Developing an Appetite for Hard Ideas

Richard Feynman, professor and Nobel-prize winning physicist purportedly only had an IQ of 125. Smart, but hardly in the rarefied spectrum we normally consider for genius.

This trivia is usually brought up to show the ridiculousness of IQ testing. If an obvious genius doesn’t qualify for Mensa, how valid can it be for normal people?

After reading Feynman’s memoirs, a different idea struck me. While his intelligence is obvious, what impressed me most was his persistence in learning hard ideas. He would reread physics papers meticulously for hours, and all of their sources, until he understood an idea from the bottom up.

Perhaps genius isn’t best defined by raw intellectual ability. Instead, maybe it’s the appetite for hard ideas that makes someone smart.

Intelligence as Endurance

The two explanations aren’t mutually exclusive. Feynman’s intelligence was probably underestimated by the IQ test, even if he also had a greater thirst for hard problems.

Despite this, intelligence-as-endurance has empirical support. Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, studied the effect of mindset on intelligence. Students who believed smarts were malleable wanted to take on harder challenges, and became smarter than students with more talent but less motivation.

Dweck contrasts the two groups of students as fixed-mindset and growth-mindset. Believing your abilities were rigid killed students’ appetite for hard ideas, while a growth mindset fostered it.

In my own experience working with students, I’ve seen how appetite for hard ideas translates to success. When faced with a concept that they don’t understand, most students simply accept the correct definition and memorize the solution. Top learners don’t do this—they struggle obsessively to figure it out.

Hunger for Hard Ideas

When I was a kid, I liked books by Brian Greene. Not out of a deep love of physics, but simply because the ideas were hard to understand at first glance. Following all the concepts required thinking differently about the world.

A hunger for hard ideas is a specific subset of curiosity. It’s seeking explanations for things because they are hard to understand. Because, when those ideas are understood, the satisfaction of knowing something difficult to learn is even greater.

People who believe in superstitions lack this hunger. They are curious for explanations, but they prefer naïve explanations that are easily understood. They prefer incorrect explanations, than accepting hard ideas exist.

Developing Your Appetite

I agree with Dweck’s research that a key distinction enabling people to love hard challenges or shrink away in fear, is mindset. If you believe certain domains of knowledge are too difficult for you to understand, then you’ll avoid hard ideas.

People with the right attitude believe no idea is too difficult to understand. The only reason you don’t know everything is that you haven’t spent the time to learn it all yet. Effort is the only barrier, not ability in 99% of all cases.

The worst limiting belief in this area is the idea that some are “math”, “arts” or “English” people. Once again, it’s true to the extent you make it true. Some people will be faster than others, but no branch of knowledge is off-limits.

Feynman was a perfect example of this. He may be renown for physics, but less people know he was also an amateur musician, artist, linguist, engineer and lock picker. There isn’t enough time in one life to become perfect at everything, but that’s a constraint of lifespan, not talent.

Seeking Hard Ideas – Why Aren’t More People Autodidacts?

A question that has bothered me is, why aren’t more people self-educated? With the internet’s immense resources, almost anything can be learned online for free, or for a fraction of the cost of tuition.

Some possible answers are that learning is difficult without instruction, the content is boring, there aren’t good systems for proving knowledge obtained outside of an institution. To a certain extent these are all correct.

However, a bigger culprit is that people simply don’t like hard ideas. The reason millions of people pay billions of dollars to attend university, but only a tiny fraction watches brilliant MIT, Harvard or Stanford lectures online is because most people won’t learn for fun. Without the prospect of a diploma, most people would rather watch television.

But even if most people can’t be bothered to learn hard ideas if they aren’t given a carrot or stick to motivate them, some people will. Those people, armed with the near-infinite resources of our age and a hunger to learn for the sake of learning, will outrun the prodigies and gifted who shy away from the challenge.