Jan 092013

A famous saying goes that you hire people who are “smart” and “get things done”. I cannot tell you if people can get things done from their innate capabilities or intelligence. But, over time, I realized that most intelligent people that I come across have the similar qualities. I struggled to characterize them until I came across this list in the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An eternal golden braid”. Quoting verbatim, here they are:

  1. to respond to situations very flexibly;
  2. to take advantage of fortuitous circumstances;
  3. to make sense out of ambiguous or contradictory messages;
  4. to recognize the relative importance of different elements of a situation;
  5. to find similarities between situations despite differences which may separate them;
  6. to draw distinctions between situations despite similarities which may link them;
  7. to synthesize new concepts by taking old concepts and putting them together in new ways;
  8. to come up with ideas which are novel.


I must say that this list is very satisfying. After coming across this list I started using it it my daily life. Am I exhibiting these qualities? Am I evaluating people based on these qualities? Do they correlate with other ways I evaluate the effectiveness of people?

I use this list in multiple ways. I use it to evaluate and improve myself. I use it to evaluate people that potentially work with me. I use it in my activities as an architect, as a technical evangelist, as a coder, as a pre-sales principal, and as a strategist.

(©: New Yorker)

To respond to situations very flexibly

I find several people who excelled at school fall short in life later on. People prepare well for well-set idealized scenarios. When the situation differs from what they learnt, they cannot respond flexibly.

For instance, let us see how it works in presales situation. You are prepared for a standard scenario that a customer might face – say, how automation of processes helps to save the money. You go to a customer for whom automation costs lot more than actually the savings that get accrued. If you forget why you were proposing the solution (to save costs), you end up needlessly pushing automation, when all they want is effective reduction of process execution.

In my experience, the flexibility demonstrates the ability to understand the big picture and context of the problem that only comes with a deep understanding of the subject or solution you are trying to present. I find that the following helps me greatly:

  • Understand the history: History offers a way of understanding subjects and how they come about. If we don’t understand why people are using certain tools or methods, we may not be able to offer a better way. For instance, the why of operating systems offers why we treated files differently from the network connections. Then, we might start thinking why not treat them the same way. We start seeing parallels from history and apply those as the situation demands.
  • Have a core set of logic tools: While this rule may appear generic, I find that most amount of flexibility in our thinking comes from understanding what is essential and what is not. My set of tools are from model theory – in particular higher order models. I start seeing things from the perspective of completeness and consistency, even when the situation presents in a new guise.
To take advantage of fortuitous circumstances

I am not sure if I agree that this is an essential quality of intelligence. But, still, most successful people have the ability to see opportunities that others don’t. I think it takes courage, self-confidence, desire, and deep sense of conviction all of which are not necessarily attributes of intelligence.

I am also fairly sure that I am not so good in this area. I do not know how one can “improve” here. I suppose this is some innate capability people have, either by nature or nurture.

To make sense out of ambiguous or contradictory messages

I read science fiction stories where species communicate with precision, the exact emotion or facts. I read about conlangs (constructed languages) that are incredibly precise. But, in reality, we deal with lot of ambiguity, imprecision, and sometimes deliberate obfuscation.

Most of us deal with this ambiguity daily. We find an organization pursuing unclear and multiple conflicting paths. We find people making contradictory statements. We may not see consistency in action and word.

It may be fodder for sitcom or science fiction humor – a fish out of water story of foreigners, extra-terrestrials not possessing the verbal intelligence of natives. The consequences for an organization are more disastrous: infighting, multiple directions, and inaction. It forces leaders to constantly explaining people what to do.

While it is easy to dismiss that it is innate capability, I think there is a way to develop it well, in particular, the following skills, which are strongly correlated to this capability:

  • Reading widely helps: In particular, I think reading good fiction, poetry, and even nonfiction helps us understand the ambiguity and imprecision in language. Reading classics has an advantage as they were widely interpreted from different perspectives.
  • Writing well helps: Right kind of writing can help cut through ambiguity. When I don’t understand a subject well, I try writing, just as a way of clarifying it for myself.
  • Understanding of logic helps: In particular, I go back to my first discipline, model theory and higher order logic to understand the model in terms of consistency and completeness.

(©: New Yorker)

To recognize the relative importance of different elements of a situation

One of the big milestones in growing up is understanding cause and effect. That feedback loop helps us to know the consequence of our actions. The same knowledge, when applied gives a way to assessing the importance of different elements of a situation.

Fortunately, this is easy enough to deal with. At the risk of generalizing and simplifying, the best way to deal with is through metrics and goals. If you know the end goal, and the impact of the tasks on the ability to reach the end goal, you know how to prioritize. For a full discussion of the topic, see: http://bit.ly/J8b3BW.

To find similarities between situations despite differences which may separate them

Abstraction of the core essential elements from different situations is a key human trait. Right kind of abstractions can help people understand the core situations. For instance, if we want to solve a problem, using the right abstraction, we can bring tools and processes from similar solutions.

Even in presales, customers would love to know how you solved similar problems for others. Everybody knows that exact problem is difficult to find. Finding a useful abstraction is key to creating a similar set of problems that can help solve the problem at hand effectively.

(©: xkcd.com)

To draw distinctions between situations despite similarities which may link them

The flip side of abstraction is reification or concretization. Every problem is different. Only when we understand the differences between the two different problems, we can understand what kind of customization we need to do for this problem. It may be a simple change to a tactic; for being aware of such need is key to look for such change.

For instance most transplanted solutions from a different culture do not work in another culture. The cultural context, which makes a situation vastly different requires change in tactics and strategy. Without that sensitivity, people misunderstand the situation. (“Iraq is just like Germany after the second world war – all it needs is democracy” – see how that works).
Space-time is like some simple and familiar system which is both intuitively understandable and precisely analogous, and if I were Richard Feynman I’d be able to come up with it.
(© xkcd.com)

To synthesize new concepts by taking old concepts and putting them together in new ways

There is a saying: “There is nothing new under the sun”. But, then, we see new creations from human ingenuity come every year. Most of them are novel applications of existing ideas. In my own field of programming languages, I see the ideas from 80’s becoming popular now. When I see CPS (Continuation Passing Style) in Javascript, I am home work assignments from my student days.

Creation of new concepts from old takes several pieces of puzzle:

  • Good understanding of history: Why this problem is important, what techniques were tried, what was the genesis for the final solution – all of these are important when we need to put together a new solution based on the old concepts.
  • Good understanding of the changes in situations: For instance, when we were solving main memory databases in 90’s, we had maximum of 4GB in general machines. These days, I have 64GB on my desktop machine. Naturally, the assumptions have changed, opening up the solutions that were not considered before. For example, changing economics of printing changed the way books are published.
  • Good understanding of the old concepts: Unfortunately, learning, especially in computers has become more and more understanding the details instead of concepts. Details will tie us down to an existing way of thinking. Understanding the core concepts (why, how, and what) lets us put them together in new ways.

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To come up with ideas which are novel.

I suppose, this is what classically considered intelligence and genius. I do not have any suggestions on how one goes about improving in this area. I find that I am a pastiche kind of person – I take a concept and apply in a different area. Personally, I do not think I have any ideas that can be called truly novel.

Concluding remarks

Looking at the core traits of intelligence, I can only conclude that some of them are hard to acquire. I do not know how one can train oneself to come up with new ideas. But, as for other traits, there is hope that we can practice deliberately to hone those skills. Fortunately, the world is large; there are lot of ideas coming from different places. All you need is to pick a set of tools that are good enough; and master them; and apply them consistently to learn these skills.

Happy practicing!

 Posted by at 10:00 pm

  2 Responses to “Become intelligent and successful in 30 days (or years)”

  1. I suggest there is one missing item: Wanting to impose order. For example, a bunch of workers are told to move a bunch of different boxes into an empty warehouse. The intelligent one will ask, “How do you want them arranged?” Because just putting them inside doesn’t make any sense if people can’t then get to what they need efficiently and effectively.

  2. […] Become intelligent and successful in 30 days (or years) — I thought one item was missing, so I left a Comment. […]

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