How To Define Intelligence in a Better Way



“Action is the real measure of intelligence.” — Napoleon Hill

I found a definition of intelligence that’s changing how I look at intelligence.

This post is less about the definition of intelligence or what is intelligence, and more about why have a different definition of intelligence in the first place.

To put it simply, I think how we see intelligence and how we see ourselves can be limiting or enabling.

And, I’m a fan of enabling and empowering you … with skill.

Intelligence is the Ability to Make Finer Distinctions

Here are a few ways to think about “intelligence”:

  1. the ability to learn or understand things or to deal with new or difficult situations (Merriam Webster)
  2. the more distinctions you have for a given concept, the more intelligence you have

In Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki, says, “intelligence is the ability to make finer distinctions.”   And, Tony Robbins, says “intelligence is the measure of the number and the quality of the distinctions you have in a given situation.”

Intelligence is the Ability to Learn

My one dictionary defines intelligence as:

“the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”

Another dictionary defines intelligence as:

“the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations: Reason, also: the skilled use of reason … and the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria.”

A Traditional Definition of Intelligence is Limited

In my view, those definitions of intelligence are interesting but limited.

I like what’s possible when we look to expanding our notion of intelligence and define it for other areas or aspects of our lives, such as leadership intelligence, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, spiritual intelligence, and positive intelligence.

Wow, that’s a whole lot of intelligence going on.

How Multiple Intelligences Expand Your View of Intelligence

I actually like Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  I like Howard’s work for a few key reasons.  Fist, I like the fact that he took a broad, multi-disciplinary view of intelligence.  It goes well beyond the idea of take a test, and your IQ score says how smart or dumb you are.

I especially like the fact that Howard connects intelligence to value, the community, and the greater good.   This creates an interesting reason for having intelligence in the first place, that goes beyond the individual.

I also really like the fact that Howard connects intelligence with the development of skill:

“Strictly speaking, every intelligence entails the development of skills.”

In the book, Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Our Own and Other People’s Minds, Howard Gardner does a great job of defining intelligence and helping us see new ways to look at, value, and develop our intelligence.

Gardner’s Definition of Intelligence

What I like about Howard’s definition of intelligence, aside from the multi-disciplinary view is that he connects it with solving problems, building products, and creating value.

Howard writes:

“I define intelligence as a biopsychological potential to process specific forms of information in certain kinds of ways.  Human beings have evolved diverse information-processing capacities — I term these ‘intelligences’ — that allow them to solve problems or to fashion products.  To be considered ‘intelligent,’ these products and solutions must be valued in at least on culture or community.”

Intelligence Varies with Time and Place

Value is a key variable with intelligence.  What’s valued varies with time and place.  What’s value in one arena, may not be valued in another.  What’s valued at one point in time, may not be valued in another.  Howard writes:

“The last assertion of ‘being valued’ is important.  Rather than claiming that intelligence is the same in all times and places, I recognize that human beings value different skills and capacities at various times and under various circumstances. 

Indeed, inventions like the printing press or the computer can alter, quite radically, the abilities that are deemed of importance (or no longer of importance) in a culture.  And so individuals are not equally “smart” or “dumb” under all circumstances; rather they have different intelligences that may be variously cherished or disregarded under different circumstances.  In terms of the argument put forth here, each intelligence represents a distinct form of mental representation.”

Types of Intelligence

Here are the multiple-intelligences that Howard Gardner has identified through his body of work:

  • Linguistic Intelligence
  • Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
  • Musical Intelligence
  • Spatial Intelligence
  • Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence
  • Naturalist Intelligence

You can find out more about these types of intelligence in Howard Gardner’s books: Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory in Practice, and Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the Twenty-First Century.

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Howard’s work with Norman Geschwind, a pioneering American behavioral neurologist,  and his colleagues convinced him that the singular view of intelligence was ineffective.  Specifically, Howard no longer believed in the following views of intelligence:

“1) Intelligence is a single entity. 2) People are born with a certain amount of intelligence, 3) It is difficult to alter the amount of our intelligence — it’s ‘in our genes’ so to speak. 4) Psychologists tells you how smart you are by administering IQ tests or similar kinds of instruments.”

In response, Howard developed the theory of multiple intelligence based on his work with Geschwind, brain study research, and his broad  experience teaching across a variety of topics from anthropology to piano, to individuals from kindergarten to college.  Howard writes:

“Spurning an excessive dependence on psychometric instruments, I instead developed a view of intelligence that was deliberately multidisciplinary.  I considered evidence from anthropology — which abilities have been valued and fostered in various millennia in different species; and the study of ‘individual differences’ — particularly evidence from unusual populations such as autistic individuals, prodigies, and youngsters with specific learning disabilities.  Perhaps most crucially, I collated evidence from brain study: what we know about the development and breakdown of the brain and the ways in which different regions of the cortex effects different mental computations.”

Let me leave you with a closing thought on intelligence … actually, a quote, by Alan Alda:

“Be as smart as you can, but remember that it is always better to be wise than to be smart.”

Best Books on Intelligence

Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Our Own and Other People’s Minds, by Howard Gardner

Emotional Intelligence: 10th Anniversary Edition; Why It Can Matter More Than IQ , by Daniel Goleman

Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, by Howard Gardner

Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the Twenty-First Century, by Howard Gardner

Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory in Practice, by Howard Gardner

Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential, by Shizrad Chamine

Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, by Daniel Goleman

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  1. This is very interesting and I see the truth of it even in my own family. My daughter and I have very different types of intelligence. She has been a great teacher to me in terms of teaching me to recognize the lens through which I look, and to see the value of other lenses. Great post!

  2. This is such an important post, JD! I think that bit by bit we’re learning to value those other types of intelligence and include it in our general definition of the word. It’s so key to understanding that all humans are valuable!

  3. @ Galen — Thank you.

    I think that’s a beautiful thing in life … when we find how to shine, or others help us find our shine. Or, as Covey would say, find your voice and help others find their’s.

    @ Samantha — It’s got me wondering whether I gave fair chance or had the right arena for some of my potential intelligences.

    The right teacher or mentor really can play a key role in unleashing our potential. And I think deliberate practice is another key to capitalizing on our potential.

  4. Hi there,

    I have read far and wide on intelligence and I am amazed that nearly all the books argue the same or similar points from different angles.
    The only in-depth discussion on intelligence which explains in depth the difference between animal and human intelligence in plain easy to read language is the book Human Ascent written by Australian Psychologist Henry Gobus. Definitely a book you should add to your list.


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