I was half-watching Pawn Stars the other night while browsing the web. A customer walked into the families’ pawn shop looking to sell an obscure historical object of some kind, and in typical fashion, ‘Ric’ (the ‘father’ in the three generations that operate the store) rattled off several facts about the time period the object came from, how it was constructed, and the reasons the company stopped making it.
This kind of demonstration of extensive historical knowledge is typical for Ric. While his ability to do so has surely been helped by his 20+ years in the pawn business, a bit of internet research shows that it is also a product of his having extensively read historical books over the years. From Wikipedia:
As a child, (Ric) Harrison suffered from epileptic seizures starting at age eight, which would confine him to bed, and lead to a lifelong love of reading.
In thinking about what might happen if we were ever to meet Ric and observe him rattling off historical facts in his store, surely our mental observation would be “wow, he’s smart”.
But is he? Or, to be precise, is his demonstrated collection of knowledge an indicator that he is someone we would label as ‘smart’? The answer to the question is more than a nuanced semantic dance, as we will soon see.
‘smart’ vs. ‘Smart’
To answer the question, I’d argue that there are different kinds of smart. While Ric may very well be ‘smart’, his specific kind of ‘smart’ is the ‘collection-of-knowledge’ smart. That is, he spent many years reading and absorbing knowledge. Absorbing knowledge by investing many hours into reading, unless we are talking about one who is cognitively impaired, is, for the most part the normal course of things. While there are surely people who absorb knowledge and information much faster than the rest of us, and one who has gathered a large collection of knowledge has certainly accomplished something impressive and could therefore be called ‘smart’, by my definition they are not quite ‘Smart’.
So what is ‘Smart’?
In an oft-cited quote, Albert Einstein famously once said:
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
I’ve always wondered what he meant by the statement. It seemed like he could have meant almost anything–there could be a million different reasons why he deemed imagination more important than knowledge. But if we think about it in the context of the different kinds of smart, I think it begins to make sense.
‘smart’, as we have outlined above, is ‘collection-of-knowledge’ smart.
‘Smart’ is ‘imagination’ smart.
That is, it is those rare, special people that have such access to their own imagination that it gives them a mental playground to problem solve and work towards solutions. People like Scott Adams (yes, that Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert) who, if you read his blog, it quickly becomes apparent that he is one of those who has such access to his own imagination that he can create a mental environment for problem solving. This is the most important characteristic of the ‘Smart’—that they can somehow setup a mental environment in the confines of their own imagination for problem-solving that distinguishes them from their peers. Once they have setup the mental environment for problem solving it is a matter of mentally moving around the elements of the problem until a solution is derived.
Einstein First Solved via Imagination, then Backed Solution with Mathematics
I have no proof of it, but, especially given his explicit statement on the subject, I’d theorize that in arriving at many of his (now, widely accepted) theories, Einstein first conceived of the solution via his imagination–visualizing a person speeding along in a space ship at speed X, seeing a beam of light coming off a space ship traveling next to him at speed Y, recognizing (in his imagination) that the two would be perceived differently etc.–first conceiving of a solution in his imagination followed by working out the mathematics that he (perhaps) felt certain would support the imagined solution.
So what does this all mean for us practically in our everyday lives? If all of the above holds true, I think there are two potential implications:
- Look to Be Around Those Who Problem Solve With Their Imagination:
If you are someone that is a hiring manager, have a say in who is hired in your organization, or simply want to be someone that gets better at problem-solving, look to be around those rare people you might come across who talk about problem solving from a visual perspective. Listen to how they talk about problems for clues to how their mind attacks problem solving to learn how to tap into the methodology.
- Develop Your Own Imagination:
I have no special knowledge in this particular area other than what seems to be intuitively true, so please do chime in in the comments if you have any particular experience in this regard. If all of the above is true, and imagination is a difference maker in problem solving then it would seem to be in our best interests to work to develop the imagination, perhaps by ‘exercising the imaginative muscle’ with focused frequency.
Interested in hearing others’ thoughts on what I have suggested as the two distinct kinds of smart, so please sound off in the comments.
- About the Author
Nathan Safran is a former Analyst at Forrester Research where he covered the Digital Home. While at Forrester, Nathan authored research studies on trends, attitudes and behaviors of consumers toward technology adoption and use.
Nathan has been quoted as a subject matter expert in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Fortune magazine. Currently, Nathan heads the Research Department at Conductor, Inc an SEO Technology Platform firm.
Nathan writes at exceljockey.com about the intersection of Business, Technology and Psychology. See the About page for more info. Follow Nathan on Twitter: @Nathan_Safran