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How can I become more intelligent?
September 7, 2010 6:34 PM   Subscribe

How can I become more intelligent?

I am a 30yo female, journalist, quite successful in my field in a foreign country and writing a foreign language and am about to publish my second book. But I am extremely insecure about how my intelligence.

I am in a very happy relationship with a man that is about 10 years older than me, for about two years. He is an extremely intelligent person, who is able to talk about pretty much anything: he is an economics and technology expert, can write code, plays the drums, likes opera (as well as punk rock) and has a pretty much varied range of interests. He is also very, very good at networking and can make anyone laugh or be interested in what he has to say.

By comparison, I did not have a lot of stimuli from my family (my parents divorced when I was seven and the whole process was v traumatic, therefore I wasn't the brightest in class...) when it comes to learning things (I can't even swim, or play an instrument for example or have any distinctive skills) and the environment where I grew up was very restrictive in terms of cultural activities. When I was a teenager, my friends' only aspiration was to go to clubs, take drugs, then get pregnant and have several kids by the time they were 20.

It took a lot of my own effort to get to the position I am now, but I must confess I felt like walking blindfolded in a dark corridor in many occasions. I could have made better and more informed choices in the past which would have probably resulted in a more rounded character and intellect, but unfortunately I didn't have a lot of guidance. I should probably add that I also have a really short attention span.

Now, as I become more senior and move into a more complex and challenging stage of my career, I sometimes feel I get 'stuck', intellectually speaking, especially when I am interviewing or talking to extremely intelligent people. I don't feel like that as much with my partner and he makes me smile, explains things and shares his insights when I get it wrong/ don't know much about a particular subject. But with most clever people, it is as if my brain was a basic Golf struggling up a mountainous terrain, when the car I need is a Land Rover.

Having said all of that, I am looking for ways to improve my intelligence. I know that as I get older, I will forget things more easily and will take longer to learn, but I am keen to try - reading, courses, exercise....? I know this may sound daft but I am struggling a bit.

Any ideas of how to do that would be much appreciated. Many thanks!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (44 answers total) 111 users marked this as a favorite
 
It sounds like what you're talking about isn't "intelligence" but "cultural capital". When the term was first coined it was used primarily to refer to the kind of knowledge held by the upper class. So to be stereotypically over the top, appreciations for classical music, polo-playing ability, knowledge of fine art, etc. This stuff isn't useful in itself necessarily, but serves as a signal that a person is "one of us" (where "us" is the upper class). Bourdieu, who coined the term argued that this sort of stuff had to be learned as a small child and if you tried to learn it later you would never quite get it right.

Anyway, it turns out that while cultural capital (the kind of knowledge that marks you as the kind of person who gets ahead) may have at one time and in at least one place (France) been about particular kinds of knowledge, it now turns out that what distinguishes the upper class from the working class now isn't having particular kinds of knowledge necessarily, but having very diverse knowlege: so it's not about knowing a lot about classicaly music, but knowing a little about lots of different kinds of music, from hip hop to classical, to jazz, to nepalese folk music. You don't need to know a whole lot: just enough to know it exists so you have some sense of what's out there and what you know and don't know. Enough to hold a conversation with someone who knows and be able to ask intelligent questions and respond intelligently.

The reason this (called cultural omnivorism) is so important and useful is that it allows you to talk to a lot of different people (as you note with your partner). HOwever, its cyclical: talking to diverse people builds cultural capital! So the way to do this is to meet lots of different people (ideally people who don't know each other) talk to them about stuff they know about.

Oh and knowing diverse people and havign diverse ideas is also good for innovative problem solving. So that solves another aspect of your question too.

I've just had some guests arrive or I would provide some citations on this stuff. It is a research-based answer, but I should tend to my guests so maybe I'll come back and post citations later.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:49 PM on September 7, 2010 [89 favorites]


I'd go about this by learning multiple mental skills. Don't try to learn endless facts if they don't inherently interest you; that's silly, and not really a mark of intelligence at all.

What I mean by skills are maths, musical composition/analysis/performance, logic puzzles, reading comprehension, languages, designing stuff, etc. Stuff you do with your mind, not just stuff to fill your memory.

It also helps to learn lots of skills that aren't considered mental or intellectual, because all skills can be treated rigorously. Learn to weld, sew, cook, backpack, sail, shoot, etc. The point here is to do activities that do not consist merely of consuming media. And really fucking think about them. If you're going to bicycle, for instance, think about how the bike works, how you'd take it apart, how the tires grip the road, what different tire pressures do to the ride, how adjusting the seat's height affects your fatigue, and so on.

The number one thing that has helped me acquire the traits that others recognize as "intelligence" has been to do as much as I have time to myself. I built a cellphone, for instance; and I had no clue whatsoever about electrical engineering--I just had google and a copy of the Art of Electronics. My phone sucked horribly compared to every other phone I've ever owned, but I made it. And I learned a lot in the process.
posted by Netzapper at 6:56 PM on September 7, 2010 [8 favorites]


Read, read, read. I am a voracious reader: fiction, non-fiction, magazines, online articles, newspapers; you name it, I'll read it. I have been able to carry a conversation with people of all careers, interests, and abilities because I simply read.

I also really like If only I had a penguin...'s theory of cultural omnivorism. There's definitely something to that.
posted by cooker girl at 6:56 PM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


Pick up a hobby. It is never too late to learn a new skill, as long as you're still alive and stuff. The saying about old dogs and new tricks is baloney. Check out the Adult Ed courses at your local community college or community centre or whatever.

Read some non-fiction, watch some documentaries, etc. Information: Seek it out, soak it up. Think about everything.

Forget about "I'm good at this" and "I suck at that," and try to give more weight to what you enjoy doing, regardless of skill level. Everyone sucks at everything the first time.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:57 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Go to the opera with your opera-loving boyfriend. Ask him lots of questions. Talk to interesting people you meet with "cultural" interests and ask them lots of questions. When they say, "You MUST listen to Dvorak's 9th Symphony!" get them to write it down for you and follow up.

I had enormously supportive parents who exposed me to oodles of cultural experiences. I still constantly run up against things I don't know about, and of course they exposed me to a limited range of things -- there's only so much time in the world (and in child rearing). Entirely on my own I developed a taste for modern art (from yearly school field trips to the art museum as a child and then I went to the Tate in London in college while studying abroad and I went, "Holy shit, I UNDERSTAND this stuff and I LIKE it!"). I didn't know I liked ballet until I was 20 and found myself entranced. (Can't dance. Don't know anything about it. But adore watching it.) I have recently been developing a taste for 19th-century poetry, which I used to think was lame.

I constantly meet people who know metric asstons about some cultural thing I feel like I ought to know about, but don't -- so I ask them to tell me about it. People LOVE sharing their passions and teaching others about them. You can say nothing, you can say, "This is something I was just never exposed to before" and let people think you were of course exposed to many other awesome things, or you can say, "I didn't have a lot of cultural exposure growing up, so I'm making up for lost time!" People are mostly so excited to share their passions that they don't really care WHY you're asking.

And take a swim class. It's good to know what to do in case you fall off a boat or something.

PS -- most people aren't sitting rapt at the symphony or the ballet or the opera or whatever ... most people are leaning back and letting it wash over them. I think sometimes people are intimidated because they feel they must PAY ATTENTION. Just lean back and enjoy it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:01 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


The thing I notice about 'inteligent' people is curiosity, so ask questions.

This is along the lines of being a good conversationalist. It's about listening, absorbing, and synthesizing.

Practice seeing connections that are not obvious. Ask yourself actively, what does that have to do with this?

Third, use numbered lists.

Ok, that was kind of a joke. And it plays up my real third point - be aware of context specific humor.

Fourth, a pinch of geography knowledge can help you mix in your synthesizing. (take a look at historical Poland on a few maps. Look for natural borders, boundaries. Mountains? Rivers? Ocean? Check out the history of invasion in that region. Think there might be any connection to the ubiquitous jokes about Poles? Maybe, maybe not, it's a theory presented by one anthropology prof I had, but it stuck with me that geography shapes history, and patterns shape cultural interactions.) Geography can help you know where north is from where you stand, where a given time zone is, why certain foods are more common in the north rather than the south of Italy, or why polar bears can't eat penguins.

I know you'd look it up, but the answer is, they live antipodally.
posted by bilabial at 7:04 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also: podcasts! There are lots of really interesting podcasts out there that will educate you about anything at all. I listen to Big Ideas all the time, and I find it very broadening. It's the podcast of a tv show "devoted to the art of the lecture and the importance of ideas in public life." The great thing about Big Ideas is that the lectures aren't about any one thing; it's about lectures, so you get stuff on all kinds of topics.

My favourite high brow/intellectually-minded show on the CBC might also be of interest: it's called Ideas, and similarly covers all kinds of topics. It's much more produced than Big Ideas is. I've learned a lot from it.

Another favourite is WNYC's Radiolab, which turned a humanities chick like me into someone deeply interested in science. It's probably the best radio program in existence.

I like these programs because it's not up to me to know what to look for, the deliver me tidbits of all kinds of things to sink my teeth into. This way I'm not guided only by what I imagine might be interesting to me. I let them introduce me to whole worlds of knowledge I didn't know about.

But if you want to be more self-directed, you can pick out some lecturers on iTunes U and learn that way. Frankly I think public lectures are more interesting; they're a one-off, and they aren't based on the presumption that you've read a particular text.

Have fun!
posted by Hildegarde at 7:08 PM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


Two more things!

Practice saying, 'that's interesting,' with true interest.

And practice admitting that you have no idea why something happened/how something worked/who a historical figure is.

An unwillingness (or more charitably, inability) to admit ignorance is something that makes me think someone is not going to be a fun/pleasant/well informed conversation partner.

If my bullshit detector goes off, I find myself having a harder than normal time concentrating on the conversation.
posted by bilabial at 7:13 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you would benefit from broadening your experiences and exposures. Then it's not like you're memorizing information for you to forget later, but memories and experience that you can apply - understanding of a wider range of perspectives people have on the same things, etc.

But there are only 24 hours in the day, so you'll have to give up something. The natural first candidate for that is the hours spent watching television. On the one hand, this will unfortunately give you less in common with people who want to discuss the latest shows, but my experience is that absence of TV is pretty unremarkable among the smart people I know, so that frees up some time for some new experiences.

No doubt you're already doing a bunch of the following things, but some random suggestions:

- Do you make or fix things? Start. There is no shortage of information online, and if you screw up, well, no matter - it was already broken. Try again with something else. You will learn a wealth about how things work without even realizing it. Probably save some money too, and gain some independence.
- If you play video games, stop. If you don't, start. Not for life, not for long, just try some different types until you find a few ones you like, play them until the thrill is gone, then move on to some other activity. Think about the meta as well as the experience. Keep to these themes - do new stuff just long enough to get reasonably proficient, then move on to new things - taking your newly acquired knowledge with you, perhaps to apply to new things in new combinations.
- Presumably as a journalist you already read a lot. Perhaps radically change the kind of things you read.
- Presumably as a journalist you already filter and gather the insights of others, and connect the dots in a way that others can follow. Can those skills start to move into your thoughts and conversation?
- Hiring a pro for something? (getting car alignment done, etc) Instead of getting coffee while it's done, tell them you're curious about the whole whole process - can you watch and learn? (Obviously, many people will not like this idea, so be ready to take no for an answer)
- What's a hobby or pursuit you'd like to be able to do, or you respect those who can do it, but it's too intimidating for you or you don't think you could do it? If you look into it seriously, you'll likely find that you're not the first who was interested but out of their depth, and people have blazed a trail for you that is surprisingly accessible. The internet has resulted in huge changes to hobbies in this direction. Things that were crazy out of reach only ten years ago are crazy easy to get started now.

As you move from one thing to the next, you bring an ever increasing repertoire of skill and insight from the previous endeavors, until you can take things in new directions because you're the only person doing X who has also done Y, so nobody doing X or Y knows that a common practice in Y can be used to solve a problem in X. Cross the streams.

Learning + doing = fun :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 7:17 PM on September 7, 2010


Would it help you to export your intelligence about your foreign land to a third place that is neither home nor adopted home? Perhaps apply to be a cultural ambassador.
posted by parmanparman at 7:17 PM on September 7, 2010


my brain was a basic Golf struggling up a mountainous terrain, when the car I need is a Land Rover.

Have you ever watched the movie 'The Queen' with Helen Mirren? Well, she drove a Land Rover, and it just broke down on her, and she was the Queen of England! A Land Rover can just be an expensive, inefficient vehicle.


Sorry, it sounds like you do not really need to be more intelligent, but perhaps a bit more self-confidence might help.

"Intelligence" is difficult to quantify, probably over-rated, and there are other human qualities which are much more useful in life.
posted by ovvl at 7:20 PM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


Also make you aren't being intimidated by people who are just pros at seeming smart.
posted by norabarnacl3 at 7:25 PM on September 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


I am at Penguin's dinner party and can provide independent verification of the fact that she has guests over. The rest of her comment remains, for the time being, uncited.

Also, Penguin, jb and I talked it over and decided that you might have a case of imposter syndrome.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:37 PM on September 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


To start with, I think it requires a fair bit of intelligence to be a reporter working in a foreign country and fluent in a foreign language. To add to that, you already have one book published, which many 'intelligent' people wouldn't achieve even if they tried, so you're actually much further ahead than you think.

Penguin's post pretty much seals the deal on what you need to do now: read books, watch movies, listen to music, maybe even play games if you fall on the "games are art" crowd. That will build your cultural capital. But I'm guessing you want more than that, and to reach a level of technological expertise or a physical skill?

Then start working. It isn't awfully hard to learn a physical skill in this day and age; ranging from the ebook-and-google method to joining a course outright. So long as you have the time, patience and interest, you should be able to pick up something interesting such as writing code.

But I think most importantly, you should use your foreign language to your advantage. I'm sure that with your language, you can read books and texts that haven't been translated yet. You can use that as a headstart.
posted by Senza Volto at 7:54 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Read more.

Watch less TV. Especially cable news.

Listen to more good music.
posted by chicago2penn at 7:57 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


It sounds like what you're talking about isn't "intelligence" but "cultural capital".

I read wikipedia's front page every night and follow the links to whatever strikes my fancy. I love it and it keeps me up with all sorts of things.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:57 PM on September 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


Start playing bass.
posted by rhizome at 8:01 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


There was this study that found that the part of the brain responsible for navigation grew in taxi cab drivers. Basically if you do something over and over again your may actually grow to accommodate which I think is pretty cool. Here's a podcast where they talk about it.
posted by bananafish at 8:06 PM on September 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Go deep.

By which I mean don't just read a book about World War I. Of course, I don't really mean you shouldn't read a history book. If that's fun for you, do it. But, if you're like most people, you won't retain a lot of it. A year later, you may remember one or two things, but that will be it.

We learn best by doing. Reading isn't a passive activity, but it doesn't involve enough of the senses to really stick in your craw. And it's too repetitive: just one damn word after another. I say that with no disrespect to books. Reading is one of the greatest loves of my life. But as a reader and a teacher, I don't think it's the best way to learn -- not by itself.

If I wanted to learn about World War I, I would read a couple of books about it AND take a walking tour around some of the battle sites. Or, if I couldn't afford that, I would do a little historical role-playing, e.g. I'd make a care package for some of the soldiers in the trenches, researching what people actually sent them and then finding or making those things. Or I'd research the rationing techniques people used back home and try some of them, cooking lovely dishes like "Eggless, Milkless, Butterles Cake"

Or try reading a Shakespeare play, looking up every word you don't understand and annotating your copy, writing the definitions in the margins. Then invite some friends over and read the play.

If you must be passive, try being passive in several different ways. In other words, don't just read a book about Abraham Lincoln; read two books (as different as possible, e.g. a childrens' book and a serious work of scholarship), listen to an audiobook, read a graphic novel and watch a movie. (Note: we're social creatures. If you feel like three or four different people -- authors, actors, etc. -- are all telling you the same thing, or slightly different versions of the same thing, you're more likely to remember it. Your brain will latch onto it as important social information.)

You don't have to spend years and years on each subject. Just make the most of the time you DO spend. DEPTH and SENSUALITY are the keys. (We are sensual creatures as-well-as social creatures.)

By the way, you're an excellent writer and clearly a highly intelligent person. I agree with others that what you seem to be looking for is more knowledge -- more facts at your fingertips -- which is fine. But don't confuse that with general reasoning ability. No one who writes as well as you is lacking that.
posted by grumblebee at 8:17 PM on September 7, 2010 [10 favorites]


Some people like Grumblebee learn the most by going in-depth. That's great, and if it works for you, wonderful. I couldn't do it. If you told me to learn about Abraham Lincoln by reading 2 books and watching a movie, I'd remain blissfully ignorant. If I actually tried it out, I'd dislike it so much that I wouldn't retain much. If something you're doing feels like a chore, maybe you should move on and try something else that you'll enjoy and do again. Not that you should try just once and leave, but if something feels like a chore you won't do it. I don't expect myself to finish more than 4 books per year because I read in small bursts. Instead, some people (me) learn by gathering moderate amounts of information about various topics. When something is interesting, I dig in, but I also accept that I have limited time and can learn some things at a high level and leave it at that.

Learn to love wikipedia. Especially with a short attention span, you can click links all day and jump from micro-hit of info to micro-hit of info - that's what I like. What makes it pleasurable is having no expectations to remember any of it (so it's not like studying), just read and forget whatever your mind decides to let go. You may memorize the article on cognitive dissonance after one read, but forget everything about Nietzsche after several reading. So go to Wikipedia. When you find an interesting phrase but don't understand a hyperlinked term, open that in a new window. That lets you digest the info in any order you like, and the new page can enhance your understanding of the old page - and lead you in new directions.

If you have some downtime, especially when travelling, scan the magazines. If Time, Newsweek, or the Economist has an interesting cover, pick it up. It would feel like work if I had a subscription, so I digest them when they pique my curiosity.

Get curious about how things work. Open your computer, find a web page on building computers, and identify your processor, RAM, hard disk, and motherboard. When your friend modifies his truck's engine, ask him to pop the hood and show you what he did. Pull the top off a toilet and see how the tank functions when you flush.

Ask people what they do and what's big in their field - you're probably and excellent question-asker already. I received an excellent explanation about patient direct access to physical therapists from a guy I had to spend time with, and who I thought had nothing interesting to say. If you ask more questions and deeper questions, not only will people like you more (but you probably know that :) ) but you'll get rapid insights that you can't get from studying.
posted by Tehhund at 8:25 PM on September 7, 2010 [6 favorites]


Some people like Grumblebee learn the most by going in-depth. That's great, and if it works for you, wonderful. I couldn't do it. If you told me to learn about Abraham Lincoln by reading 2 books and watching a movie, I'd remain blissfully ignorant. If I actually tried it out, I'd dislike it so much that I wouldn't retain much. If something you're doing feels like a chore, maybe you should move on and try something else that you'll enjoy and do again.

Grumblebee strongly agrees with the bold part.
posted by grumblebee at 8:29 PM on September 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Following on Ironmouth's suggestion. My girlfriend, an extremely intelligent and well-educated woman, complains about this all the time. I think the biggest difference between she and I is that I put in the time to tease out all the background information regarding some event or factoid. I have a terrible memory, and forget 90% of what I learn but enough of it sticks to make me sound like I know stuff.

So, for example, if someone sends me a link to an online story, I read the fuck out of it and follow all the links. My woman is extremely busy and stressed and usually doesn't feel like she has time to do the same -- in fact, she resents the fact that I devote so much time to random exploration. But that's what you have to do. Be curious and dig dig dig.

Wikipedia is fabulous for that.
posted by klanawa at 8:54 PM on September 7, 2010


Unfortunately it is to a large extent genetic. Luckily, one's success in life is only loosely correlated with it.

IMHO: your best strategy is to accept this fact and concentrate on those aptitudes in which you excel naturally. Also, consider that intelligence isn't really as good and useful as wisdom -- a lot of otherwise intelligent people don't realize this. Hence, read history -- and the classics.
posted by renovatio1 at 9:11 PM on September 7, 2010


I don't know how to become more intelligent. I suspect it's just that you want to become more learned. In Australia we have the government radio stations(ABC)... probably like NPR... and they have all sort of interesting and informative and learned folks on there all the time. I listen to these radio stations every waking hour at home and in the car.

People think I'm very intelligent/learned. They'd be knobs, though. I'm faking it. I regurgitate a lot of what I hear on the ABC and also have a big think about the stuff they say and decide if I agree.

What I love about the ABC is that I can do all sorts of other stuff while listening... and instead of red-neck bogans ranting religious, intolerant shite... it's usually considered and intelligent interviews in addition to informed callers commenting and inquiring. I love it. And it makes me look REALLY good. You should give it a go. But obviously, find the right radio station. I don't know where you are but someone here might be able to recommend a good radio station.

And you know what... lots of folk, over the years, have referred to me as extremely intelligent. I don't consider myself to be something special, but I accept that that is how some people perceive me. Anyway, as an alleged member of the intelligentsia, I can assure you that I am frequently daunted and rendered mute by extremely bright people. Mostly it's awe. Like wanting to enjoy a beautiful painting. A brilliant mind is delightful to just sit back and watch cogitate. I get so hung up on how hot it is, I just can't spark off it and make it sing to me. It's not just you. I promise.
posted by taff at 9:59 PM on September 7, 2010


If you weren't on your boyfriend's level, he would not be with you. Cultural capital is exactly what If only I had a penguin hit upon lovely. For example, people think I know all sorts of music because I sing a little bit of the chorus or a line from a rare old song and they're amazed. It's not because I know the whole entire song per say but, through my years of studying ONE artist, I learned about other artists who collaborated with this idol of mine. So it's helped me gain knowledge of my music history. Doesn't make me more intelligent than, say the average, casual listener of music. Just more knowledgeable. There's a difference. Also, I would like to say that "cultural capital" has kept poor blacks and Latinos on the D list and are left to assume they are unintelligent when actually most are very smart! It's just that certain tests have to do more about cultural aspects that aren't familiar in our world. So, it's not a fair assessment of intelligence. If you want to be more knowledgeable of something in particular... be the curious cat and find more information on what INTERESTS YOU, then it will branch into other areas and thus you collect your capital.

Now, if you want to sharpen your mental abilities then I would suggest playing games on lumosity.com Yea, I'm serious. They really help sharpen your skills in critical thinking.
posted by InterestedInKnowing at 10:17 PM on September 7, 2010


Some substances such as Piracetam and the other members of the Racetam family have been shown to improve cognitive ability while having almost no side effects.

wish I wasn't allergic to em...
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 10:55 PM on September 7, 2010


Yes, aerobic exercise:

One pivotal study published in 2007 showed that a 12-week aerobic exercise program increased blood flow to the brains of adults ages 21 to 45, and likely — based on similar studies in mice — promoted the growth of new nerve cells in the hippocampus, a region of the brain that’s important for memory and cognitive aging.

posted by mnemonic at 10:55 PM on September 7, 2010


You've written two books, you're a journalist AND you're a journalist writing in a foreign language? It sounds like you're doing pretty damn well on the intelligence stakes. I have two comments for you:

1) Nearly every intelligent woman I know (and quite a number of intelligent men) exhibit signs of "imposter syndrome". I'm talking about my brilliant friend who was headhunted by a MAJOR global publishing house. I'm talking about my other super-smart friend who has done the most amazing research on soil sediments. Both of them say quite honestly that they wish they were smarter - but these two ladies are incredibly sharp and intelligent. The thing is - if you want me to get all philosophical - is that smart people have a much better idea of the things they DON'T know, than of the things they do (just think of Socrates - via Plato - and his statement: all that I know is that I know nothing). It is easy to know facts, but very difficult to identify the gaps in your knowledge. The thing is that once you identify those gaps, you become a little less excited about what you know and more interested in answering those gaps, so you focus on them. Result: the feeling that one is really quite dull, when the reverse is true.

2) It is wonderful that you have a lovely man in your life and that you're both so happy! It is always good to remember though that he is 10 years older than you. That means he has 10 (adult) years on you in terms of books read, life experiences acquired, thoughts pondered etc etc. You're not going to know as much as he does on some things because he has been an adult for approximately 20 years, whilst you've only been there for 10! Also, you love him, so of course you're going to think he is amazing :)

To me, you sound typical of a certain demographic: the intelligent high-achieving woman. There are a lot of you out there! Maybe it would be more helpful for you to work on your confidence? Go give a speech to a school group? Take a class in burlesque dancing? Start singing or playing an instrument? These accomplishments (which incidentally, are NOTHING on getting a book published) could help you move to a different way of thinking and of appreciating that you clearly are not stupid.
posted by Alice Russel-Wallace at 12:17 AM on September 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Give up the TV and get a subscription to Wall Street Journal or New York Times or both (electronic version is fine). Then just read more. You would be DRAMATICALLY surprised how much more free time you get just by not watching TV.
posted by An algorithmic dog at 12:21 AM on September 8, 2010


Now, as I become more senior and move into a more complex and challenging stage of my career, I sometimes feel I get 'stuck', intellectually speaking, especially when I am interviewing or talking to extremely intelligent people.

If you're interviewing people, then presumably you are talking to them because they have some expertise in whatever you're talking about, yes? If so, then what you're experiencing is simply the discomfort of being on someone else's intellectual home turf, so to speak. The onus is largely on the person you're speaking with to explain things in a way that makes sense to you, so when you feel like you're struggling, it's less about you and more about them.

People who can explain complicated stuff in a simple way are hard to find (it sounds like your SO is one of them), so it might help to make a note of people who make you feel smart when you talk to them. Try to spend more time talking with these people, and less time talking with people who (through no fault of their own) are just not great at explaining stuff.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:22 AM on September 8, 2010


I feel this way too. It feels like lack of intelligence, but I think it's more of a social thing: I often find myself in groups where I don't have much knowledge of whatever anyone's talking about. As you grow older and advance more in your education and career, you hang out in more rarified circles, and you are more likely to meet smart, sophisticated, ambitious people.

Nthing listening to podcasts, especially from NPR or the like. You don't even have to pay a ton of attention to them, but they will increase your "oh my goodness I heard about that!" quotient, which will make you feel like you're keeping up with the discussion. Sometimes even "I know I heard about that on the radio, but I forget where. What program was it on?" makes you feel a little smarter.

Keeping an eye out, in general, for everything, also helps. If you hear something a few times, make a note of it. Sometimes you might gravitate to stuff that seems shallow or trivial - use it anyway. Your geek friend who regularly talks over your head might really value your fashion advice.

Finally, learn to recognize when people are being intelligent and when they're just talking themselves up. I've found that the smartest people in the room will make you feel smart, too.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:48 AM on September 8, 2010


Seems like you are talking about achievement rather than intelligence. Your IQ will be the same at 60 than it was at 10 years old.

Instead of trying to change your intelligence, why not embrace what you have? The dominante culture in the US is one of the only cultures that place an obcene value on individual intelligence. You said you were in a foriegn county...how do they view intelligence?
posted by WhiteWhale at 5:44 AM on September 8, 2010


Sounds like you want to know more about world affairs and such and to be able to converse with others about them. You should perhaps get into the habit of reading The Economist.
posted by Biru at 6:49 AM on September 8, 2010


Less Wrong offers up How to actually change your mind.
posted by eccnineten at 6:50 AM on September 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


Assuming that you are actually very smart (which it's fair to do given the languages, and the journalism, and the travel, the smart partner, and the great writing skills), the problem might not be how to get smarter..

Rather it might be how to enrich your life so that you can point to things that you're doing (or have done) that you can be satisfied about, whether in private contemplation, or when telling others about them.

You (like everyone) need some stuff under your belt that boosts your self esteem and confidence.

But unlike everyone else, you're intelligent enough that you need to be pursuing what you enjoy. Smart folk need to do what they love. Or they shrink.

In the short term dedicating yourself to enjoyment might feel or seem indulgent. But in the longer term, it results in the development of the sort of people you describe your partner as being. Interesting, experienced, whole people. And those people are valuable to everyone.

To cut a long story short. Try new things. Find what you enjoy. Do the things you enjoy. Continue doing what you grow to love. And in time you will be someone who everyone thinks of as "smart."
posted by Ahab at 6:54 AM on September 8, 2010


From the way you've asked the question, you're already intelligent.

What you're probably lacking is a set of shared cultural experiences that give you the same consensus reality as the people you consider intelligent.

Several people have nailed this. Try new things. At points where you find yourself lost in a conversation, before the sun sets that day, ask someone what they were talking about, or get them to point you in the direction of the reference or two you missed.

My problem is that I learned a lot of advanced vocabulary late, and learned it from reading, so I mispronounce things in a way that makes my level of knowledge pretty evident to everyone who knows me. I've fixed this by asking all my close friends to just stop me and make the correction; I'd prefer to sound dumb once and *know* it than continuing to screw it up for years, and years, and years. New word correctly pronounced this week? Deus, as in "deus ex machina". Who knew?
posted by talldean at 7:04 AM on September 8, 2010


Your post is very well-written, articulate, and expressive of your feelings, experiences, and issues. To me, you sound more intelligent than 99% of the jackasses posting on the internet. (MetaFilter, thank goodness, attracts a brighter crowd, but those OTHER internets... *shudder*)
posted by Jacqueline at 9:14 AM on September 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Piggybacking on the first answer, if anyone's interested in a book where a very smart music critic takes both the ideas of Bourdieu and of cultural omnivorism and applies them to an examination of his own aesthetic experience of Celine Dion, check this book out. I never get tired of stumping for it. Good review here.
posted by skwt at 12:31 PM on September 8, 2010


agreed with If only I had a penguin... there's a difference between intelligence and knowing a lot about a wide range of things. I wanted to pipe because the sentiment of http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2010/09/08/134-the-ted-conference/ is very appropriate here. :) Of course, substitute "white people" with upper-middle class, educated, and privileged people in western urban areas. Many people nowadays seem to judge intelligence in the superficial social realm by how well you carry a conversation about a culturally "high-brow" topic.

That being said, don't worry about your lack of experience or specific knowledge... be confident in your capacity to learn, curiosity, and potential to bring together and synthesize ideas-- that's what I personally consider intelligent and I know I can have stimulating conversations with people like that. Of course, soaking up knowledge about things you are genuinely curious about will increase your ability to converse about them, thus making you seem intelligent in the superficial sense as well.
posted by lacedcoffee at 2:02 PM on September 8, 2010


I don't know you, but I highly doubt the answer is "read more," as some of the other posters have written.

You seem very intelligent and capable, so I am sure your intelligence is not an issue.

To *sound* intelligent, however, all you have to do is turn around the conversation to what you know, as opposed to what other people know.

Say, at a party, someone starts talking about the historical accuracy of the places named in the Odyssey, and the case for and against Thrinakia being Sicily.

You DON'T say, "I haven't read the Odyssey."

You say (albeit, with more subtlety), "Oh, Sicily, how interesting! [to turn around the conversation with a tangent] It's a beautiful island [to sound gracious to the person who brought the topic of Sicily up]. I spent a month in the capital, Palermo, researching the prevalence of truly bilingual Sicilians [to point out how smart and intelligent you are]. It was a challenging task, as I am only partially fluent in Italian..."

The trick is to *subtly* integrate your accomplishments into the conversation.

FWIW, I am an information junkie, and I read a wide variety of news sites (NYTimes, FT, Washington Post, BBC news, The Telegraph, The Guardian, and just news.google.com in general) every. single. day. And I subscribe to the TLS, Granta, The Economist. Yet, this all doesn't matter in the 'intelligence' scale.

Also, FWIW, I was brought up in a middle class family, and I went to an Ivy League university where I met more than my fair share of 'intelligent' people. A fair majority were decently smart, and extremely extraordinarily adept in telling people how they are smart and why they are smart. (Also, see some of the other answers in this thread which list examples of just how and why they are smart and why you should be like them).
posted by moiraine at 3:58 PM on September 8, 2010


Sorry, edit: A fair majority were decently smart, but even more importantly, they were extremely extraordinarily adept in telling people how they are smart and why they are smart.
posted by moiraine at 4:01 PM on September 8, 2010


A very wise friend once told me, "you're not dumb, so whenever someone's making you feel dumb, something else is going on."

I think there have been a lot of great posts above about broadening your experience base, which seems to be what you want. But I will also suggest that your community context may be a bit horked. Some contexts draw weird little boundaries around what knowledge sets are appreciated. For all that "cultural omnivory" may be the new black, having the "right" knowledge set can be a test for community inclusion in many contexts, not just high-society.

Your achievements seem like exactly the kind that another person who-is-not-you would be intimidated by! If you're not feeling like a "smart" person, one place to look for problems is not in yourself, but your context.
posted by endless_forms at 12:18 PM on September 9, 2010


The smartest people I know consistently ask themselves questions about the world around them and then try diligently to find answers. The happy consequence of this is that most people love to talk about themselves and will gladly tell you the answer to your questions about their particular work/passion/hobby etc. (you will be surprised how much of a response you will get). In this way you can both foster and satisfy your own inner curiosity and knowledge gathering as well as make friends easily.

Example: I met someone the other day who was a professional poker player, employed by the casino. I was baffled as to why a casino would pay an expert to play poker with customers, I asked, and thus found out that in California, the house earns more per game if there are more players. In the process, the young man and I had an excellent conversation about poker, casinos, poker players, etc. which I can now repeat to the next poker enthusiast I happen upon, if they seem so inclined to learn. I also now have better questions to ask poker enthusiasts in the future, such as "How do you feel about pro players, hired by the casino so that the casino can make more money?"

The process feeds off of itself: The more you know about something, the more questions you have about it, the better you will be at talking about it, and by talking about it, I really mean engaging someone who knows more about a subject that you do by asking them relevant questions that makes them feel like you share their interests and you consider them an expert (both of which are true, if you are doing this right). The key to this is that when you do not know anything about a subject, your incentive to think about it is very low and your ability to generate interesting questions is significantly hindered by your lack of knowledge. (it's kind of like the Dunning-Krueger effect for conversations, the less ignorant you are on a specific topic, the better able to determine your level of ignorance on the topic you become and the better able to you are participate in the topic, thus the more fun you have talking about the topic) This is the major hurdle to get over in order to begin this process.

How to start doing this: when you talk to someone, try to ask them questions that cannot be answered with a single word or short phrase. Someone says that they are a taxidermist, do not ask them if they like it, as they can respond "yes" and that's that. Ask them what the most rewarding part of taxidermy is. This lets them talk about the creativity involved. Then ask them what their most challenging job was. Then ask them about the chemistry. What do they think of jackalopes (chimerical taxidermy). By this time, they should have given you enough info to formulate new questions and you have also probably shown more interest in what they care about than the last 50 people they have met. You also know a lot more about taxidermy than the vast majority of the population. Unless something has gone wrong here you now have a new friend, know a lot more than you did about taxidermy and simultaneously had a fantastic time in the process.

Ultimately, the smartest people I know had an amazing ability to make me feel like I was tremendously smart. When I was around them, I knew that they were going to ask me very good questions. Really, it was only when I heard them speak with other people, or talk to them about their area of expertise did I realize the scope and scale of their intellect.

I'm still working very hard on this process. It isn't easy at all, because it requires a tremendous amount of effort and the willingness to ask questions that might be "stupid" questions. I will say this, though, the process is self reinforcing and tremendously rewarding.
posted by Freen at 12:26 PM on September 9, 2010 [7 favorites]


It's very importance to keep active in what you like most, meet people that are clever than you in your professional activities, setup a group in your communities use the medium to digest what you know, and encourage the your people to join to you group. All these will make you very active in what your like most.
posted by helpfulmove at 4:00 AM on September 13, 2010 [1 favorite]


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