Growing up, we are socialised and conditioned with ideas about intelligence and learning. Parents, teachers and friends contribute to this conditioning, forming our attitudes and behaviours later in life. In my country, there are some bad and downright wrong ideas on both that I want to debunk today.

1. Intelligence is fixed

Most people think intelligence is about IQ. As a child, it feels nice to be praised for your “smartness” when you do well at exams. If someone else does better, it’s because they are “smarter”. Sure, this makes you feel better by blaming the outcome on something you have no control over. But over time, you start believing intelligence is something you’re born with and cannot change.

I used to think this way too. It was only after I entered the workforce that I realised intelligence is much more than book smarts. More important than answering questions or regurgitating facts is being able to execute and deliver results. It involves social intelligence, creativity and judgment: dimensions that IQ does not measure. These dimensions of intelligence are malleable and can develop through observation, practice and learning. In fact, research has shown that even IQ can improve through studies and training!

2. Intelligence is a zero-sum game

This is a big issue in Asian cultures where there is an emphasis on academic excellence and competition. At first, it’s just you against the test. If you study and practice more, you generally do better. Later on, as grading shifts to bell curves, you realise someone must do badly for you to excel. This breeds a fixed mindset that makes you behave defensively in order to maximise your chance for academic success.

To be an A grader, you need to beat 98% of people! Source:

Instead of picking subjects that are interesting or challenging, you stick with what you excel in. If you develop an edge in studies, you keep it a secret to maintain the edge. This compounds with misconception #1, diverting you further from your best-fit career. My story is a great example of this mistake.

As you transit to work, you’ll realise you can’t treat work the same way. Being selfish might work for a while, but others will notice your pattern. You will find it difficult to lead, coordinate and get things done. This will eventually hurt your prospects for advancement to leadership positions. The truth is, sharing your thinking is actually one of the best ways to master a subject. People’s questions and perspectives sharpen your understanding and increases your edge, rather than eroding it.

3. Learning is about taking courses, getting certificates and degrees

I’ve talked about reasons to pursue formal education elsewhere. However, please don’t walk away with the impression that learning only takes place in classrooms. As a controversial novelist once said:

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

– Grant Allen (wrongly attributed to Mark Twain)

Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with school because of misconceptions #1 and #2. I want to encourage you that the best education is often found outside the classroom. I don’t just mean learning on the job to get better at your work. I’m talking about learning broadly from other fields to improve the way you think and make decisions. In today’s hiring environment, employers value T-shaped individuals more than traditional specialists and generalists for their adaptability. Set yourself up for success by building both depth and breadth of knowledge.

T-shaped individuals are now in demand. Courtesy of: Jason Yip

This means reading, watching and listening widely to be exposed to different ideas. Often, by the time ideas have been written into courses, they’ve lost their cutting-edge X-factor. To stay ahead of the curve, you must be actively curious to seek out these ideas as they emerge. As an added incentive, it is a lot cheaper to read (books), watch (Youtube) and listen (podcasts) than attend courses.

9 thoughts on “3 Common Misconceptions About Learning and Intelligence I Used to Believe

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