Two years ago, everybody thought that Elon Musk was the smartest man alive. Perhaps the smartest man to have ever been alive. Heck, probably even six months ago people may have believed this. And it was incredibly frustrating.

I have had the unfortunate misery of having to live in Elon Musk’s world for more than the last decade. I have seen his ideas come and go, and I have seen his thinking around important concepts change over time because (shock!) he, like many of my undergrads, was not born understanding aerodynamics. I have met him as a nobody, and I have met him as a superstar. In fact, the last time we met, I gave a talk immediately before him when he unveiled his “Colonizing Mars” plan. And it is not ironic that 90 per cent of the “plan” outlined in this talk was massively re-engineered because it was infeasible, or simply has still not happened.

It’s no industry secret that I’ve never liked him. I’ve always thought of him as a creep. There’s something about him that makes my skin crawl. But most of all, I thought he was dumb. Unsurprisingly, I used to get asked about Elon Musk a lot. And when I told people back then that Elon Musk was not that smart, I was usually the one who was berated for being “too dumb to know that he is much smarter than I am”. A phrase you may now be familiar with from the series late-stage capitalism playbook on: “Being too dumb to know that cryptocurrency is obviously going to take over the dollar system,” And: “Too dumb to know that Gamestop stock is the next big thing.”

But then something curious happened. Musk moved out of the hand-wavy, magical, unknown arena of thermodynamics, orbital trajectories, and aerocapture and into stuff that hundreds of thousands, nay millions, of people knew about: social media. And then everything changed.

Suddenly, pro-Musk tech bros all over the world were tweeting about how Musk seemed to just make up weird tweets which sounded fancy but were nearly always wrongly describing some entry-level software engineering concept. Did he get… dumb? One woman, in a brilliant tweet that I can no longer find, said that once he started discussing disinformation, the focus of her post-doctoral work, she realised that he was just making stuff up. And- shock horror- what if he was simply doing this in every field that he wandered into? What if he was never the smartest man alive?

Well, bad news folks, but yes. He’s been doing this for years across many industries. And the fact that he started in my industry means that I’ve had to live through a decade of people gaslighting me about how intelligent he is. If you think it’s rough living through Musk for the last year, welcome to my world. 

But what is most interesting to me is not the fact that people have now realized that maybe he’s not that smart after all. It’s the fact that, if you zoom out, you can start to understand how lay people intuitively judge “intelligence”. And that it’s nearly always not “they know more than me” but, in principle, “they know different stuff to me”.

I say lay people because intelligence, unsurprisingly, is a well-studied field with hundreds, if not thousands, of definitions of it. So apart from people whose careers are devoted to understanding the scientific ways in which humans out-think, out-play, and out-work each other, people generally have different ways of thinking about intelligence too.

The reason that the “they know different stuff to me” definition is interesting is because most people don’t think that this is how they define it, but subconsciously it is. They just don’t know it. 

Knowing different stuff is not being smarter

I’ll give you an example: when I was at school when I told people about the smartest person I had ever met (at that time), I talked about how he would casually talk about the British origins of foreign policy in Benin. Or about the end of the Sasanian Empire and the rise of Persia. Now, years later as an adult, I have realized that they are maybe one or two books that he read ahead of me. He’s definitely still smarter than me, but maybe the pedestal is smaller than I previously imagined.

Similarly, when I moved to the US and started engineering grad school, I remember sitting through PhD level classes in Ordinary Differential Equations and really, really struggling. Everybody around me, it appeared, was born with this knowledge; this work came very naturally to them. I can’t explain in words how humiliating it felt to be so stupid in comparison to my peers. One day, after a colleague had spent two hours trying to explain something to me (bless him), in frustration I asked him how he knows everything when I know nothing. The conversation sounded like this:

Sinead: “Lots of swear words”

Jason: “It’s really no different to XYZ (which I had also never heard of)”

Sinead: “What! There’s more stuff I don’t know? How the heck do you know all of this, you maths freak? I’m never going to be able to do this, our brains just work differently”

Jason: “Um, I already took this class in my undergrad. Twice actually, because I took another version of it to get extra credit but it was really the same class twice.”

BINGO. These infinitely-smarter-than-me people actually just learned this stuff ahead of me. I thought they had superior intelligence, but they just had a different knowledge base from me, which made them seem incomprehensibly smart. Like Musk talking about stuff you’ve never heard of, it sounds alien and smart and out of reach. They must be a genius. 

So now, I should clarify one thing. I am not pretending that some people are not smarter than others. They absolutely are. For example, while my colleague Jason had already taken a PhD maths class many times over, he was actually ridiculously smart. In fact, most of the people I worked with at NASA simply saw the world in a very different way than I did. Their brains were like ultrafast computation engines in comparison to my manual abacus brain.

But their intelligence was also unique and very specific. What they excelled at in one way, like everybody, they lost in other ways. They were typically not “all-rounders” or former college athletes; they weren’t the life and soul of parties (or at least parties as we would tend to think of them). As I said, measuring intelligence is extremely hard.

My purely anecdotal observations, after years of working with the “best”, “brightest” and “smartest” people in the world: they are not. They never are. There is no such thing. They are underwhelming. They do one, small, tiny thing extraordinarily well. So, in the same way, that I wouldn’t want the world’s foremost classical pianist to advise the Federal Reserve on interest rate hikes, I don’t care to listen to Elon Musk’s thoughts on the matter either. Neither the pianist nor Musk can will the future to bend towards us. And nor can their ability to play the piano or shitpost on Twitter give them the knowledge that a central banker has spent every waking moment of their post-high school life acquiring. That’s not how knowledge accumulation works.

How to know everything

My “smartest person I’ve ever met” friend from high school happened to go to Oxford to study astrophysics. When I was visiting, we spent the whole time watching University Challenge. When a couple of years later he appeared on University Challenge, I was proud as punch. One of us, I thought, has made it!

University Challenge is the world’s hardest quiz. You must have post-doctoral knowledge of what seems like 800 different niche topics, ranging from biomechanics to musical alliteration, to identifying regional rivers in India to naming organic chemistry compound structures.

Which has, naturally, led to people wondering: how the hell are these people such geniuses?

Well, what if I told you that you, too, could become one of these Knowledge Monsters on a Monday night, answering Jeremy Paxman with cool confidence?

It turns out that to become a person that everybody thinks is unbelievably, genius-level smart, you have to know a medium amount of knowledge about a few different areas. It is that simple

And once you understand how this works, and you do it yourself, you will see it everywhere. In fact, nearly all of the people that you think are geniuses, are not. They have just (1) learned different knowledge to you, and (2) done it in a systematic way that makes them look like gods. And once you do in fact start seeing it everywhere, listening to people worship others for their genius will become the most unbearably cringeworthy phenomenon in the world. 

First, to do this, you have to understand the structure of knowledge. That structure is commonly summarized through the following diagram. 

Now, if you imagine that most of the knowledge in the world is connected through concepts and generalized principles, you realise that you can appear to become quite knowledgeable about a lot of stuff quite quickly by learning the principles and concepts that underpin very wide topics. Let me give you an example.

If I was studying for a degree in Fine Arts, I would learn “Principle Generalization” around scale, proportion, unity, variety, shape, space, and so forth. The topics I could apply this to include modern art, contemporary art, some urban design, textiles, and so forth. So, if I studied Fine Arts by learning a small number of principles, I would likely be able to comment intelligently on architecture or haute couture fashion without wandering too far outside of my expertise.

Let’s use another example: engineering. Through studying engineering, I actually studied mostly maths. Engineering is actually applied maths. So engineering is a “topic” per this structure diagram. But the underlying principles of maths I could apply to lots of topics. And through my job, I did. The type of maths that I specialized in (the “concept”) was statistical regression and network analysis.

This means that I could apply this pretty easily to “topics” such as robotics, AI, statistics, numerical analysis, and so forth. It so happened that most of my focus was on human spaceflight, so I know a lot of “facts” about the space industry, like how spacewalks work, types of space propulsion or orbital trajectories. But equally, I did a lot of work on building autonomous vehicles for the DoD and creating intelligent systems (AI) for DARPA. Just as easily as working on spaceflight, I could apply the exact same statistical methods to finance and quantitative hedge funds.

It sounds like an insane amount of stuff. Yet… It’s. All. The. Same. Stuff.

By now, you should have realised that the principles I learned through maths apply to way more topics and facts than fine arts. Ergo, if your child is wondering whether to study the arts or maths… now you have your answer. And this is why you hear things such as “it’s easier for a rocket scientist to become an economist, than an economist becoming a rocket scientist”. Because econometrics, for me, was a subset of engineering (which is a subset of maths). Economists, however, can not work their way “up” the knowledge food chain to become engineers without re-training. Look at this graph which better shows the flow of knowledge from one field to another, and why such career “rules of thumb” exist.

This is, by the way, how some academics are able to publish in so many different fields simultaneously, much to the confusion of their peers (how do they know everything?!). Because the smartest academics have chosen to study a field of generalized principles and specialize in concepts that apply to massively wide-ranging topics that they can write about. Most people haven’t realized this yet, and as such are in complete awe of such humans, granting them the title “Polymath”. Cringe. 

So, you might be wondering if I think rather highly of myself, that as an engineer I can literally do any job and be an expert at everything. No, definitely not. I was lucky that my expertise was the “concept” of statistical maths, instead of a “fact” such as spacesuit design. This means I had the choice (but not necessarily the ability to simultaneously): go wide or deep in the knowledge graph. I chose wide. Most academics go deep. And yes, this is why I am no longer an academic. Hence you are reading this in The Currency and not in the Journal of Applied Psychological Perspectives on Bullshit. 

In this piece, I outlined, apart from the fact that Elon Musk is not superintelligent, that our perception of intelligence is guided by people having a large difference in knowledge to our own. Our assumption is that we all share the same Generalizable Principles, therefore the genius must have been able to scale the spectrum of human knowledge much faster and better than others. Not true.

In the next piece I’m going to use this framework to (1) outline how this framework creates strategies for winning University Challenge, and (2) how your favorite Substack writer or podcaster (or in fact Elon Musk) uses these same strategies to make you believe they’re the smartest person alive!