How Intelligence and Smart Thinking are not the Same

Smart thinking

“There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.” 

[Peter Drucker]

IQ test predict very little about performance. Smart thinking is not an innate quality but rather a skill we can cultivate. Each of has the capacity to learn to be smarter.

Science confirms that being smart is a skill we can acquire. The answer, or rather a better question says Art Markman sits at the intersection of diverse studies of the mind — from psychology to linguistics, philosophy, and learning science.

Because the mind is such a great mystery, we cannot approach our learning about how it works from any single science. “Instead, we have to come at it from lots of different perspectives,” say Markman. That means observing people's behavior, studying artificial intelligence (AI) and performing linguistic analysis, and the philosophy of mind and bring these perspectives together to try and understand the mind. We call this cognitive science.

Markman is a Professor of Psychology and Marketing in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and the founding director of the university’s program in The Human Dimensions of Organizations, an executive education program geared toward leaders in the business and nonprofit sectors seeking to improve their professional lives.

How do we then learn to become smarter? In Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Solve Problems, Innovate, and Get Things Done Art Markman says the first thing we need to do to think better is learn how our mind works. The book outlines a formula for thinking more effectively:

(1.) Develop smarter habits — Habits are formed whenever we repeat an action in a specific context. Habits are not stopped, they are replaced.

(2.) Acquire high quality knowledge — the core knowledge for smart thinking is causal knowledge, which is what we use to answer the question “why?” Unfortunately, the quality of our causal knowledge is often less good than we think it is.

(3.) Need to be able to use that knowledge when we need it — to use knowledge effectively, we need to master the art of analogy. To that end, we need to learn to see the essence of the problems we are trying to solve. We also need to improve our memory, or ability to remember things to access knowledge when we need it.

To illustrate Markman demonstrates the difference between adequate thinking and smart thinking by using a personal example. When he was in high school he used to clean an office building.

In doing that, he was vacuuming carpets and eventually the bag would fill up and the vacuum cleaner did not work so well anymore. So he did something very adequate to solve the bag problem — at the time, you unclipped the bag at the top and dumped the dust in a bin.

James Dyson took another tack. He figured out that vacuums are solving a particular problem — they suck in a mixture of dirt and air and to separate them, the bag functions as a filter. The dirt clogging the pores of the bag is reason why it gets clogged.

Most people who tried to solve the vacuum cleaner problem focused on making the bag problem more efficient. What Dyson did was realizing that the problem of separating the dirt from the air was the same problem sawmills solved. Saw blades generate a lot of dust, which then needs to be sucked up from the air. To do that, the sawmill has an industrial cyclone — the sawdust is dropped to the sides of a cone, then collected and carted off.

Dyson's insight was to take that industrial cyclone and build a very small one inside a vacuum cleaner. He then spent a number of years designing a prototype for that. It is that kind of thinking that leads to a company that consistently makes over $100 million in profits every year. Dyson borrowed knowledge from a different field and applied it to a problem he was looking to solve.

Learning outside our field of knowledge helps us create new patterns for problem solving within our business. Looking beyond the surface is a good way to train our memory to give us new ideas to solve future problems that are not obvious. Markman suggests we bookmark a list of proverbs on Google and take time each week to explore the true essence of each proverb.

Since more often than not we do not know what we do not know — or we think we know more than we actually do — it's a good idea to develop a habit of learning through a culture of thinking.

In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success psychologist Carol Dweck says individuals who believe they can grow, tend to enjoy challenges. Our ability to grow depends upon our ability to shift from a fixed mindset — we are who we are and our wins are attached to that identity — to a growth mindset, which is based on the belief s based on the belief that our basic qualities are things we can cultivate through our efforts. In turn, this creates a passion for learning. Dweck says:

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.


I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves — in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser? . . .

There’s another mindset in which these traits are not simply a hand you’re dealt and have to live with, always trying to convince yourself and others that you have a royal flush when you’re secretly worried it’s a pair of tens. In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development.

This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.

Researchers has found that the practice of lifelong curiosity, our resourcefulness to search for new ideas and make new tools, adds a needed dimension to our skills and effort in helping us achieve success. Staying employable is about mindset.

Another piece of advice Art Markman provides in Smart Thinking is to seek out generalists — people who know a lot about a lot of things or are high in cognition — they continuously seek to learn new things. They may not necessarily be the new polymaths, but these people have a large body of causal knowledge and they are good at finding the essence or core of a problem.