A Few Thoughts on Intelligence

by Sibel Sayiner, ’14

Disclaimer: most of this was produced while talking to my dog.

When I tell people I go to Stanford, often the first comment they make is, “Oh, you must be smart, then, right?”

This statement fundamentally bothers me. While I have come, over the years, to accept and admit that I’m “smart,” whatever that means, it’s frustrating that intelligence by itself too often is assumed to be enough to bring one success: being intelligent is considered mutually exclusive of having to work hard.

I’ve known many successful people, at Stanford and high school. Some people can do well on an exam without studying because the material comes naturally to them. Other people can do just as well, if not better, by working hard. I like to think I work hard. I’ve spent evenings on weekends working on papers and plan my days around what I need to get done. My academic “success” (which is another essay on its own) should cause one to assume more about my hard work than my intelligence. Unfortunately, society assumes the opposite.

Without a doubt, one of the most flawed beliefs present today is that a test score, especially a standardized test score or an IQ score, accurately reflects one’s intelligence. These exams are searching and testing for a certain kind of mental ability: critical thinking, perhaps, or memorization of vocabulary words. If you can memorize answers, that does not mean you’re intelligent: it means you have a good memory. If you can analyze a hard passage, it means you have good reading skills. If you can solve an algebra problem, it means you’ve been given the tools to solve it. None of these reveal any sort of innate “intelligence” as much as they indicate individual academic talents.

Besides, what is intelligence? Why are we not all considered intelligent, given that we all have cognitive abilities? The classical world would tell you intellectuals think “deep thoughts,” and I believe, to some extent, this is true. However, according to popular belief, to deeply ponder about the latest episode of a TV show is not reflective of intelligence. At the same time, an artist can be considered brilliant but not an intellectual. How, then, can thinking by itself be defining factor of intelligence? Is an ability to make interesting points intelligence? Can intelligence only exist in the concrete understandings of facts? Are these too many rhetorical questions?

I’ve come to believe that intelligence is the ability to critically analyze previously understood information and to create something from it. The information itself can come from a data set or an art piece. It doesn’t matter the source as much as what you do with it. The processing of information is important, but creating something—a work of art, a new algorithm—reveals intelligence. In my mind, to be intelligent, you must, at heart, be a thinker and a doer.

It is this definition of intelligence which we should turn to when we’re searching for success stories. It is the drive to both think and do that allows people to succeed. In fact, I think its these qualities which employers, universities, and other people look for in an individual: is one self-motivated enough to take the time to come to conclusions and to act on them?

Being at Stanford has nothing to do with an SAT score. People here are intelligent. They do things. They want to create, make changes in the world, want to write books and give speeches and research in a lab and use too many coordinating conjunctions in an essay. Yes, they are “smart,” and yes, they probably did well on their SAT, but it is not their innate academic ability that got them into Stanford. It is the passion to work hard to achieve their goals and dreams. It is the willingness to not only evaluate a problem but also to create a solution. And most of all, it is the recognition that what one learns in the classroom means nothing unless one does something with that knowledge.


Sibel is a freshman studying everything she can get her brain interested in, which happens to be almost everything. She’s particularly fascinated by genetics, Roman culture, behavioral economics, Spongebob Squarepants, love poetry, Taoism, and Katamari Damacy. In the wild, she can often be observed muttering to herself and raising one eyebrow.

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One thought on “A Few Thoughts on Intelligence

  1. Excellent; really loved this!

    I think intelligence can be perceived in may different ways, it’s really up to the individual as to which aspect of intelligence means the most to them.

    For me, it’s about having the ability to structure well argued opinions or thoughts; no matter what the subject. For many other people intelligence is measured by memory and the ability to answer a standardised question, I personally would class this as ‘learned’ intelligence – and although the latter is no mean feat, the former is the type of intelligence I admire more.

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