Can You Choose Intelligence?

I spent most of my life thinking I wasn’t smart because I wasn’t very good at math.

I was pretty polarized throughout my academic life: I was either completely invested and wholeheartedly interested or didn’t care at all. I look back now and see that what I once considered one of my greatest faults was actually, in an odd way, wisdom. I didn’t care about regurgitating information back on a test. At some level, I understood which things I was learning would and wouldn’t apply to my life. I was more interested in a math class in which they taught about bonds and loans and budgeting and investments — real life things — than formulas I knew that I, personally, would never have to use.

The things I enjoyed were the things that made sense to me. Books. English. Writing. Reading. Because this seemed to me the study of existence. You don’t just read, you understand; you don’t just write, you note and sort through yourself and your experiences. This translated to me as worthy of time and mental commitment because I could walk away living better and easier and happier from having learned about history, from having related to the universality of the human experience.

I realized that I associated disinterest with unintelligence.

I never considered myself “intelligent” because I was only taught of one conceivable way to be “intelligent,” and that wasn’t the way that I was.

Intelligence is possibility. It’s understanding. It’s the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skill — it applies across the board. It’s associated with ease, though we know this isn’t always the case: some of the most highly intelligent individuals tend to be the most pained — they analyze and intellectualize so much of their lives that the beautiful things, the things that cannot be made sense of with logic or reason: love, being, joy, etc. escape them. (I digress.)

We only revere the intelligence that presents itself in an abstract, usually academic way, because we live in a world that values ends to means — a poet’s ability to observe their experiences and write about them beautifully isn’t as admirable as being able to calculate an algorithm is, because the latter will get you into a college that will get you into a higher paying career.

To that end, the intelligence we value isn’t emotional intelligence. It isn’t personal intelligence. It’s material intelligence. That’s what our kids are taught in school. It matters more that you can agree and prove what you’re already taught than that you can innovate that idea — disagree — and genuinely learn to think for yourself. It matters more that you can understand what already is than you can philosophize what could be. It matters more that you can memorize than you can create.

For something to be taught, it has to be willingly and actively learned, so to that end, intelligence is a choice. The problem isn’t a lack-there-of, but a shift in perspective. It’s realizing that the way we define our traits is in the scope of what matters to a society, not a person.

We need to start considering intelligence as subjective, not objective. There are, indeed, mental capacities that in some ways, cap people off from various levels of understanding, but who is to say that those cannot be overcome? Who is to say that they are even negative in the first place? Who is to say that the misunderstanding of one line of thinking doesn’t lead to the complete understanding of a different one, a more applicable one, one that changes another Western canon of thought?

We cannot choose our form of intelligence, but we all have one. We cannot choose our degree, but we can choose to max out our personal potential. Not in the form of better grades. Not in the form of nicer things. In the knowing that it all begins with an idea of what you perceive you can do and be, one that’s often, falsely, capped off at how high your GPA could go.

It’s a matter of realizing that you can choose how to think. The problem is that there is only one acceptable way to prove that you’re smart and worthy and “intelligent” and that’s the way in which it translates directly to monetary reward, follows the predetermined trajectory most exactly and is justified through these standardized means.

You choose how to think, but so long as you only believe there is a “right” way to think — an intelligent way — you never will.

image – Nina Matthews

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