Smart vs. Curious

James Prashant Fonseka
3 min readMar 25

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I’ve noticed that I find some undeniably brilliant people to be rather uninteresting. While a bit obvious in hindsight, I’ve realized that is because those people aren’t especially curious. If you’re intelligent you can learn and adapt readily, but to do that requires some internal or external prompting.

Many receive external prompts to follow a set societally dictated formula in life which might entail sports, academics, going to a college, getting a well respected job, getting married, buying a home, having kids, buying a vacation home, and eventually retiring. That’s all fine and well and if you’re brilliant you may be able to accomplish all of that more easily and possibly with better outcomes, such as going to an ivy league versus a state school, but you more or less of follow the same path as most people. Those with internal prompts to thinking can deviate significantly.

One can define curiosity as internal or innate prompting to thinking which can lead to thinking more about we don’t necessarily have to, resulting in divergent thinking. Curiosity feels related to but different from creativity. We’ve recently made machines creative, arguably more creative than humans in the application of generative AI, though we have yet to really try to make them curious. When I reflect on which people in my life are curious, I realize that set of beings is distinct and separate from the people I consider to be very intelligent. I do think that curiosity can maximize one’s potential intelligence, as repetition strengthens neural paths and the curious are inherently more inclined to think that the uncurious. But being smart and curious are two different things. I love people who are smart and curious.

A lot of the people I get along with best fall into that category of being both smart and curious. It’s a lovely combination to wander the world with a whim towards novelty and so fully absorb the wonder. Curious people ask questions, either in their own minds or to others. Curious people are critical, not because they’re mean, but because it’s to look just at the face of a form, but around it’s edges to see what it else is there. Often, that leads the curious to see what is absolute real but not visible to all. I was at a conference recently with a lot of people I would consider to smart and curious, and few were willing to take a rather spectacular magic show at face value. We were all in awe but by the end of it had collectively deciphered with a reasonable level of confidence all of the tricks. This is a downside to curiosity.

The curious people often ending up knowing too much about the world. If you look hard enough you can understand a lot, which can diminish from the magic and mystery of the world. Thankfully, there’s a practically infinite amount of information and material in the world to think about it. So the curious might get bored easily as their internal drive to think pushes quickly towards relative mastery on subjects, accelerated by intelligence, but there’s plenty more for them to tackle. On the flip side, I find that intelligent people lacking curiosity are problematic in other ways.

I have observed in people I think are intelligent but not curious that they are often quite uncritical and overly confident in their beliefs. Being intelligent can make a person very good at convincing themselves and others of something, but that doesn’t necessarily make them right. I see this a lot in people’s political beliefs. I find most smart and curious people have relatively nuanced political stances. One should, the idea that one party in a two party political system has a monopoly on being right is absurd. But I’ve noted a lot of highly intelligent, highly educated people often have extraordinary blinders than keep them stuck in a particular political lane. I see this more with American progressives, as I know more people who identify that way, though it’s a trait that is classically associated with the right and suspect it’s just as true there.

Intelligence is awesome. Curiosity is awesome too. When you put them together, it makes for a really special human, and I think the overlap between the two is actually relatively small. I am more mindful now to appreciate those I meet who are both.

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James Prashant Fonseka