Monday, November 5, 2012

Intellect as Skill

How do you poop? Not the consistency or frequency, but the method. Are you quick or do you take your time? Do read while pooping? If you've brought nothing with you to read and there are no magazines or newspapers near the toilet, do you peruse the labels of whatever occupies the medicine cabinet? Do you relax or tense? Do you wash your hands afterwards? Whatever way you do it, outside of changes imposed by circumstance, you've probably pooped pretty much the same way for years. Pooping is just something you do the way you do it.

How do you drive? Where do you fall on the cautious to reckless scale? Does yellow mean slow down or does it mean speed up? Do you signal before lane changes? Do you change lanes? Do like to have the radio playing? Do you prefer talk-radio or music? Have you memorized the locations of all the speed zones between your house and work or were you unaware that there were speed zones? However you drive, outside of changes imposed by circumstance, you've probably driven the same way for years. Driving is just something you do the way you do it.

As children, we learn approaches to various activities that we integrate so completely that we come to see them as innate. They become part of who we are, almost definitional. The process of integration is important because it frees our active minds to pursue other, more foreign tasks that require a greater degree of attention. A side-effect of tight integration is that, once integrated, we rarely revisit a process to look for ways to make it more efficient or productive. When challenged to do so, we often feel a sense of confusion ("What do you mean, change the way I poop?") or discomfort ("I've always pooped this way. It's the only way I know; I'm not sure I could poop another way.") or violation ("Hey, this how I poop, man. It's part of who I am. If you don't like it, you can just...").

How do you think? Not how well do you think, but the method. What's your first response when confronted with a challenging problem? When someone launches on a verbal explanation of a visual phenomenon, do you see it in your mind's eye or does your mind's eye glaze over waiting for a pause so that you can say, "uh, huh"?  Does your body tense or relax? Do actively practice being aware of your surroundings? Do you recall conversations in detail or do you have only the slightest inkling that they ever occurred? Are you quick or slow? Cautious or reckless? Confident or hesitant?

Psychologists tell us that one's IQ (intelligence quotient) is pretty much fixed. You've got what you've got and there's not a lot you can do about it. They tell us this because they've periodically measured the intelligence of individuals over time and seen relatively little change. Of course this doesn't actually tell us that intelligence quotients can't change, it just tells us that (within the confines of their studies) they don't change. Just like pooping and driving.

They're wrong, of course. W-R-O-N-G, wrong. Intelligence can change just like pooping and driving. The key to changing how well you think is to change how you think. Changing how you think begins with recognizing that intellect is not an innate capacity, but a skill. "Smart" is not a state of being, it's an activity. The recognition must be more than an intellectual acknowledgment. It must be something you feel in your core like a deeply experienced "Ah-hah!"  Somthing like, "Ooooh... I get it. I can completely change how I go about thinking and, by doing so become like 200 times smarter."

The next thing is to sign up for some thinking classes.

Oh, there are no thinking classes in your town? Hmm... OK, here's what you want to do. 

Thinking is a relatively straightforward process. In fact, it's necessarily straightforward. Convolution is a clear sign of the absence of thought. Thinking starts with and is grounded in awareness. The more aware you are of anything that comes to your attention, the more of it you take in with clarity. The more you take in with clarity, the more useful the experience becomes to thinking. A lot of muddled thought is actually a side-effect of muddled intake--garbage in=garbage out. So, good thinking starts with good paying-attention.

How well do you pay attention? When someone speaks, do you focus on him visually as well as aurally or do you glance about the room? Do file your nails or text on your iPhone? (I know, you believe your attention is not compromised by texting, but then why do you stop texting when you speak?) When someone describes something that is visual or aural, do you follow her every word reconstructing the visual or aural experience in your mind, or do you get lost?

Learning to pay attention (taking in what's being said and translating it into something you can see, hear and feel) is critical to becoming a better thinker. Anyone can learn to do so; however, most aren't willing to make the investment at becoming good at intake. The trick is simply to practice and to be aware while you do so.

Decide to pay full attention to someone. The moment you recognize that you've missed or haven't followed something, stop, slow things down and try it again. Ask the speaker to repeat what he said or to clarify it. Restate what you missed or misunderstood in your own terms and seek verification from the speaker.

There are other things you can do to become a really skilled intellectualizer. We'll get to them later. However, none of them matters until you become a good intaker.

How do you poop? How do you dress? How do you drive? How do you think?

Happy Monday,
Teflon

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