or startup growth. Or, how quickly I can learn to play piano and teach it to others intimidated by instruments. My guides are the output of my childlike experimentation. Speaking of which, I have an entire guide on critical thinking.

Now for the final introductory topic before I dive into mental models.

Wait. So what makes someone intelligent?

So far I've claimed a lot of what we consider "smarts" is nearly universally learnable.

But let's consider what make someone objectively more intelligent, e.g. capable of navigating many long green lines in parallel.

There's long been controversy surrounding the definition of intelligence, and how different "types" of intelligence should be categorized.

For the purpose of analytical reasoning, here's the definition I find appropriate: 

♖ Intelligence (noun): The biological limit of your capacity to perceive and apply patterns. 

This capacity largely reveals itself in two ways: ideation and pattern recognition.

A measure of ideation is how quickly and exhaustively you can connect disparate concepts together to generate new ones. This is what makes someone creative in art, math, and everyday conversation. It's the ability to draw from what you know to infer things you don't, and to visualize the interrelationships.

And one measure of pattern recognition is how quickly and exhaustively you can connect disparate data to infer something about the larger data set containing them. This is what IQ tests are designed to assess: They present you with visual puzzles and prompt you to identify similarities among sequences.

(While the predictive significance of IQ tests has remained controversial, they have repeatedly been proven statistically reliable. IQ test results are meaningful. Source.)

If you're really good at both ideation and pattern recognition — and work hard — you'll position yourself to uncover red knowledge in the physical sciences, for which green lines are really freaking long.

Then if you achieve world-class pattern recognition and world-class ideation — and sprinkle in luck — you get Nobel Laureates and other such geniuses who derive profound insights.

Speaking of pattern recognition and IQ, let's conclude with some IQ trivia!

IQ trivia

Becoming smarter through mental models

Your IQ will never significantly increase.

But it doesn't have to. You can expand your knowledge graph. You can discover red. With diligence, you can achieve the creative and business success you admire about others. Even without the innate ability to process many long green lines in parallel.

So let's do it. Let's finally dive into mental models.

Continue to Mental Models →

(If you liked my original thoughts on how to sharpen your mind, subscribe below for more posts like this. Also check out my guide to arguing well.)

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Julian Shapiro

I try to write the best guide on every topic I'm interested in.
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