How can you spot intelligence in people?

Mike Schoultz
5 min readOct 18, 2018

Are you looking to spot intelligent person characteristics? If so, pay attention and this article will help you out.

Stupid people tend to overestimate their competence, while smart people tend to sell themselves short. As Shakespeare put it in “As You Like It“: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

That conventional wisdom is backed up by a Cornell University study conducted by David Dunning and Justin Kruger. The phenomenon is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

So, if you’re not too sure about your own intellect, it actually might be an indication that you’re pretty intelligent — thoughtful enough to realize your limitations, at least.

Intelligence has been a prized human trait for a long time. When we think of smart people, we know that they typically earn more money, attend school for longer, and have an easier time managing all of the troubles we face in life. They seem to have more common sense and see things that will happen over the long term. Maybe they’re even better at games like poker.

When you spend time with a highly intelligent person, it’s obvious that they are smart. They don’t need to tell you that they’re smart, show you proof of their achievements, or be arrogant. You just know. Their brilliance and common sense show themselves during routine conversations. They just seem more knowledgeable about everything than others.

There are common characteristics of highly intelligent people. If you’re spending time trying to hire the right person for an available job position and want to make sure to hire someone brilliant or simply want to surround yourself with smart people, you should look for these characteristics in the people you meet. If someone has a lot of these characteristics, they’re probably highly intelligent.

This has been a ‘hobby’ of mine for several decades now. Let me share the many common signs of intelligence I have observed.

Talk only to share information

To them, small talk is simply that. Small. Meaningless even. It’s a waste of time.

They proactively listen to others and digest what was said before explaining their counter-argument.

They bounce ideas and hypotheses off of others rather than discuss random pop psychology or the latest news on a celebrity couple.

In short, they shamelessly focus on what’s important.

Brutally honest with what they don’t know

I think a common trap that many people fall under is trying to pretend we understand something that we don’t know while nodding our heads meaninglessly. We do this because we don’t want to appear uninformed and unknowing. (I’m still working to improve on this myself)

I think intelligent people get straight to the point. They say “I don’t understand this, can you explain it to me like I’m 5?”

They could care less about what others perceive their understanding or intelligence to be. What they do care about is catching up and learning so that they can understand in the first place.

They know that without a solid understanding of the basics, there’s no hope for them to grasp the more complex material.

Good sources: Online Resources … 19 to Learn the Best Practical Skills

Consider different perspectives

Truly intelligent people have the ability to inhabit a different perspective, especially a perspective they disagree with. Abraham Lincoln would sometimes argue with a friend from one perspective, and then they would switch and argue from the opposite perspective.

Nothing to prove

They never feel the need to prove to other people how smart they are. They don’t brag about it. Casual acquaintances probably don’t even know. I think this is because they are so secure about their intelligence that it’s a non-issue to them. My father went to Harvard and had a stunning memory. He never used his IQ as a way to make other people feel inferior. People who want to let everyone know how smart they are — yeah, I doubt they are.

Have patience

Leonardo Da Vinci called it “sfumato” or “smoke.” The idea is that not everything is clear, and the desire to have an answer now can lead someone into error. Intelligent people have patience with difficult, dense, or even ambiguous or vague subjects. Patience is defined as “the ability to endure, ” and in this case, a sign of intelligence is enduring not having a clear, definite answer.

Know how to explain their craft

This especially applies to people who are professionals or experts in their field.

This is because they’ve been through it all. They know what it’s like to come across the topic for the first time. To progressively learn more about it as a student. To having dedicated hours studying and researching and becoming an expert.

They know what the stages of learning are, and can explain their craft to anyone in those respective stages.

Albert Einstein is well-known for saying the following quote:
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Good listeners

They read and go to talks. A sure sign of intelligence is reading and listening. The average CEO reads 50 books a year. Warren Buffett spends most of his time reading. He’s fond of saying “the more you learn, the more you earn.”

Continuous learners

They read a lot and are constantly still learning. My father always took us to historical places or natural wonders during our summer vacations. Battlefields. Museums. Grand Canyon. Stuff like that. Our pleas to go to Disneyland went unheard. My father wanted to learn things on his days off — and his days on too. He not only read both fiction and nonfiction, but he also watched many documentaries.

Seeking new perspectives

Intelligent people aren’t afraid or ashamed to tell you when they don’t know something. I’ve had more than one doctor try and fake his way through a conversation when I knew more about a medical condition than he did. When I found a doctor, who said, “I don’t know. I’ll research that.” — I kept that doctor.

More: Important Life Lessons … I Learned These Too Late in Life

Are consistently curious

They ask questions. I guess they realize that the way you learn things is often to ask.



Mike Schoultz

Mike Schoultz writes about improving the performance of business. Bookmark his blog for stories and articles.