Look Beneath the Surface

Practical intelligence is another way of saying common sense, but we all know that common sense truly is not so common. One of the key lessons to learn with practical intelligence is that nothing is what it seems at first glance. The world doesn’t readily reveal itself nakedly to you, so it’s up to you to look beneath the surface to understand what you see. We want to do this, but we are too often driven by certainty and speed instead of actual truth.
The first and most natural way to probe below the surface is through cultivating curiosity. There are five types of curiosity, each of which can be said to be a motivation for asking questions: joyous exploration, deprivation sensitivity, stress tolerance, social curiosity, and thrill-seeking. However, curiosity will rarely come easily or naturally, especially about things that we don’t have an innate interest in. So we need to generate that same approach through other methods.

Look Beneath the Surface

Some of us are blessed with academic intelligence, otherwise known as pure book intelligence. This ability helps you in school, but it has limited applicability in the real world. It turns out there is just not that much use for memorizing equations and taking tests most of the time.
Others of us have kinesthetic intelligence, emotional intelligence, and even musical intelligence. You can guess what areas of life those help with.
But practical intelligence is sorely lacking these days. It’s also known as common sense, seeing the world for what it is, and how to think. In reality, it turns out that how we navigate the world and approach it is far more important than what we actually know about it.
Practical intelligence is about taking in your surroundings, ascertaining what’s happening, and then making the best decision for you with the information you’ve got. This might seem to be the most important of thinking skills, but it’s also one that is never explicitly taught. We are mostly left to ourselves to figure it out, and this can easily explain a lot of the mental errors we observe people making on a daily basis.
Going out of business sale? Okay, I need to buy everything right now.
This news article makes an outrageous claim without a citation? Well, sounds about right, so I will now believe it with all my might.
If I feel something is true, then it must be true.
And so on. You may be able to spot these errors at the moment, but these thoughts occur automatically throughout our lives, and we certainly don’t catch all of them. Let’s take the first step into using our brains for good, instead of using them to fall into traps and follies. It’s always about looking underneath the surface and stopping the assumption that you can trust what you see, hear, and feel.
We’ve all got that distant relative or long-lost friend who sends us occasional e-mails outlining the details of an off-the-rails conspiracy theory. This week, it’s the outrageous, infuriating, and “totally proven!” theory that the government is using children’s television shows to send secret messages to obey their orders. And unfortunately, you’ve opened this e-mail from your relative, even though you should know at this point that when something from this person is labeled “IMPORTANT!” it most certainly will not be.
“Look at this data from the National Alphabet Council!” they write. “It shows that Big Bird from Sesame Street triggers a part of your brain that responds positively to authority! It’s all in his beak! Over 85 percent of all Sesame Street watchers report experiencing electrical seizures every time Big Bird appears onscreen! I learned all this from Jack Sprat’s podcast Under Attack! Stop your kids from watching Sesame Street unless you want them to be lackeys to an authoritarian dictator!”
Something strikes you as . . . fishy about this particular story.
The National Alphabet Council? What is that? And all those kids reporting seizures? Geez, you know some people with kids. You’d think you would have heard about this by now. And isn’t Jack Sprat that guy who claimed pasteurized milk makes schoolkids pledge allegiance to Satan?
All right, so you Google “National Alphabet Council.” To your utter lack of surprise, there’s no such organization with its own website. But you did find a link to a Snopes.com article that reveals the National Alphabet Council was used as a “source” to prove that Green Eggs and Ham was a Communist manifesto.
First off, this e-mail didn’t pass the sniff test—something just seems off about it. Next, you don’t find any data corroborating the reports on electrical seizures from kids watching Sesame Street. You find no evidence that Big Bird’s beak is sending out coded messages to children. However, you do find something about Jack Sprat: an interview he gave with a major metropolitan newspaper in which he admits, “Look, I’m just an entertainer. I make people feel a certain way. If I believed half the stuff I talk about, I wouldn’t be doing a show. I’d be curled up in the corner of my room, waiting for the world to end. Instead, I get a handsome paycheck!”
You send this information to your relative. They respond back, “Well, that’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that. But that Jack Sprat is so passionate about his beliefs, and he’s a great communicator. I think I’ll stick to what he says. Say, have you heard the Illuminati is monitoring your online dating profiles?”
Humans all want certainty. We want to be sure of our beliefs—uncertainty is an uncomfortable feeling that we try to eliminate every time we make a decision or plan an event. And we want it fast—now, if not sooner.
Many of us consider doubt and hesitation as roadblocks to getting things done or signs of insecurity in our thoughts. We’ve even been taught since we were young that speed of certainty is a sign of intelligence and solid thinking. As a result, we often race to get our beliefs affirmed by the first source we find and adopt them as proven truth.
This path presents a critical error in our natural thinking instincts, and it’s a tendency we must veer away from for better, smarter thinking. Certainty is more important than accuracy. We tend to seek out confirmation that’s more passionate than truthful. We’re more impressed by someone on television mounting a fervent argument about an issue, instead of a calm, reasoning, boring person who simply lays out the facts as they are. If someone’s acting intensely about their beliefs, we’re inclined to think they must have the truth on their side, and we get swept up right along with them.
Practical intelligence is about seeking truth, not prioritizing removing uncertainty over establishing certainty. They aren’t the same thing. Eliminating uncertainty means giving serious thought to what’s causing doubt—in our opening short story, that would be looking up the National Alphabet Council to find out if they’re on the up-and-up. Establishing certainty is simply glomming on to the first “fact” that soothes the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty, insecurity, and simply not being sure of something.
This first chapter is about not accepting anything at face value, because face value tends to deceive in often intentional ways. It’s about seeking the truth and nothing but the truth. You can imagine this might make you a pain in the butt to deal with, but it’s really not about that. It’s about the fact that every situation has at least some complexity and nuance underneath it. And if you keep digging, oftentimes, things are completely different from what they seemed at first glance.
Making this whole process harder is the fact that the brain loves certainty so much that it processes it as a reward. Uncertainty is perceived by the brain as a threat that needs to be extinguished. The sooner we can remove that threat with certainty, the better, no matter how shaky the certainty’s foundation.
The most effective models of thinking help us quickly decipher and comprehend what’s happening in our world. They make it easier to decode and interpret what we see and lead us to consider matters more thoroughly. Ultimately that course will be more rewarding than slap-dash validations of what we prefer to believe.
One helpful thought structure could be called “strong opinions loosely held.” This means being positive and assured about what you believe, but open-minded enough to hear out viewpoints that might challenge your own. It also means accepting that there’s nothing weak or embarrassing about changing your mind. Doing so with a solid grip on the facts is actually a sign of your mental strength; merely agreeing with the crowd is the real weakness.
Of course this is easier said than done, what with our brains being hungry for assurance and anxious in the face of disbelief. But we can train our brains to go more deeply beyond appearances and uncover the hidden details we don’t see at first glance.