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Six Keys to Developing Intellectual Character

Step aside IQ, this is more important. And I don't mean emotional intelligence.

Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons

Not long ago, I attended a talk by Walter O’Brien, whose name might sound familiar if you watch much television. Walter is the inspiration for the popular television show Scorpion in which “geniuses” are hired out to solve complex problems. O’Brien’s real company does this too, which is why both he and CBS thought the premise might make for good television.

O’Brien’s theory is that nearly any challenge can be solved if you throw smart people at it, and the television show provides plenty of challenges. There’s stolen nerve gas, and stranded submarines, and even planes in need of hacking through dangling ethernet cables. The adrenaline is so overwhelming that you almost forget MacGyver once built a bazooka from a muffler, gear shift knob, and a torn seat cushion. Smart people can do anything, and for the things they can’t do (like romantic relationships), well, there are experts for that too.

Though I have nothing against O’Brien’s show, I think the idea that IQ can overcome anything is dangerous. It gives the impression that being “smart” is a trait you either have, or you don’t. It’s like George Lucas’s view of the Force, passed down through the generations simply because your blood has an abundance of midi-chlorians. In his talk, O’Brien even remarked that he has always possessed special intellectual gifts, though he didn’t address where they came from. The answer only came after hearing about the many electronic gadgets he built in his spare time as a child, and how he honed his computer skills by hacking into NASA’s mainframe (really, he even showed blueprints for the space shuttle as “proof”). Only then did I realize that IQ wasn’t what made O’Brien so capable. He possessed "intellectual character."

The idea of intellectual character was first developed by Harvard psychologist Ron Ritchhart, who wanted to understand where effective thinking comes from. His answer was that IQ is great, but it’s nothing compared to those dispositions which make us curious, reflective human beings. He chose the term dispositions, because he found intelligence to be more like a habit than a gift. It’s an inclination to be curious about the world around us, to value understanding and knowledge over conviction and closed-mindedness. Just as someone with a strong moral disposition is inclined to treat others with fairness and respect, someone with a strong intellectual disposition tends to treat the world with an open and curious mind.

In his book Intellectual Character: What it Is, Why it Matters, and How to Get it, Ritchhart identifies six key dispositions that make up having a rich intellectual character. I can’t promise that you’ll be as smart as O’Brien or MacGyver if you learn them all, but you will be better equipped for life’s random challenges. Except for broken nuclear submarines. I don’t care what television says, you should stay away from those.

1. Open-mindedness.

Conviction is like a hammer — sometimes it’s a great tool, but when it doesn’t belong, it can get you into trouble. The best thing about independent thought is knowing when to use it, and being open-minded means always thinking about alternate possibilities, rather than what you already know. Often this is confused for tolerance or acceptance, but these are passive traits. Open-mindedness is more active, and it means doing the work of looking past the easy or expected interpretations.

2. Curiosity.

Walter O’Brien was already taking apart computers and hacking into government mainframes at age 13, but there are less extreme ways to let your mind wander. Online educational courses or foreign language instruction might be a good start. Or maybe just visit the local library and randomly pick up the first book you see. I did that once, and now I have a deep appreciation for the history of sushi. So there’s that.

3. Meta-cognitive.

This one is trickier, and it means exploring yourself and your own thought processes. When O’Brien started Scorpion Enterprises, he recognized that his social awkwardness would hold him back, so he hired someone adept at emotional intelligence to help him out. This benefited his business and also his television show, which hired Katherine McPhee to play the emotional specialist. Romantic subplots, anyone?

4. Seeking Truth and Understanding.

In his book on intellectual character, Ritchhart points out that students are often asked to share their opinions about complex topics to prompt future study. This is okay, but can be dangerous if we don’t also ask ourselves why we have the opinions we do. Despite what politicians say, truth and opinion are different things, and only when we explore the knowledge and assumptions behind our thinking can we adapt those opinions when new evidence comes along.

Source: StockLite/Shutterstock

5. Strategic.

When I was first learning to play chess, I simply set up the board and started playing. This was fine, but I lost a lot, even to a computer with the lowest possible skill set. Sometimes we need to have a plan if we want to learn something new, and though everybody learns differently, everybody needs a plan to learn in an efficient way.

6. Skeptical.

Another term for being skeptical is probing, meaning that we’re not afraid to look deeper. For example, when O’Brien claimed during his talk that his IQ was 197, I did some research and found that this claim was dubious at best. Why did O’Brien make this claim when standardized tests don’t even reach that high? Perhaps he thought that people wouldn’t respect his intellectual prowess if he didn’t have a number to back it up. Or maybe he thought the real-life Katherine McPhee was listening. Who knows.

My favorite movie line comes from the movie Forrest Gump: "Stupid is as stupid does." I like it, because it’s just as easily turned to its opposite: "Smart is as smart does." Often it feels like we need numbers to quantify our intelligence, but smartness reveals itself through action, not a number. Sometimes it even leads to successful television shows, despite plot lines being a little hard to believe.

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