Climbing Fish and the Intelligence Misconception

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” — Anonymous (often misattributed to Albert Einstein). 

Everybody is intelligent…. in their own way.

The key is realizing that there are many types of intelligence. 

The article “Learning through Many Kinds of Intelligence” offers an easy-to-understand overview of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences developed by Dr. John Gardner. Dr. Gardner suggests that there are at least eight types of intelligence. A ninth has since been added to his original list. Recently there’s been talk of adding a tenth: Technological Intelligence. (Or, in keeping with the convention of having more casual names as well, what I like to call “Computer Smart”. The US Department of Commerce calls it “digital literacy”. ) Another example is submitted by Jennifer Kahn when she speaks of what she calls Emotional Intelligence in her article “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?” 

According to Dr. Gardner, traditional education has focused mainly on only two types of intelligence: Mathematical (“Number Smart”), and Linguistic (“Word Smart”). These are the types of intelligence developed by what is usually referred to as “book learning,” or “the three R’s” — Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic. No one disputes the importance of these. The difficulty arises when the other types of intelligence are neglected. Or worse, mocked and belittled. All types of intelligence need to be developed, at least to a certain degree, in order to become a full, well-rounded individual.

People often mistakenly think intelligence is something you’re born with rather than something you gain and develop. They think that if you didn’t get it at birth, you’re doomed to a life of never being able to learn anything of any complexity. 

But this is far from the truth. There is no such thing as just knowing something without having learned it first. Nobody has innate knowledge of anything (other than those things that are instinctual, like breathing, or recoiling from pain). Learning certain things may come easier than learning other things, but this stems more from past experiences, aptitude, affinity, or passion. It has nothing to do with ability. And the list will be different for everybody. Your strengths and weaknesses may be someone else’s weaknesses and strengths.

The bottom line is that anyone can learn anything if they want to bad enough and work hard enough.

Which brings to mind another quote often misattributed to Einstein (it was actually Edison):   

“Genius is 1% talent and 99% hard work.” 

There’s a difference between talent and intelligence. Talent stems from aptitude; intelligence stems from knowledge. Gaining knowledge IS gaining intelligence. Even without inborn talent or the benefit of past experience laying a solid foundation, you can still learn something. Anything. All you need is enough passion, enough desire, or enough need to work hard at it regardless of how difficult it may be.

The testimony from Arthur Jensen in the article “Why Are We So Obsessed with IQ” is filled with similar wisdom: 

“It has been much more useful to me to determine, in relation to my specific goals, what specific things I knew or could do and what things I didn’t know or couldn’t do, and then set about working to learn the necessary things. That done, you go on the same way to the next step, whatever it may be. Your acquisition of knowledge and skills gradually cumulates to some level of mastery in the things of importance for the realization of your ambitions.”

So don’t despair if you feel you don’t have an aptitude for a certain kind of intelligence. Don’t feel bad that others seem to learn something easier than you. They may have an aptitude for linguistic (verbal) intelligence, whereas yours may be in kinesthetic (physical) intelligence, but both can — and should — be learned by each of you. Rather than comparing yourself to others, compare your current self to your former self. Are you growing? Are you better than you were last week? Do you have knowledge now you didn’t have then?

Never say that you can’t learn. You can. Intelligence of any kind CAN be learned and developed by practice and study. All it takes is a desire and a determination. Don’t get frustrated and quit, just keep at it. The more you practice, the better you’ll get, improving your “smart” in that area. Soon you’ll be better at it than someone who seems to have a natural talent for it but doesn’t work hard at improving it. Then you’ll be the one landing that dream job. You’ll be the one to win that chess match or bowling game. You’ll be the one friends come to with computer questions. You’ll be the one that can spell anything.

Like the saying goes, 

“Hard work beats talent every time when talent doesn’t work hard.”  


Can a fish learn to climb a tree? 

The answer will surprise you! The next time you’re in Africa, stop by and ask the mudskipper  what he thinks. You’ll find him in a tree, just sitting there on a branch catching some sun.  Seriously! He may be exhausted from grasping the trunk with his front fins and pulling himself up little by little, but it should be pretty obvious how proud of himself he is. You can see it in his face.

It’s a good thing he didn’t listen to the naysayers who tried to make him feel too stupid to learn it!


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, I invite you to check out what I think of as my best work on “My BYOB List (My Personal Favorites)”.

Works cited:

Dee Dickinson. “Learning Through Many Kinds of Intelligence.” John Hopkins School of Education. 1996. Web. John Hopkins University. 2012.

“Facts Sheet: Digital Literacy.” US Department of Commerce. Web. 13 May 2011.

“Microsoft IT Academy Program.” Iowa Legislature Publication 21103. Web. 20 January 2013.

O’Toole, Garson. Quote Investigator. n.p. 6 April 2013. Web. 29 March 2016.


Wai Ph.D, Jonathon. “Why Are We So Obsessed with Improving IQ?” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers. 7 May 2012. Web. 29 March 2016.

Hambrick, David Z. “I.Q. Points For Sale, Cheap.” New York Times. The New York Times Company. 5 May 2012. Web 29 March 2016.

Kahn, Jennifer. “Can Emotional Intelligence Be Taught?” New York Times. The New York Times Company. 11 September 2013. Web. 29 March 2016.

“Theory of Multiple Intelligences.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia. 22 March 2016. Web. 29 March 2016.

Armstrong, Dr. Thomas. “Multiple Intelligences.” American Institute for Learning and Human Development. n.p. 2013. Web. 29 March 2016.

“Mudskipper.” Nature. n.p. n.d. Web. 29 March 2016.

“Mudskipper.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. 21 May 2015. Web. 29 March 2016.

Leonora Hornblow. “Fish Do the Strangest Things”. Random House Publishing. 12 April 1966. New York.

“Who You Are Vs. Who You Want To Be” by Christian Mihai.

Victoria M Marine Science blog. 

Wikicommons fish pics. 

“Genius Is One Percent Inspiration, Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration” is actually from Thomas Edison inspired by Kate Sanborn. 
“Hard work beats talent every time when talent doesn’t work hard” from Tim Notke and made famous by Kevin Durant. 

The Science Explorer. “Flexible Fins Allow Fish to Climb Trees” 


  1. Another reason I eschew systems. I fit well into academia. I could play the game and play it well. My husband did not. Quit it after high school. But a smarter human I’ve yet to meet. He’s intelligent, erudite, and can replace a transmission just by reading a manual. This I cannot do, nor will I ever be able to. I so admire that kind of intelligence. Aloha, James.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for a wonderful real-life example. According to the article at

      it sounds like he would fit the profile for a visual/spatial intelligence. And I’m with you… my brain is completely boggled by the intricacies of vehicular conundrums and I have the utmost awe and respect for anyone that understands it.

      My daughter was a kinesthetic learner, so to learn, she had to be moving. Sitting her down at a desk, giving her a book, and telling her to “Learn this,” brought only tears and frustration. But in our homeschool environment where she could walk while we talked and kick her kegs while she read and she flourished. She flabbergasted all of us with her steel-trap memory and impeccable logic. She was able to grow into the ability to study her way through cosmetology school and is now a hair-cutting prodigy sought after for her skill and knowledge. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we had tried to force her to stay in a traditional school setting, belittled and berated for her “lack of intelligence and focus”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely, James. And lucky she was to have you for parents! Kudos. As for Chris, he’s not a mechanic (he’s a building contractor), but he doesn’t shy away from a challenge, as long as there’s a manual or a video! I’m just the opposite – show me, and I’m good. Or place me in an academic setting and I thrive, as do my daughters. The world is far richer if we appreciate and respect diversity. Aloha.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it.

      Don’t ever let those kids of yours feel inferior because their “smarts” may be different from the next person’s!

      My daughter was a kinesthetic learner, and until we figured that out, she struggled in a traditional setting. But once we started home-schooling her where she could move and walk and fidget while she read or memorized or pondered, then she thrived!

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s so true. I had never thought of it until discussing with my sister the dreaded “common core” style. She is a first grade teacher and actually TEACHES teachers how to teach common core (that’s a tongue twister). Talking with her about this made me realize there ARE different learning styles. We all learn differently and thrive in different areas.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Jim, you’re a good teacher. Your daughter thought you how to be a outstanding parent. You cared enough to observe. No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. I am a believer in our kids teach us how to be parents. But we must first care. The word [care] can’t be used (or practiced) enough.
    However, it is also my personal belief that the words [stupid] and [genuis] are over used. I find that people over use them because they don’t know the right words to say (a.k.a. limited vernacular). Examples: this stupid car is always breaking down. You found my car keys… you’re a genuis! Of course they’re not low I.Q. they just don’t care to improve their lexicon.
    I digress. I’m getting off subject.
    Jim is a teacher. I know by first encounter because I work with him. We all rely on his know how. In fact he is an excellent teacher. My intuition tells me it’s because of his daughter. Empathy comes to mind.
    Lastly, we must keep history in mind when it comes to intelligence. We started out believing that the Earth was flat. We thought the solar system was the universe, then we thought the Galaxy was the universe. Now we have a different perspective on what the universe is and we’re now talking multi- verse. We use to think that the sun was a God and that it revolved around the earth. We also believe that heaven and God was in the clouds. I won’t bore you with the rest of our evolution of the mind so bare with me.
    All this time the male homosapian has not acknowledged women intelligence [consistently]. So what’s my overall point? We’ve come this far without imfaticaly and consistently accepting half of humans know how. There are more C.E.O.’s named John and Tom in the fortune 500 than there are women C.E.O.’s. I firmly believe that man’s next big discovery that will advance us is the discovery of women contribution.

    Liked by 1 person

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