How the Idea that Intelligence is Genetic Distorted My Life—Even Though I Worked Hard Trying to Get Smarter Anyway

Miles in Copenhagen, September 2013

Miles in Copenhagen, September 2013

The idea that intelligence is inborn makes us less intelligent by discouraging effort. It also distorts our lives in other ways. I wanted to share my story–a story Noah Smith and I couldn’t figure out how to fit into our column “Power of Myth: There’s one key difference between kids who excel at math and those who don’t.” Here is my story. Along the way, you will see how competitive I am. I hope you don’t come to hate me too much as a result!

For most of my life, I believed firmly in the idea that intelligence was mostly genetic, and much of my identity was wrapped up in “being the smartest kid on the block”—with as big a “block” as possible. But, I knew I couldn’t convince others of how smart I was without working hard in some sense. The trick to convincing both myself and others of my intelligence was to work hard in ways that were off the books. Working hard in a class I was actually in: not cool. Browsing in the math section of a nearby university library, honing public speaking skills on the debate team, reading the encyclopedia, reading Isaac Asimov’s science and history books, and reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal: cool. Listening to the teacher with both ears: not cool. Double-tasking by inventing a new game or fiddling with mathematical equations while the English teacher was talking and still doing my best to dominate the class discussion: cool. To avoid feeling I was just a grind, working hard like the peons obsessed by getting good grades, I always tried to find a bigger game to play, like learning things that would help once I got to college rather than learning things for my high school classes.

Once I actually got to college, with many other smart competitors, I knew I would have to work hard in ways more directly related to classes. But the desire to impress my classmates with the appearance of little input for high performance was still there. I still get a frisson of joy remembering the time one of my classmates expressed awe that I managed to survive in college despite not studying on Sunday. What he didn’t realize was that–in terms of time available for studying–my religious strictures against drinking and carousing more than made up for my rule against studying on Sunday.

What I hope you get from the story so far is not the fact that I must have seemed insufferable, but this: one way or another, I figured out ways to work very hard while never seeming to work hard. I fooled even myself, at least in part, especially by routinely working hard on things other than what I was supposed to be working on at the moment.

Despite having a strategy that spared me the worst excesses of smart-kid laziness, the idea that being innately smart was what counted rather than hard work caused me a lot of psychic pain along the way. There came a point in my career when I wondered why other economists were passing me by in prestige and honors. At long last I realized that being a successful economist isn’t just about proving one is smart. The currency of the realm is writing academic papers and shepherding them through endless rounds of revision to get them published in academic journals. There is a limit to how much of my time I am willing to spend on that activity. So this realization alone did not rocket me to the top of the profession. But at least I understand what is going on. Hard work is needed not only in order to get smarter, but also to get the payoff from being smart–whatever type of payoff I choose to pursue.