10 unexpected signs you’re intelligent, even if you never did well at school

Growing up, it seemed like our parents measured our smarts by one thing: school. 

“Do your homework. Get good grades and everything else will work out. That’s how you’ll succeed in life.”

Sometimes they’d even throw in a little weird cause-and-effect – “If you don’t study, you’ll end up picking up people’s trash!”

I never did particularly well in school (especially in math!). But the funny thing is, I grew up to become a teacher. 

And while that would make me seem like a person mandated to parrot those same things our parents said, I actually am in a position to refute them, just a little bit. 

I mean, of course grades are important. But they’re not the be-all and end-all of life. In fact, I’ve had a lot of students who didn’t exactly do well in school, yet I could tell that they were smart!

Here are 10 unexpected signs you’re intelligent even if you never did well in school: 

1) You always want to know more

More than having stellar grades, a more reliable sign of intelligence is curiosity. You know why? 

Because anyone can memorize stuff. Anyone can follow a teacher’s instructions to the T and color within the lines. 

But the truly intelligent ones are more concerned with a different mission – to find out. 

Find out why. Find out how. Not just the whos and whats and whens. 

I don’t even have to draw from my own teaching experience to prove this. A study aptly called “Being Snoopy and Smart found that: 

“Curiosity is positively related to one’s general knowledge and reasoning ability. However, it is not related to mental processing speed or memory, indicating that curiosity is not related to fluid intelligence.”

In short, if you’re curious, you might not necessarily be good at memorizing facts and whatnot (which let’s face it, is a huge part of most school-related tasks). But you’re definitely good at reasoning. 

And if that’s not smart, I don’t know what is!  

2) You have varied interests

A natural consequence of your innate curiosity (and intelligence) is that you have more interests than other people. 

The smartest person I know is my older sister, who by the way, was an absolute disgrace at school. 

Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. (But really, she was always getting into trouble. Don’t tell her I told you!)

But as an adult, she has a lot of hobbies – gardening, cooking, diamond painting, rock climbing. And she also happens to love watching the History channel. 

Oh, and she also takes Spanish lessons (and loves hitting me with Spanish curse words…)

If you’ve noticed this kind of diversity in your interests, that’s a sign that you’re smart, no matter how meh your school performance was. It means your mind is flexible and complex! 

3) You’re a daydreamer

Daydreaming has always gotten a bad rap; in school, my teachers used to reprimand me for drifting off. 

Now that I’m a teacher myself, I don’t really make the conclusion that the kids who daydream aren’t smart. On the contrary, they likely are. 

You see, according to new research, daydreaming is a sign that you have too much brain capacity that you can’t stop your brain from wandering. 

Not only does that mean you’re intelligent, but also that you’re creative. Which is why…

4) You have a knack for solving practical problems

You might not have been the type to breeze through algebra or calculus, and you might have found it hard to write a book report on “To Kill a Mockingbird”. 

Does that mean you’re, uh, slow? 

Not so fast (pardon the pun). 

Your strength could very well be in finding practical solutions for real-life problems. Like a leaky faucet or creative storage solutions. 

Or how to get two people who hate each other to get along. 

Or how to manage your time so that you have a good work-life balance. 

You get the point. Someone could be book-smart but not street-smart. In the same way, you can be street-smart without having to be book-smart. 

Intelligence is not so one-dimensional, so rest assured that you’re smart in other ways other than academics. 

5) You can adapt to different situations

Following on from that, your resourcefulness and unique brand of intelligence is also the reason why you can adapt to any kind of situation

I know people who were at the top of their class, yet found it incredibly difficult to assimilate to a new environment. I also know people who simply coasted along in school but thrived in new cities or careers because they were quick to adapt. 

Adaptability calls for a mix of resourcefulness and the ability to keep a level head in the face of change. It’s a huge part of what scientists call “contextual intelligence”, the ability to apply intelligence practically. 

Unfortunately, that’s not something we get from textbooks. We can develop that skill only from experience. Pretty much like learning to swim or ride a bike.

When we stay open to new experiences, we become comfortable with uncertainty and not knowing. 

In my opinion, that’s a more valuable trait than knowing everything. Which is practically impossible anyway! 

But the confidence of knowing you don’t know but you’ll figure it out? That’s a real sign of intelligence. 

6) You have a good eye for details and patterns

Another non-school-related sign of intelligence is the ability to notice details

Once again, I present to you my sister. She’s got this all-seeing eye that notices everything – she’ll notice when someone has moved anything on her dresser. 

Plus, she picks up on people’s moods and body language easily. 

And while she may not have done very well in school because she was easily bored, she’s actually good at tasks that require precision. The word I’d give for it is “sharp”. 

If that sounds like you, then you know it, you’re smarter than what your grades said about you!

7) You tend to worry about things

Unfortunately, being smart isn’t always easy. Because then you have a tendency to worry. 

For intelligent people, worrying is a form of strategic thinking. You turn problems over and over in your head like a Rubik’s cube. You think about the what-ifs and potential outcomes. 

Of course, too much worrying isn’t helpful, but in the right amount, it means you’re conscientious about the decisions you make. 

It’s a sign you care about the impact of your actions and that you’re thoughtful in your approach to life’s challenges. 

As Brooklyn 99’s Jake Peralta would put it – “Smort! Toit!”

8) You know who you are

Back in high school, I had a friend who seemed not just intelligent, but wise. Wiser beyond our angst-ridden teenage years. 

It was strange because she wasn’t exactly a good student. But I had this sense that she was so much smarter than she let on. 

At a time when most of us were searching for who we were and what we wanted to be in this world, she had it pretty much figured out. 

I don’t mean that she already knew exactly the direction her life was going to take. What I mean is that she didn’t suffer from the typical concerns of a teenager – especially the struggles related to fitting in. 

She wore what she wanted to wear and had hobbies that a normal teenager wouldn’t (crocheting and collecting vintage items). And that’s what I admired about her. 

Her strong sense of self. She knew who she was and wasn’t afraid to let it show. 

If you’re the same way, then that means you’re intelligent. 

9) You’re empathetic

Aside from having a strong sense of self, you have a lot of empathy. That’s another sign that you’re intelligent even if you didn’t have good grades. 

You know why? 

Because that’s emotional intelligence right there. Which, as underrated as it is, is actually a better predictor of success in many areas of life than traditional academic achievement. 

Having empathy means you can place yourself in someone else’s shoes, appreciate their perspective, and respond with sensitivity and understanding. 

It shows you have not only self-awareness, but also the skill to connect in a genuine way. 

I hope you don’t think that’s an ordinary skill, because it isn’t. Dealing with people and messy emotions actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive processing.

Just because one graduated valedictorian doesn’t mean they’d be an excellent team leader. Or a good friend, partner, or family member. 

My point is, what we so easily dismiss as plain and simple good rapport with people is actually a complex skill that goes beyond grades. 

Which brings me to my final sign…

10) You’re funny – or at least have a good sense of humor

Are you a funny person? Maybe you were even labeled the “class clown” in school or “most likely to work in comedy”? 

Well, be proud of that. Humor is a huge sign of intelligence!

Just like people skills, being witty and having a good sense of humor all around requires higher-level thinking. 

The science is definite on that – a study of over 200 schoolchildren found that “general intelligence was highly correlated with humor.”

Specifically, the researchers discovered that intelligence explained 68% of the difference in the kids’ humor ability. 

What’s more, kids with “higher general knowledge and verbal reasoning have higher humor ability.”

In my best Chandler voice…could that be any more convincing? 

Final thoughts

It’s clear that intelligence stretches far beyond the classroom walls. I mean, we’ve got a long list of people who prove that – Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs…and Robert Downey, Jr.

So, even if you weren’t making straight A’s in school, I hope you see how all these other traits of yours show just how intelligent you are. I’m willing to bet that you’ve come a long way and are doing pretty well in life!

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