12 non-obvious signs someone is highly intelligent

We sometimes include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Read our affiliate disclosure.

Intelligence is multi-faceted, so it may not always be immediately apparent that someone is incredibly bright.

People don’t tend to walk around bragging about their cognitive skills, but there are ways to tell whether someone you just met has a lot going on beyond the surface.

Or, perhaps you want to confirm that you’re the sharp one?

Whatever the case, here are 12 non-obvious signs someone is highly intelligent.

Turns out, humility is often part of the package.  

1) They’re curious

Highly intelligent people realize that the more you know, the more you don’t know.

As a result, they’re lifelong learners curious about the world around them.

They may be avid readers or have a vast knowledge of a particular subject they researched just for fun.

Additionally, when a topic they’re not familiar with comes up in conversation, they’ll either look it up right then and there or make a note to dig into it later.

They’re not afraid to admit that they’re not knowledgeable enough about something to form an opinion, and they get excited about finding out new things.

Which brings me to my next point.

2) They ask good questions

Clever people ask good questions.

About yourself, existence, everything.

They seek to understand complex concepts on a deeper level, so their questions are thought-provoking and insightful.

When you’re engaged in conversation with someone who is highly intelligent, you find yourself challenged in the best way possible.

Coming up with answers to their inquiries is no walk in the park, especially when the scope of your interaction goes further than just small talk.

3) They have a sense of humor

I like to think that humor comes from pain because there has to be a fun upside to experiencing hardship.

While that may be partially true, humor has also been scientifically linked to intelligence.

Quick wit, puns, and the ability to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas to deliver a hilarious joke – all showcase cognitive agility.

Not only that but the darker the sense of humor, the smarter the person.

Next time someone makes a morbid joke, there’s a good chance their IQ is above average.

4) They have an open mind

Highly intelligent people don’t get stuck in their ways.

Since they know they have a lot to learn, they’re open to different perspectives and don’t shy away from entertaining unconventional ideals.

They are also more receptive to exploring viewpoints that challenge their own, so you can frequently find them engaging in debates with people with whom they don’t have a lot in common.

It’s how they grow.

5) They’re empathetic

Intelligence isn’t only about smarts. It’s also about emotions.

An empathetic person might not be able to solve complex mathematical equations or beat you at Trivial Pursuit, but they display tremendous emotional awareness.

This helps them be attuned to others’ emotions and effectively navigate social situations, skills that can indicate high intelligence.

Here are some signs that someone is emotionally intelligent:

  • They’re able to put themselves in others’ shoes and offer support or assistance when needed
  • They understand how their emotions impact their thoughts and behaviors
  • They can solve conflict in a productive manner
  • They have healthy and meaningful relationships with others
  • They give great advice

Not too shabby.

6) They’re problem solvers

As highly intelligent people don’t get stuck in their ways, they can be excellent problem solvers.

They are more likely to come up with creative solutions to problems or find innovative solutions to challenges, making them valuable to their loved ones and their employers alike.

If someone is actively interested in expanding their mind, they can approach issues from various angles that might not be apparent at first glance.

For instance, I have a friend who is flexible in her thinking and sometimes helps me come up with constructive ways to manage my work.

When I recently complained about being overwhelmed with tasks to the point of feeling stuck and ineffective, she suggested I gamify the experience.

For every completed task, I win one point. Gather 5 points, and I get a prize.

Depending on how complex the tasks are, the prize can vary from a savory treat to a night out with friends to a new outfit.  

While this approach didn’t suddenly shrink my workload, it helped me tackle it with more enthusiasm, which had a positive effect on my productivity.

Who would have thought?

7) They are good at explaining things

A non-obvious sign that someone is highly intelligent is that they can distill complex ideas into clear and concise explanations.

Instead of getting lost in their own brilliant mind, they help others elevate their thinking without talking down to them and making them feel small.

If you leave a conversation feeling smarter or learning something new without even trying, the person you were talking to probably has an impressive IQ.

8) They’re adaptable

Highly intelligent people tend to adapt well to new situations and are quick learners.

They can grasp new concepts and skills efficiently, so they handle change better than the average folk.

This also makes them surprisingly resilient

Their adaptability helps them navigate failure and obstacles with more ease.

9) They have evolving opinions

Is there anything more ignorant than someone who defends their opinion even when presented with undisputed evidence of the contrary?

Highly intelligent people don’t do that.

They analyze this new proof and aren’t afraid to admit they were wrong about something or change their mind.

The goal shouldn’t be to form an opinion and stick with it for the rest of your life.

As long as you’re willing to continually question your way of thinking, you’re more likely to grow as a person and expand your knowledge with time.

It’s a subtle sign that you’re considerably cleverer than others might give you credit for.

10) Their thinking is abstract

Some highly intelligent people love to think in abstract terms.

They don’t mind ambiguity, as it enables them to explore hypothetical scenarios.

They may express themselves in metaphors, as well as think beyond the present moment and consider future possibilities.

If a person engages you in a captivating conversation about parallel universes, alien life, abstract art, or the intricacies of the human life journey, they’re not necessarily eccentric.

But they’re highly intelligent, for sure.

11) They suffer from imposter syndrome

As I’ve already mentioned, highly intelligent people are also painfully aware of their limitations and how much they still have to learn.

Unfortunately, this can make them underestimate their skills and smarts, making them experience imposter syndrome.

Dumb people, on the other hand, often overestimate their abilities due to their limited knowledge.

12) They’re great listeners

Highly intelligent people make it a point to absorb and consider new information.

Instead of interrupting others or jumping into the conversation head first, they take their time to observe and assess.

This makes them exceptional listeners.

They don’t just assume they know what you’ll say. They actually pay attention to you and respond in a thoughtful manner.

In short, they make you feel heard and understood, even if they disagree with you or offer an opposing point of view.   

Bottom line

Education and intelligence are different beasts.

Just because someone isn’t well educated doesn’t mean they’re not highly intelligent, and vice versa.

The non-obvious signs included above might not apply to every clever person on the planet.

Still, they can help you assess whether someone is smart as a whip, even when their abilities are more subtle. 

Lost Your Sense of Purpose?

In this age of information overload and pressure to meet others’ expectations, many struggle to connect with their core purpose and values. It’s easy to lose your inner compass.

Jeanette Brown created this free values discovery PDF to help clarify your deepest motivations and beliefs. As an experienced life coach and self-improvement teacher, Jeanette guides people through major transitions by realigning them with their principles.

Her uniquely insightful values exercises will illuminate what inspires you, what you stand for, and how you aim to operate. This serves as a refreshing filter to tune out societal noise so you can make choices rooted in what matters most to you.

With your values clearly anchored, you’ll gain direction, motivation and the compass to navigate decisions from your best self – rather than fleeting emotion or outside influences.

Stop drifting without purpose. Rediscover what makes you come alive with Jeanette Brown’s values clarity guide.

 

10 signs that you’re better at influencing others than you think

8 confidence-boosting tricks that actually work, according to science