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Get Smart

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Traveling, for me, is all about thinking - the exposure to new places, new people, new ideas, creates a context in which my typical assumptions and habits are disrupted. That creates space for seeing the world differently. The thoughts which come to me (and nowhere else) are often enough to justify the trip in and of themselves.

I was in Seattle this past weekend at a seminar for Certainty Advisors (Dan Nicholson’s extremely thoughtful and useful business consulting program). I was lucky enough to catch Dr. Todd Snyder’s presentation on increasing intelligence. Dr. Snyder, on top of being a psychologist and an all-around super intelligent guy, is also a productivity coach who’s spent a lot of time thinking about and helping people to increase their effectiveness in the world.

The essay below is my attempt to internalize Dr. Snyder’s presentation: while the words are mine, all the smart stuff is his. Make sure you check out his site.

What do we mean when we say someone is “smart”?

Many have tried (and struggled) to define and quantify intelligence. We all seem to know “it” when we see it, but what, exactly, are we seeing? Einstein is smart, of course; the stereotype of the absent-minded professor losing track of time in the lab before coming up with an earth-shattering insight “feels right” to us. But is that the only form of intelligence?

Does it matter if that professor is a mathematical genius but, say, completely incapable of functioning in polite society? What about the great composers? What about that person who knows what to say in any situation, who seems to instantly make friends wherever they go, who wanders into a strange bar in a foreign country and somehow manages to be leading everyone in song an hour later?

Intelligence, it turns out, is a slippery thing; IQ seems to measure something, and to be broadly correlated with what we might call the “downstream effects” of intelligence (success, wealth, whatever), but it’d be hard to argue that that’s the end-all-be-all of human intelligence. Are we really prepared to argue that the excellence of humankind is best measured via IQ test?

The only definition of intelligence that’s really resonated with me, personally, was the one offered by Dr. Snyder:

Intelligence is the ability to get what you want.

This deceptively simple definition has two profound correlates:

1.) Intelligence is, to some extent, contextual.

Einstein was a brilliant mathematician. How do I know? Because he spent his life pursuing mathematical insights, and did so with a great degree of skill. His work has been borne out over time as having coherence with the way the world seems to work. The same goes for Mozart; assuming Mozart wanted to write great music, he was wildly successful in doing so, and thus demonstrated a deep capacity to get what he wanted.

The intelligence of Einstein and Mozart, however, depends on the context we put them in. If we imagine tasking Einstein with writing great pieces of music, and Mozart with discovering the secrets of relativity, while it is possible they might succeed to some degree, it’s unlikely they would excel to the same degree they did in their original fields.

At least, at first. And that brings us to correlate 2:

2.) Intelligence can be improved over time.

Think about the last time you set out to do something - start a business, get the girl/guy, whatever.

Even for someone with a high degree of skill in a given field, there is always a period of learning that must occur in the pursuit of a goal (does the target market like my idea? What’s his/her favorite kind of flower? etc). Even if that learning period consists only of confirming that our assumptions are correct, there is still a period of attunement - establishing the level of coherence between our model of the world and the world as it is.

How do we figure out how attuned we are? How do we establish the level of coherence between the our models of the world and the world itself - our map, and the territory?

Through prediction.

Every second of every day, we are making predictions - predictions about feelings, predictions about outcomes. When I put the key into my car and turn it I predict the car will start. When I get out of bed in the morning I am predicting how the hardwood floor will feel under my feet.

We may not be consciously aware of these predictions but we know they’re happening because prediction error results in a visceral shock.

Imagine waking up in the morning and putting your feet onto the floor - an action you’ve performed thousands of times without giving it a second (or first) thought.

Now, imagine how you would feel if you put your feet down onto the wood floor one morning and felt carpet instead.

It’s likely you’d experiencel a sense of shock or bewilderment before you were conscious of why. You’d know something was wrong - that somehow, somewhere, the predicted course of events had not occurred - but it would probably take a few moments before you realized the problem was the floor.

You had made a prediction about what you’d feel when you put your feet down, you knew what you expected to feel, but that was one prediction among thousands, and it will take a few seconds to zero in on exactly where the discrepancy lies.

These predictions we make about everything we do - the coffee cup will be there when I reach out my hand, the market will respond to this offer, my significant other will appreciate my bouquet of flowers - are critical to getting what we want. If our models of the world are consistently wrong - and thus, our predictions consistently inaccurate - it will be nearly impossible to get what we want.

If intelligence is getting what you want - and getting what you want is about the accuracy of your predictions - and the accuracy of your predictions depends on the coherence of your mental models to the external world

Then intelligence is really a matter of having mental models that cohere with the real world.

If we want to increase our intelligence, then, we need to increase the accuracy of our models.

Luckily, there’s a mechanism for that:

The feedback loop.


What is a feedback loop?

The great Donella Meadows:

“A feedback loop is closed chain of causal connections from a stock, through a set of decisions or rules or physical laws or actions that are dependent on the level of the stock, and back again through a flow to change the stock.”

Or, as I wrote in my series on Quarterly Reviews:

“Any relationship where the input to a thing affects the output from that thing.”

The classic example is a thermostat. The thermostat measures the temperature of the room and, depending on it’s target temperature, pumps out more or less heat. This process of checking-changing behavior-checking again is the feedback loop.

If I make a prediction (“The coffee cup will be there when I reach out my hand”), the perceived accuracy of that prediction (“Oh, weird - I stretched out my hand, but I didn’t feel the cup”) provides the feedback I need to change my behavior (“I’ll move my hand over an inch or so - AH, there it is.”) The more we pay attention to feedback from the universe - the more we ask ourselves, to paraphrase Dan Nicholson, if we’re getting closer to what we want - the more we’ll be open to changing behavior and fine-tuning our mental models.

This process sounds simple - in practice, it is devilishly hard. I know it’s devilishly hard, because human beings are incredibly resistant to changing their mental models. Just ask how often someone’s political opinion or affiliation is changed by new information. In practice, we are more likely to reinterpret the feedback than we are to change our behavior.

If feedback loops are all there is to improving our predictions, our mental models, our ability to get what we want and thus, our intelligence…why are some people better at this than others? Is there anything here beyond pure cognitive capacity (which seems to simply reintroduce IQ and the vague definitions of intelligence we were struggling with at the beginning of this essay)?

To my mind, there seem to be three core elements that influence how rapidly we are able to improve our intelligence over time:

1.) Openness.

In the end, we must be open to feedback. We must be willing to admit error, shrug off embarrassment, and change. This is an ethical stance towards the world. Intelligence, in a very real way, is a choice.

If I’m making that sound easy, it isn’t. It’s one thing to write a blog about being “open to feedback” and “willing to change;” it’s much harder in practice to stand apart from the crowd, the commonly-accepted modes of rationality and morality, to be willing to risk expulsion from the tribe, the family, the group. We ALL think we would have been the ones to stand up against the Nazis, to fight for the abolition of slavery, to march with Dr. King. Statistics tells us this simply isn’t true.

The belief in our above-average openness to feedback is thus a defense against feedback itself. As long as we believe we are uniquely open to change, we are excused from seeking to be more open to change. It’s like saying that, unlike everyone else, we “don’t see color…” and thus avoiding the ethical responsibility to ask how racial or ethnic biases influence our decisions.

The first step towards greater openness is admitting we have a problem. And if you thought you could skip this step, you need it most of all.

2.) Speed.

The shorter the feedback loop, the the greater it’s impact on our behavior.

If my goal is to lose weight, I will experience every different outcomes if I weigh myself once a month vs. once a week. The shorter the feedback loop, the tighter the coupling between my results and any modification of my behavior.

It isn’t necessarily the case that shorter feedback loops are always better - we’re all familiar with the old investing advice to not look at your portfolio every day. Rather, we want our feedback loops to be closely coupled to meaningful behavioral intervention.

I’m unlikely to make meaningful dietary changes by measuring my weight every second. However, measuring my caloric intake after every meal will allow me to make meaningful changes - to eat more, or less, depending on whether I’m getting closer to my target. Similarly, the thermostat is unlikely to be any more effective if we make it measure the room’s temperature every second; earlier changes in heat output need time to take effect. A thermostat that only turned on once a day, however, would be worse than useless.

The question to ask, then, is how often can I make effective changes in my behavior - and to couple your feedback loops as tightly as possible to that schedule.

3.) Sensitivity

Reality, as it turns out, has a lot of detail.

One of my favorite videos is Powers of Ten. Take a second and check it out if you haven’t already:

The critical insight is that every level of detail in this video is available to us at any given moment - the only thing that changes is how much of it we can perceive. An omniscient being would have perfect visibility into both the cosmic and the atomic at the same moment.

Imagine the progression of skill one might experience while studying jujitsu. In the beginning, we have only a crude understanding of what’s being asked of us: do we have our feet on the opponent’s hips? Am I putting my back on the mat? Our predictions, and the feedback loops used to validate them, operate at the level of gross anatomy, the “big picture.”

As time goes on and our skill level increases, however, the level of detail available to us increases. We are no longer asking whether our feet are on the other person’s hips; instead, we are now attuned to the fact that different levels of pressure on the other person’s hips result in different outcomes. We start thinking about - predicting - what will happen if we strengthen that pressure, or remove it suddenly.

The number of predictions we are now making about the exact same element (feet on hips) has greatly increased. At the same time, the initial problems we concerned ourselves with (“are my feet on their hips?”) have receded past the level of conscious awareness. We are now confident enough in our ability to accurately predict at the level of gross anatomy that our predictions have passed out of our conscious mind.

This understanding leads us to a working model of expertise vs intelligence. Expertise - the knowledge of how to do something - is explicit; it involves the accuracy of our predictions, and our ability to consciously access and explain those conditions. We have expertise when we understand our process.

Intelligence, on the other hand, involves the number and accuracy of the predictions which occur below our conscious level of awareness. This is why intelligence can be so hard to pass on or to teach - often, the best among us at a certain task cannot describe how they do what they do. Because our subconscious minds process so much more information than our conscious minds, the vast majority of our “knowledge” is thus tacit, implicit, retrieved instantaneously from the subconscious in a particular context. We know instantly if something is amiss when we put our feet down on a carpeted floor in the morning, but given the opportunity to describe our bedroom verbally, it’s quite possible we would never have mentioned the floor at all. We both know it and don’t know that we know it.

Increasing intelligence, then, comes down to this: increasing the accuracy and number of predictions which occur below the level of conscious awareness through deliberate openness to error, shortening of feedback loops, and deepening our sensitivity to detail.

Sounds easy enough, right?




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