Intelligence v. Knowledge

Synaptic connections in the brain

When I was in graduate school, one of my four jobs that paid my bills was tutoring athletes. I love to teach others, especially in a small setting, so I thought this job would be perfect for me.

My first student was a third-year soccer player. After we shook hands, she gave me this kind of wary look as if she was saying, “Oh, geez. I am definitely not looking forward to this.” Of course part of her reaction might have been to my perky demeanor and flashy red hair.

I think mostly she was not looking forward to working with a tutor because she didn’t feel smart. She ended up being one of the smartest athletes I’ve ever tutored.

With the soccer girl and with each new athlete, I began by explaining the difference between intelligence and knowledge. These two concepts, I believe, are not understood well by most people, making many people feel dumb and stupid. Here’s a little explanation in hopes of illuminating the fact you do not have to have multiple degrees to be intelligent.

Intelligence Defined

Intelligence is the capacity to understand. Each person was given a clean slate at birth on which to write the lessons they learn in life. Each person has the capacity to understand. Now, yes, of course, some people understand more swiftly than others, and some people are born with impediments disabling them from learning. As a general rule, everyone has the ability to understand.

As a person grows, their brain takes on the look of a tree with many branches. The more a person knows, the more synaptic connections the brain makes between each concept and the more intelligent a person can become.

Knowledge, Not Intelligence

Then comes the defining factor between the smart kids and the dumb kids: knowledge. Knowledge is information learned. What the athletes I worked with believed (and what I think a lot of people believe) is if they don’t KNOW something, then they think they’re stupid. If they don’t know how many sentences make up a paragraph or what a linking verb is, they think they’re dumb.


They do not know what a linking verb is because no one gave them that knowledge. It does not mean they are unintelligent. What they have NOT been told is that “being smart” or “being intelligent” comes from gaining knowledge.

Everyone can gain knowledge!

A friend of mine spent his life playing football. He ate, slept and drank football. That was all the people in his life encouraged him to pursue. Football. Football. Football. When we started work at a job together, it seemed like he had a “dumb” complex.

“I’m dumb. You’re too smart for me with all those big words you use.”

Wrong! He was incredibly intelligent! I could definitely see him running his own company one day.

The only difference between us was when he was poring over football tactics and strategies, I was reading books upon books upon books. I had a lot of knowledge of words because I spent my childhood reading. He had a lot of knowledge of football because that’s all he focused on growing up. That didn’t make him dumb. I tried telling him he was intelligent, but I do not know if he ever truly believed me.

Don’t Play Dumb

If you are one of those who has felt dumb their whole lives, take heart. You are not stupid. You were born with intelligence. You may be dyslexic or ADD or ADHD or a slow reader, but that does NOT mean you cannot gain knowledge.

I spent one year working with my soccer student. She began the process dreading what was to come. By the end, after weeks upon weeks of ingraining into her head that she was smart, she didn’t need me anymore! When we first started, she was hesitant to begin any writing assignment without me (no one ever told her she could write). After less than a year of writing assignments, she began doing them on her own! It wasn’t because of any great skill of mine to teach her – it was because she finally understood that she had intelligence!

You have intelligence, too! I promise.