Nabeel Qureshi on habits to cultivate if you are to really understand things
Nabeel Qureshi makes some interesting observations on what it takes to be “intelligent”:
I concluded that what we call “intelligence” is as much about virtues such as honesty, integrity, and bravery, as it is about “raw intellect”.
Intelligent people simply aren’t willing to accept answers that they don’t understand — no matter how many other people try to convince them of it, or how many other people believe it, if they aren’t able to convince themselves of it, they won’t accept it.
Importantly, this is a “software” trait, and is independent of more “hardware” traits such as processing speed, working memory, and other such things.
Moreover, I have noticed that these “hardware” traits vary greatly in the smartest people I know — some are remarkably quick thinkers, calculators, readers, whereas others are “slow”. The software traits, though, they all have in common — and can, with effort, be learned.
This quality of “not stopping at an unsatisfactory answer” deserves some examination.
One component of it is energy: thinking hard takes effort, and it’s much easier to just stop at an answer that seems to make sense, than to pursue everything that you don’t quite get down an endless, and rapidly proliferating, series of rabbit holes.
It’s also so easy to think that you understand something, when you actually don’t. So even figuring out whether you understand something or not requires you to attack the thing from multiple angles and test your own understanding.
This requires a lot of intrinsic motivation, because it’s so hard; so most people simply don’t do it.
But it’s not just energy. You have to be able to motivate yourself to spend large quantities of energy on a problem, which means on some level that not understanding something — or having a bug in your thinking — bothers you a lot. You have the drive, the will to know.
Related to this is honesty, or integrity: a sort of compulsive unwillingness, or inability, to lie to yourself. Feynman said that the first rule of science is that you do not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. It is uniquely easy to lie to yourself because there is no external force keeping you honest; only you can run the constant loop of asking “do I really understand this?”.
(This is why writing is important. It’s harder to fool yourself that you understand something when you sit down to write about it and it comes out all disjointed and confused. Writing forces clarity.)
Another quality I have noticed in very intelligent people is being unafraid to look stupid.
Most people are not willing to do this — looking stupid takes courage, and sometimes it’s easier to just let things slide. It is striking how many situations I am in where I start asking basic questions, feel guilty for slowing the group down, and it turns out that nobody understood what was going on to begin with (often people message me privately saying that they’re relieved I asked), but I was the only one who actually spoke up and asked about it.
This is a habit. It’s easy to pick up. And it makes you smarter.