Intelligence will find a way

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!” is a fascinating read or, in my case, listen (audiobook)1. And what I found most remarkable was Feynman’s ability to pick up new skills. Fixing radios, lock-picking, mental arithmetic, Portuguese, biology, drawing and drumming to name a few. What made him so good at it?

My thesis is his general intelligence. And by that I don’t mean that he was capable of processing information in his head at superhuman speeds. On the contrary his foray into mental arithmetic showed that the key to computing fast in your head is spotting various computational shortcuts and memorizing various precomputed values.

When faced with a challenge he came up with various mental techniques, certain shortcuts to make his learning efficient. His intelligence found a better-than-average way of resolving the problems he was facing.

Time for a personal revelation to convince you that my thesis is absolutely true, because this is how blogging works.

Shortly after I finished Coursera’s course “Learning How To Learn” I came to a realization that I discovered most of the good learning techniques on my own. Thus I was a good student. And I also observed other students doing the things the author of the course told us not to do: rereading the material many times, excessive highlighting and cramming. And they were mostly average/struggling students, many spending just as much time preparing for exams as me (or more!). Learning technique matters.

And so that I come across humble (that is how good blogging works2) let me remark that by the time I reached the university I had had plenty of opportunities to improve my methods of independent learning through trial and error. Hence I don’t claim to posses Feynman’s level of general intelligence. By the time I started the university I had finished a couple of correspondence courses, learned 2 foreign languages (as an adult) and participated in various extracurricular schools where I was expected to pick up things and use them with very little guidance, integration and differentiation was one of them. And I remember deriving various volume formulas, coming up with concrete examples and practicing explaining those two concepts until they became obvious.

The path to efficient self-learning was not smooth. Most vividly I remember countless lists of Lithuanian words that I kept memorizing by simply reading over them again and again. I was about 16 when I discovered an internet forum of polyglots that made me reevaluate everything I knew about language learning. I started practicing flash cards, immersion and other methods and I saw big improvements in my skill of picking up foreign languages.

My intelligence found a way to navigate through space of possible actions towards a desirable outcome. Thus after reading the book I internalized Eliezer’s definition of intelligence, which is “the ability to steer the future so it hits that small target of desired outcomes in the large space of all possible outcomes, using fewer resources as possible”.

And so that I don’t come across tautological: Feynman’s intelligence made him efficient at learning new skills because being efficient at learning new skills is intelligence; let me spell it out: it is a certain configuration of neurons in his head that made him discover efficient learning techniques. The same configuration that also played a role in his scientific discoveries.

And I think this is a good thing. I was so relieved to learn that Feynman had no special powers when it came to mental arithmetic. It is all just a bag of tricks. A bag of tricks you and I can learn and even discover on our own. The competitive advantage of learning a particular skill of people like Feynman vanishes the moment they disclose their tricks.

P.S. High IQ people might still trump you when it comes to learning a new skill. C’est la vie.

  1. Big thanks to a person who presented me this book as a Secret Santa present X years ago. Even though I didn’t end up reading it, that physical copy had been reminding me that I should ever since I got it. 

  2. I have much more positive view of Scott Alexander compared to Eliezer Yudkowski and I suspect humility in his writing is the reason.