Skip to content

Intelligence Is Never Solo

Ahmed Soliman
4 min read
Intelligence Is Never Solo
Edward Hopper’s Rooms by the Sea

I just realized this as I’m approaching my thirties: I’ve largely ignored a crucial cornerstone of intelligence: relationships.

Since college I’ve been apathetic to networking—even purposely trying to do things on my own. In large part it was due to my upbringing. I grew up without an extended family. My parents didn’t have any friends I can remember. They often discouraged me from forming new bonds or getting to better know my acquaintances. What does he want from you? Where does he live? Why do you want to go to his house? were some of the questions they’d aggressively ask whenever I introduced a new name to the conversation. In their eyes, relationships brought nothing but headache and drama, and so it was best to mind one’s own business. On national holidays and summer breaks our house stayed largely the same: silent.

This meant I grew up lacking the social tools people acquire from, simply, interacting with each other. Even though I left home for college, the consequences of such upbringing had been already set in stone: I missed most of the social dynamics tacitly understood; I fumbled at promising interactions due to overthinking; and I watched my social anxiety worsen as I grew up. Though away from their presence, my parents’ influence dictated my movement. As students exchanged numbers, joined social clubs, fell in love, and formed strong relationships that would even prompt some of them to start successful startups together, I mostly stayed in my room on my desk with my laptop, reading blogposts and going through online comments. In the real world however, and aside from a meaningful friendship lasting after graduation, I left college exactly as I’d entered it: alone and socially puzzled.

In business books and interviews they often summon the relationship that changed everything. Almost every ambitious undertaking I read about started with a network of two lucking into each other. Jobs met Wozniak at HP; Gates befriended Ballmer at Harvard; Sandberg ran across Zuckerberg at a party. Deliberate cooperation out of serendipitous handshakes was the recipe for fantastic success, movers and shakers would assert.

Confused and overwhelmed by people, I took on the task of disproving the inescapability of networks: I was intelligent enough to bypass gatekeepers, I told myself. After graduation, when the rest dashed to grow their LinkedIn accounts and hoard business cards, I wiped my social profiles and ghosted reunion invites. As my peers spoke fondly of a John or a Marie who personally attended to their application, getting them into places known for ruthless vetting and hostility to strangers, I silently uploaded my resume on faceless interfaces. Knowing people for the sake of it because you’ll eventually need them was a game they played. Some of them even remembered to periodically check in on past colleagues and classmates. To me, this was unfathomable.

Shortly after graduation, I was vindicated—or so I thought: my resume caught the attention of a recruiter overseas, leading to a lucrative move to the US. I saw bewilderment on friends’ faces as they bid me farewell at the airport: how could a loner land such opportunity? Does he have a thriving network we don’t know about? I didn’t, but I read enough books and observed enough people to know how the world worked. I thought I was on to something.

The new move didn’t prompt any changes to the way I carried myself: I remained socially disoriented, uninterested in building social capital. I believed my intelligence would suffice, that acquiring knowledge equaled to, if not prevailed over, collecting names. I’d double the books I was reading, bookmark as many notes as I could, send resumes everywhere and I should be fine. And for the ambitious goals I had I kept reassuring myself that at a certain inflection point people would be interested in what I had to offer. I was wrong.

Six years after moving to the US, things started to slow down for me. I was lacking the focus required to get things done. There were beats I was constantly missing as I worked. Laboring alone, I couldn’t separate the wheat from the chaff. Thinking solo, ideas hailed from everywhere and I didn’t know which was applicable. Is this how people normally build products? Where’s the path and how long till I get there? Are these even the right questions to ask? Whenever I thought of a problem or a possibility, I wanted to speak to someone. I also missed talking to people. Whenever this happened, I’d remind myself what my parents indirectly instilled in me: groups did nothing but interfere with signals. My adequate intelligence and strong curiosity should be more than enough, I reasoned.

Shortly after, I stumbled on a paper by Jerome Burner, a psychologist with extensive contributions to cognitive psychology. I was interested in his work on the power of narrative in shaping humans’ perception of reality. Building up to the idea of situated intelligence, he wrote the following paragraph:

An individual’s working intelligence is never “solo.” It cannot be understood without taking into account his or her reference books, notes, computer programs and databases, or most important of all, the network of friends, colleagues, or mentors on whom one leans for help and advice. Your chance of winning a Nobel Prize, Harriet Zuckerman once told me, increases immeasurably if you have worked in the laboratory of somebody who has already won one, not because of pull but because of access to the ideas and criticisms of those who know better.

I never thought about relationships this way. I never once considered that looking outwardly is a key piece of individuality. For all this time I viewed intelligence as an entirely private affair—partly because of my upbringing, and partly because of being forced into standardized social circles where the only thing I had in common with my peers was age. Even when I grew up, I picked jobs without considering the kind of people I’d be sharing a physical, and mental, space with. And so when the group was unforgiving and irrelevant, I retreated.

Intelligence is never solo should be enough reason for myself (and those whom my essay struck a chord with) to seek others. That people hold the keys to opportunities didn’t entice me to change, but a warning I might be doing my cognition a disservice sealed it.

So, hi. Ahmed here. How’s it been?