Imagine you’re a contestant on a quiz show. Your opponents are brainy folks with wide knowledge. The questions aren’t just trivia. You have to think quickly on your feet to solve problems.
Now let’s imagine you have a secret weapon. You have a tiny receiver inside your ear — and somebody elsewhere who has access to most of the knowledge of the world is whispering the answers in your head. Your opponents are bright, but this other person feeds you those answers quickly enough that you have the most points.
The show is over. You’re declared the winner. Everybody remarks about how brilliant you are. But you feel like a fraud, because you know that someone else was feeding you those answers. It looked remarkable, but you know that you didn’t have any idea how to work out the answers which you so confidently gave.
And you’re scared people are going to find out you’re a fraud.
That’s how I’ve felt for my entire life. I’ve been blurting out answers that appear in my head — or writing them down in some way — ever since I was a child. And I felt like a fraud.
People told me I was smart, but I didn’t feel smart. Tests claim my IQ is somewhere between 155 and 165, depending on the test, but that just destroyed my faith in such tests. (When I was in high school, a church friend who was working on her Ph.D. gave IQ tests to several of us as part of a psychometrics class. She had me retake the test, because she thought she must have done something wrong, but the second result was also higher than what she had ever seen before.)
I eventually discovered that other bright people shared my feeling of being a fraud, but I always figured it was different for those folks. With them, I assumed, it was just a psychological problem with confidence. I had confidence. I simply knew that my luck was going to run out some day — because wherever these answers were coming from, they had to stop eventually.
I was recently listening to an interview with psychologist Daniel Kahneman and had an epiphany. (He won a Nobel Prize for his work in behavioral economics, but he’s probably best known for his popular book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”) Kahneman distinguishes between two different systems of thinking in our brains — System 1 and System 2.
He says System 1 is the quick intuition that works automatically and System 2 is the slower, more deliberate use of systematic reason to work out an answer. All of a sudden, I had a perfect framework for understanding why I felt like a fraud.
I have always thought that intelligence is the ability to consciously reason your way to an answer — to be able to say, “Well, if we simplify this single-variable equation into standard form and then solve using the quadratic formula, we can solve for X, so let’s do that.”
I could reason my way to answers — mathematically or otherwise — as well as other reasonably bright people, but I never had that feeling of brilliance that I saw with a handful of people who could go through mounds of calculations in their heads.
And that made me feel like a fraud.
You see, I’m more likely to have someone bring me a complex real-world problem and I suddenly blurt out, “That won’t work, because there will be too much [something or other] on this side. To make it work, you have to increase your input by 50 percent and [do whatever]. That’s all.”
Here’s the thing. I will generally have no idea where that solution came from, but it will be the right solution at least 90 percent of the time, especially when it’s about something fairly abstract instead of an engineering problem. And that’s why I’ve felt like a fraud.
I’ve felt as though there’s something in my body — completely out of my control — that whispers these ideas and solutions. When I listen and confidently go with what the “voice” says, I’m usually right. When I wait for the slow and rational side of me to catch up, I’ll lose the genius of the moment or (far worse) come up with an inferior answer that turns out to be wrong.
But Kahneman tells me I’m not a fraud. I’m simply using some automatic form of intelligence which goes beyond my conscious thought. And I feel like a fraud because my conscious thought doesn’t seem all that brilliant to me. (In fact, I’ve always felt convinced that I wasn’t as bright as people assumed — that I must just be surrounded by idiots.) By Kahneman’s reckoning, I’m really good at System 1 and only moderately good at System 2.
I had read Kahneman’s insight before, but it didn’t have the same impact for me. I’ve been dealing lately with the realization that I have always trusted this physical feeling in my body — my literal gut — to tell me the truth. The process has been so automatic that I haven’t known what I was doing until lately.
So am I really smart?
Maybe. I guess so. But I’m not sure it matters. (I’ve written before about coming to realize that intelligence is overrated without other values. I even used the same illustration.) All I know now is that it doesn’t matter how I arrive at my answers. It only matters that I can trust my answers.
This quick and automatic intuitive intelligence isn’t perfect. There are times when it tells me something as truth, but it can turn around 180 degrees when one solitary fact changes — and I often have no conscious understanding of what that one fact had to do with changing everything.
I’ve learned from long experience that this little voice in my gut is pretty clever. As long as I’m confident and go with what he tells me, I can sometimes come up with remarkable answers that lead me to success.
But I now understand that it’s not cheating. There’s no smart fellow on the other end of this radio receiver giving me information. I’m not cheating. That’s really me. Even if I don’t quite understand how it works, that little voice is a part of me — and he’s smarter than it sometimes feels as though I am.