15 often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence

What does it mean to be smart?

Many of us have a typical image of an intellectual person who reads books, uses advanced vocabulary and wows people with his or her knowledge.

But being smart goes so much deeper than that.

Let’s take a look at many signs of profound intelligence that are often overlooked.

1. Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand and navigate emotions in yourself and others.

Emotional intelligence is increasingly essential for success at work, not only in one’s personal life.

The fact of the matter is that being emotionally intelligent makes many life experiences and conflicts much less stressful, time-wasting and upsetting than they otherwise would be.

This saves time and energy.

As Munawar Hussain writes:

“Emotional intelligence isn’t just about being nice; it’s also about handling stressful situations more effectively than less intelligent people.”

2. Exceptional creativity

Another of the often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence is creativity.

Creativity clearly comes in many forms. It can be your way of solving problems, your interest and passion for art or your talent for renovating a home in a unique and stunning way.

Creativity really has no limits and it’s all about what you apply it to, but being creative is certainly a rare and prized trait.

While creative people may not always be book readers or math whizzes, their ability to make our world more beautiful, vivid and expressive is incredibly valuable, and this is most definitely a trait of genuine intelligence.

3. Boundless curiosity

Curiosity is something that comes naturally to some of us, but not to everyone.

It’s also a marker of exceptional and true intelligence.

That’s because curiosity is really the first step to becoming knowledgeable and smart. If you don’t want to know, there aren’t many places you can go from there.

But when everything strikes you as curious and the unknown stimulates your interest, it’s the first step on an exciting knowledge journey.

Curiosity is often overlooked, however, or even interpreted as someone not being smart because of all the questions they ask.

Don’t be fooled: every brilliant person started by asking questions.

4. Thinking you’re not very smart

Next up in the often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence is thinking you’re not very smart.

This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: smart people generally know their weak spots and try to stay fairly humble, while less intelligent people routinely believe they’re much smarter than they are.

You may believe you’re not very smart and be correct in most ways, but a common sign of genuine intelligence is believing you’re quite limited.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in ethics as well, where people who are ethically upstanding individuals often underestimate their goodness, while those who tend to be quite egoistic or flawed often overestimate their ethical goodness.

This relates a lot to self-awareness, which is what I’ll touch on next…

5. High self-awareness

One of the top signs that you’re much smarter than you may think is that you’re highly self-aware.

This is quite different from being self-obsessed or narcissistic. It simply means you are quite aware of things about yourself, including:

  • How you’re feeling physically…
  • How you’re feeling emotionally…
  • The values and drives that motivate you…
  • Your strong and weak points…
  • What you want to improve in yourself and what you’re satisfied with…

Not everyone has this kind of self-awareness or would want to even if they could. That’s why having high self-awareness is one of the most often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence.

6. High situational awareness

Next up in the list of often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence is situational awareness.

This is a trait that’s increasingly lacking in modern life, particularly in people who may have grown up in a sheltered or suburban environment.

Situational awareness means noticing what other people want and what’s going on and could extend from something as simple as anticipating heavy traffic due to various clues ahead of time all the way to being able to spot a thief or violent individual in a crowd.

The importance of situational awareness can’t be overstated and is often underestimated.

In Mexico I experienced it firsthand after surviving a shooting at a restaurant and diving on the floor.

Following that bizarre and terrifying experience, walking around past bars and outdoor restaurant patios, I noticed the remarkable lack of situational awareness of most people and how different police and military were by contrast in their patrols and watching for predators.

Not everyone is the same: some are aware of the wider situation including emerging threats, most aren’t.

7. Outstanding communication skills

Not everyone is good at talking, and even some who are good at speaking aren’t very good at being understood or understanding others.

The fact of the matter is that having outstanding communication skills is incredibly important and requires enormous intelligence.

You may know somebody who seems average in all ways, yet has an amazing gift of the gab and networking ability: they talk and people listen!

That takes intelligence: verbal intelligence, social intelligence, emotional intelligence, and situational awareness.

Never underestimate communication skills, they’re incredibly useful and valuable.

8. Musical intelligence

Another of the very often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence is musical intelligence.

We all see it when we go to watch our favorite musician or band, or even just listen to a friend who’s incredibly gifted on the guitar, piano or another instrument.

Musical intelligence is intuitive, emotional, and deep.

Some people feel music and rhythm in their bones. Others also feel the lyrics and verbal side of music and become songwriters, penning the next hit that everyone sings from Buenos Aires to Berlin.

Musical intelligence isn’t as common as you might think, and it’s definitely a sign of unique and valuable intelligence.

9. Environmental intelligence

Next in the most often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence is environmental intelligence.

What is it?

Simply put, environmental intelligence is the talent for interacting with and understanding nature and natural systems.

An individual with environmental intelligence has an intuitive grasp or biomes and the ecosystem and quickly picks up the ability to name and understand plants, species, weather and environmental risks and benefits.

They are able to work in nature and work with nature in a cooperative and productive way that benefits all, such as, for example, in permaculture.

10. Detailed memory recollection

Having a good memory is as much a matter of genetics as it is of practice, but it’s most certainly a trait of intelligence.

The distinction of having a sharp and detailed memory can be seen when compared with the many people who do not.

Not only can having a good memory help you immeasurably in school and university as well as at work, it can also be a major benefit to interpersonal and romantic relationships.

That’s because it’s useful and everyone appreciates the person who remembers important things when everyone else has forgotten!

11. Immediacy in reaction time

Next up is the ability to have a quick reaction time.

This is especially important in jobs where a quick reaction time can save your life such as the military, emergency medical services, search and rescue and more.

But it also comes into play in many other smaller situations such as driving, interceding in and understanding conflicts, resolving daily problems and optimizing your personal and professional life.

People who react slowly tend to drag everything else around them down and often cause other extended knock-on effects.

A fast (and competent) reaction time is a definite sign of a certain type of instinctive, limbic intelligence that’s extremely valuable.

12. Crisis management competency

This leads directly into the next point: crisis management and response.

When life hands you unexpected and even dangerous situations, how do you react?

Having high situation awareness, self awareness and quick reaction time are all very important forms of intelligence, and so is your ability to deal with a stressful situation.

When the going gets tough or a crisis happens, some people run away and others respond with competency, calm and take it step by step.

If you’ve ever been in a hairy crisis then you’ve seen this play out in real time, and it’s very much a real thing: not everyone reacts the same to an emergency or difficult situation.

13. Negotiating and peace-brokering

In a related category to communication skills comes negotiating and peace brokering abilities.

This is especially valuable for diplomats, politicians and corporate CEOs, but it’s equally valuable for everyone else as well.

This is one of the those often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence:

The ability to compromise and reach a good deal, and the ability and skill to break through a conflict situation and give both parties something they want is incredibly rare and valuable.

This is a definite sign of intelligence that is often overlooked.

In fact, peace-brokers may even be blamed as accommodationists or “soft” when in fact they are simply looking for the most useful and productive solution to often very difficult and circuitous situations.

14. The ability to stomach the unknown

Another very misunderstood sign of intelligence is the ability to stomach the unknown.

This means the ability to exercise restraint in jumping to conclusions.

There are many things we may feel sure about and see proof of. Clearly humans need oxygen, water and food to survive, for example.

However, a misunderstood sign of intelligence is the ability to admit what you don’t know or are not sure about.

A surprising amount of people are unable to do that, especially adults.

It’s hard for some people to grapple with the fact that they just haven’t made up their mind yet or that the information and conclusions they’ve been given by society and others have not truly convinced them.

They don’t want to sound stupid or uninformed! So they claim a label or a firm position…

The unknown is frightening, for one thing. Secondly, it may be a hit to the ego to admit that you don’t know things like:

  • Whether you believe in God…
  • What the point of life is…
  • Where you stand on controversial issues…
  • What your goals are in life and love…

15. The will to live your own life

This leads directly to the last point here about the most often overlooked signs of genuine intelligence: force of will to live your own life.

Many people live photocopy lives: they do what they think they should, or what was told to them.

That’s not inherently bad, but it is limiting and leads to potentially missing out on many opportunities.

One of the top signs of intelligence is the ability to live your own life and your own values without needing the majority of people to approve of them or validate them.

This includes not overusing social media, retaining a down-to-earth outlook on life and being modest about yourself.

Being willing to admit you’re unsure and yet that you are still striking out on your own path in life nonetheless is both brave and smart.

If you don’t try your own path you’ll never know what you could have done, and all great discoveries and progress has happened that way.

Judging intelligence

The truth is that judging intelligence takes intelligence.

That’s because being smart comes in many different forms.

The items above in this article are many aspects of intelligence that modern society tends to overlook, but their value is very real and very applicable.

Before deciding whether you or somebody else is smart, keep in mind that genuine intelligence comes in many forms.

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