Learn to Understand Your Own Intelligence

Three years ago I listened to a lecture on cognition that changed the way I think about intelligence. This is the crux. There are two types of cognition. The first is normal cognition. This is the ability to retrieve knowledge from memory. When you are asked a question on a test and produce an answer, that’s a display of cognitive ability. The second type of cognition is metacognition; the ability to know whether or not you know.

Have you ever been asked a question that you knew the answer to, but you couldn’t find the right word? This is called the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon and I’m sure we’ve all experienced it. You know that you know the answer, but you fail to produce it. If someone said an answer, you would know instantly if it was correct or not. In these cases metacognition exists without cognition.

In short, cognition is knowing, metacognition is knowing if you know or not. Both can exist together, but many times they don’t.

How Does this Affect Intelligence?

So what importance does this have and how is it relevant to self improvement? The fact that there are two different kinds of cognitive ability means that there are different types of intelligence.

In traditional education, intelligence is measured by cognitive ability. For some people this is works well. They can easily produce everything they know on a test. But for others it doesn’t work out so well. The people that know something cold but can’t find the right words on a test are awarded with poor grades and considered inferior.

But does this inability make them any less intelligent? They know the answer. If the question came up on a task, they could refer to a book or a quick Google search. In reality they’re just as effective as the people that aced the test. They just can’t prove it as easily.

The Importance of Knowing what you know

Unless you’re taking a test or playing Jeopardy, metacognition is more important to success than cognition. In real life, when you’re faced with a question the first decision is whether you know the answer or not. With strong metacognitive ability this is easy. If you know the answer, but can’t come up with it, you can always do a bit of research. If you know for sure that you don’t know, then you can start educating yourself. Because you’re aware of your ignorance, you don’t act with foolish confidence. The person who thinks they know something that they really don’t makes the worst decisions.

A person with poor cognitive ability, but great metacognitive ability is actually in great shape. They might do poorly in school, but when faced with a challenge they understand their abilities and take the best course of action. These people might not seem intelligent at first glance, but because they know what they know, they make better decisions and learn the most important things.

Clever but mediocre people

At the opposite end of the spectrum are people with great cognitive ability but poor metacognitive ability. These people are proclaimed geniuses at a young age for acing every test and getting great SAT scores. Unfortunately, they’ve been ruined by poor metacognition; they think they know everything but they really don’t. They are arrogant, fail to learn from mistakes, and don’t understand the nuances of personal relationships; showing disdain for persons with lower cognitive ability.

So who is superior? In a battle of wits the higher cognitive ability prevails, but life is not a single encounter. It is a series of experiments in succession, each building upon the last. Learning requires knowing what you don’t know, and taking steps to learn what you need to. People with poor metacognitive ability never realize that they don’t ‘get it’. They also don’t realize what’s important.

This doesn’t preclude them from material success. But, perhaps that’s a poor measurement of intelligence as well. There are many people who become rich and successful by their cleverness and cognitive ability, but as human beings are quite mediocre. Is the man that makes a million dollars, but is cruel and abusive to his employees and family, really more intelligent than the poor man who lives a modest and loving life? I don’t intend to demonize wealth, only to state that it should not be the measure of virtue.

Use your metacognitive ability

So what do we know and what do we not? And how can we tell the difference? There is so much to know in the world that the most brilliant human minds can grasp only the tiniest fraction. For this reason we should always be in doubt of what we know. The closed mind is oblivious to its surroundings, while the open mind absorbs them. Like a sponge, it soaks up observations, becoming fuller and more robust.

But we can’t live in total doubt. If we did we would never act, paralyzed by our inadequate knowledge. We must trust our intuition. If something makes you feel a certain way, that feeling is real and must be respected. Act based on your own convictions, not those of others, and keep an open ear for new ideas.

The most important mental power is the ability to know what you don’t know. The recognition of a fault is the first step to improvement. Don’t try to hide a lack of knowledge. People will see through it and you’ll appear foolish and arrogant. If you admit your ignorance, people will help you learn and respect your humility. For intelligent people this is the toughest lesson to learn. We are used to being right, and consider being wrong shameful. We’re afraid to lose status by looking stupid. This vain arrogance is a great weakness and the source of many problems. To crush it and embrace humility is the mark of true wisdom.


Erin shows overscheduled, overwhelmed women how to do less so that they can achieve more. Traditional productivity books—written by men—barely touch the tangle of cultural pressures that women feel when facing down a to-do list. How to Get Sh*t Done will teach you how to zero in on the three areas of your life where you want to excel, and then it will show you how to off-load, outsource, or just stop giving a damn about the rest.

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