I hear all the time that someone is “smart,” but what does this mean? When I ask people they imply that they are intelligent; however, often I find that what people think is intelligence is actually just knowledge. Meaning, it seems that someone “appears” intelligent, because they know a lot of things, or has deep knowledge of some specialty. This is particularly true when it comes to fields of human endeavor such as knowledge of medicine, science, engineering, law, finance, culture, or history, among others.

However, there is a very important and crucial difference between intelligence and knowledge, particularly when it comes to employment: Intelligence is something that a person is born with and, therefore, cannot be taught, while knowledge is something that can only be acquired by learning or studying. Before we go any further, let me define intelligence (aka smart) and knowledge:  Intelligence is the ability to process information, understand something or analyze something very quickly, i.e., horse power, while knowledge is self explanatory.

As a general matter, it is better to be intelligent than knowledgeable, but it also depends on one’s profession. For example, one may not need to be intelligent to be a highly effective doctor; one needs to have excellent memory and knowledge base. On the other hand, those that have the need for problem solving absolutely need to be intelligent, because problem solving isn’t necessarily about old ideas, but bringing new ideas to the table or modifying old ideas to suit the new problem. In most situations and professions, intelligence is far superior to knowledge, but if someone can have both then this is the superior situation. However, this is very rare.

Also, many people believe that experience is vital to determine who is a better candidate and treat it equivalent to knowledge. This is absolutely not the case, even though it seems that it should be. However, there is one very big difference between knowledge and experience that make the two incongruous and experience almost useless: Knowledge is pure fact, while experience requires interpretation. This difference makes experience almost a useless criteria for evaluating candidates for hire, because experience requires lenses to interpret them and depending on the lenses worn to interpret the experience, the experiences can be very valuable or completely useless. So, why not evaluate the person’s lenses to make sure that the experience gained by the candidate is valuable, one may ask? First, most people are incapable of figuring out how to do so, second, the interviewer themselves typically have the wrong lenses themselves, therefore, their evaluation would be incorrect, anyway, and third, most people would not understand what it is that you were doing, which discourages one from trying.

This is not to say that intelligence is easily measured either but one can ascertain intelligence through conversation, puzzles, brain-teasers, logic questions, etc. Regardless, it is still easier to evaluate than the paradigm that people filter their experiences through.

The other thing that I will note is that many less challenging schools will try to pass on knowledge to their students, while the more challenging schools — like Ivy League schools, Seven Sister schools, MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, William and Mary, and such — will try to pass on the ability to think. So, the top schools look to admit intelligent people, not necessarily accomplished students. Then, upon graduation, it may seem that graduates from less challenging schools appear more useful to employers, because they may have immediate knowledge, but the fast start that they may achieve is quickly overshadowed by the fact that their lack of ability to problem solve, create, think and reason becomes a barrier to the success of the company.  This is why I will almost always prefer to hire an average graduate of a top school than the valedictorian from a less challenging school. This policy has proven correct time and time again. However, from a lesser school’s perspective, this is the only way they can challenge the top schools for high paying jobs for their graduates. This example, again, illustrates the fact that there is a huge difference between intelligence and knowledge, and which is more valuable, in general.

Regardless, it is imperative that people don’t confuse intelligence with knowledge. Especially figure out which is more appropriate in one situation or another, never be fooled by those that exhibit knowledge to hide their lack of intelligence or use their knowledge to try and suppress intelligent people. And, never give people’s experience credence or value without knowing the paradigm that it is filtered through. Finally, don’t confuse experience with knowledge. If you can do these things, you will have a much better command of your life, environment and career.

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