How to Instantly Change Your Attitude Towards Intelligence to Become a Better Learner

Have you ever thought that you’re not intelligent enough to do something? That you’re not as smart as another person so you can’t succeed like they have? Research is showing us that our attitude towards intelligence is an important factor in being able to achieve our goals. This post explores why the concept of intelligence is problematic and how we can adopt an attitude towards intelligence that will enable us to dream big and achieve our goals (academic or otherwise).


One of the greatest myths is that the most successful people are the most intelligent.

I believe this is one of the most damaging myths people have.

It’s a myth that many people fall back on when they encounter a failure of some sort – i.e. that this failure is evidence that we aren’t the smartest person in the room.

For some reason we forget that the stereotypical image of an ‘intelligent person’ – perhaps a physicist or a surgeon, are in reality defined by pushing past constant failures as they slave away trying to solve a problem. These people choose to learn from their failures until they find the solution they were seeking for.

Perhaps an argument can be made that true intelligence (whatever that might mean) requires a particular attitude toward failure – namely that failure is a useful opportunity to pause, reflect, learn and re-tackle a problem.

One of my biggest issues with the modern day education system is the arbitrary delineation it creates between ‘intelligent’ and ‘non-intelligent’ students. From an early age, we’re told that the students who perform the best are the ones who are ‘naturally gifted’ – that they are simply born more intelligent than the rest of us.

In reality, the people who perform the best either put in more work (i.e. hours of study) or have more efficient ways of studying (i.e. are more productive). A 2013 study of 3,520 students found that the two biggest factors in achieving long-term academic success were motivation and study strategies – not ‘intelligence’. [1]

There are three main problems with the conception of ‘intelligence’. Once we can identify these problems, we’ll be better equipped to learn and take on bigger challenges.

Problem 1: Intelligence is an arbitrary concept

We need to realise that ‘intelligence’ is an arbitrary concept. So what does it actually mean to be intelligent?

What we conceive of as intelligence can mean a range of things:

  • Being quick to learn and understand new concepts,
  • having a good memory,
  • being able to think deeply and critically about an issue,
  • being able to think outside the box,
  • being witty,
  • performing well in formal education,
  • being articulate.

Interestingly, most people who we conceive of as being ‘intelligent’ probably possess one to two of these characteristics rather than all seven.

The point is that if we’re going off these characteristics, we’re all ‘intelligent’ in some capacity or another.

Problem 2: The concept of intelligence is misleading

Now that we’ve broken down this arbitrary concept of ‘intelligence’ down into various characteristics, we can understand that a broad concept of ‘intelligence’ is not responsible for making people perform better in studies/work than others.

A 2012 study of 110,000 respondents (one of the largest recorded studies on intelligence), found that cognitive performance was influenced by short-term memory, reasoning and verbal skills rather than a higher-order concept of ‘intelligence’. [2]

Meanwhile, a separate study in 2014 found that universal IQ tests are fundamentally flawed as they don’t account for cultural differences, which have been shown to affect IQ test results. [3]

Firstly, this suggests that environmental factors (e.g. culture and upbringing) affect IQ numbers.

Secondly, it demonstrates that traditional measures of intelligence are not a pure reflection of our natural, or inherent, intellectual traits as they are unable to distinguish between learned behaviours and inherent behaviours.

Just because someone performs well academically, doesn’t mean that they were born with greater gifts. They may just have better ways of learning, studying and doing assessments.

Like the physicist or a doctor, if you fail something (be it an exam, an assessment or perform badly in a task you’ve been assigned in your job), take this as an opportunity to pause, reflect and re-assess how you prepared for that task. Then come at the next task differently, having learned from your mistakes.

Problem 3: If you view intelligence as fixed, you’re more likely to fail

Students who view intelligence as fixed are less likely to put themselves in situations where they will fail (i.e. more difficult situations).

Two studies of high school students in 2007 found that students who believe intelligence is malleable (and can be improved), were more likely to improve their results in mathematics. [4]

In each study, which involved two groups of 12-year-olds, one group believed that intelligence was malleable, while another group were told it was something fixed from birth. The group that believed intelligence was malleable showed much greater improvements in their mathematics results than the other group.

The results demonstrate the effect negative self-talk related to intelligence affects our motivation to study and learn.

If we believe that we are unintelligent, then we’re less likely to try and study for something difficult because we may view it as being too mentally challenging for us.

The converse may also be true.

From personal experience, I can also say that people who have been told since they were children that they were born extremely intelligent are often the ones who shy away from challenging problems or situations. This is because if they’re seen to fail (especially in public), then they believe that their intelligence is being publicly derided. Instead, if they insert themselves in less-challenging situations, jobs, etc. they have a lower chance of failing and can therefore protect their reputation of being an intelligent person. It’s a classic case of big fish, small pond.

As discussed in the fantastic book, ‘Making It Stick’, psychologist BF Skinner found that many people in America during the 1950s did their utmost to avoid quizzing and standardised-testing because it was a place where intelligence was ostensibly judged publicly. This was a significant problem in a society whereby, “achievement is seen as an indicator of ability, [and] many learners view errors as failure and do what they can to avoid committing them”. [5]

What we do instead know is that we learn from failures and quizzing (including non-assessed, self-quizzing) is an important part of this.


The takeaway

The takeaway is simple. Don’t get hung up on the concept of ‘intelligence’ – it’s an incredibly problematic concept.

Many of the characteristics we think an ‘intelligent person’ possesses are most likely learnable – the ability to communicate effectively, solve a problem, etc. The issue is that modern day measures of intelligence cannot adequately distinguish between inherent and learned characteristics.

Finally, the most important lesson is that if you believe intelligence is something malleable – that it can be learned and developed- you’re more likely to take on more interesting challenges. You’ll move outside your comfort zone and won’t be afraid of failure. Instead, you’ll view failure as a rite of passage – something that is an inevitable part of the learning process.

With this understanding in mind, you’ll be equipped to dream bigger and learn better.





[1] Murayama, K., Pekrun, R., Lichtenfeld, S. and vom Hofe, R. (2013), Predicting Long-Term Growth in Students’ Mathematics Achievement: The Unique Contributions of Motivation and Cognitive Strategies. Child Dev, 84: 1475–1490.

[2] Hampshire, A., Highfield, R., Parkin, B., & Owen, A. (2012). Fractionating human intelligence. Neuron, 76(6), 1225-1237.

[3] A. F. Fasfous, N. Hidalgo-Ruzzante, R. Vilar-Lopez, A. Catena-Martinez, M. Perez-Garcia. Cultural Differences in Neuropsychological Abilities Required to Perform Intelligence Tasks. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 2013; 28 (8): 784

[4] Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (n.d.). (2007)  Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development, 78(1).

[5] Brown, P.C.; Roediger III, H.L.; and McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Belknap: Massachusetts.


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