Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Intelligence vs. experience vs. theoretical studies


Competence, performance, ability, etc., are all affected by a number of factors. The below strives to give a reasonable comparison between three of them: Intelligence, experiences made, and theoretical studies in a subject (often, in an oversimplification, represented by “book learning”). Note that I use the latter two to refer to the amount of exposure, not the effect of the exposure: As discussed below, the effects of the exposure will vary from person to person and depending on other circumstances. (Consider e.g. a typical professor spending two hours studying an introductory text on a new topic vs. a failing high-school student spending the same time with the same text.)


This article originated as a brief musing on intelligence and experience, and was later expanded to be more general. The origins are reflected in a somewhat varying style of writing, approach, etc.

Intelligence vs. experience

In my early years, I noticed that my raw intelligence could very often outweigh the greater experiences others had gathered. This lead me to value intelligence more highly than experience; whereas most others seemed to see it the other way around—to my frustration. Today, when I have gathered and analyzed very large amounts of experience, I can see a very clear difference compared to those early years: When I am confronted by a situation now, I often benefit more from experience than from intelligence (although my intelligence obviously has helped me process my experiences better than most others); whereas it was the other way around back then.

From this view-point, I can now see why the majority values experience above intelligence; in particular, as the “break even” between intelligence and experience comes much earlier for those lower in intelligence—for someone sufficiently lacking, experience could even be the only source of own skill.

The complication, and what they regrettably fail to realize, is that experience is only a valuable indicator when comparing persons who are sufficiently close in intelligence—or where the difference in experience is very large. (As a special case, obviously, when comparing one specific person with himself at another age.)


What constitutes “sufficiently close” will vary wildly, and is likely unquantifiable; in particular, as experience underlies diminishing returns. However, I would definitely take a person with one year of experience in a certain field and an IQ of 150 over one with an IQ of 100 and ten years experience; but would probably prefer a third with an IQ of 130 and ten years experience over both.

Note that the “sufficiently close” criterion might extend to other attributes than intelligence. (Which, depends on the details at hand, but our below theoretical studies is often a candidate, as is having the right mentality, while something like height might apply in some sports.)

To illustrate this, consider my experiences at E4: I switched from software architect to business analyst, and within just a few weeks had surpassed everyone else at E4 (a company of unusually low average competence) in that sub-field, including the VP of product management, despite her much longer experience. (Beware, however, that I was not starting completely from scratch, but had gathered some at least tangential experiences in the past.) Unfortunately, instead of taking advantage of my greater potential, she was stuck in an attitude of “I have been doing this for years, and I do not need a snot-nosed upstart changing things.”—the more the shame, because the low quality of the product managers’ work was the reason that the business analysts were introduced. Her relative lack of intelligence made her head-start in experience irrelevant. If we, in contrast, look at my own development over my time at E4, then experience did have a significant positive effect. Quite likely, the same would apply to her when comparing her on her first day at E4 with her on her last day; however, her lesser intelligence made for a much less steep development, as demonstrated by the fact that she failed to reach my “entry level”.


Re-visiting this page in 2023, close to twenty years after my days at E4, I see how the previous paragraph could sound very conceited to readers—and I might well have been more diplomatic, had I written this text today.

The simple truth, however, is that the competence levels at E4 were that low.

Intelligence vs. theoretical studies

The situation here is similar to the above; however, with the important difference that experiences are made no matter what, whereas studies need extra effort—and the willingness to study tends to correlate strongly with intelligence.

Experience vs. theoretical studies

Making a comparison between these two can be highly complicated. A few factors to consider:

  1. Someone with no practical experience can temporarily fall flat on his face, even with very great theoretical studies. Consider e.g. someone who has learned the syntax of a programming language perfectly from a book, but in his first attempt at practical work does not even know how to compile his program—not to mention how to interpret the error messages from the compiler.

  2. Once a certain minimum threshold of experience is surpassed, the cost/benefit ratio of theoretical learning is typically much more advantageous, enabling the theoretical learner to pull ahead and away very fast (assuming a similar level of intelligence).

  3. In areas where the “depth” of the previously existing written knowledge is low, or where the learner is unusually intelligent, own experiences and conclusions based on them can be more important that reading in the long term. In this case, however, the knowledge will be so highly based on evaluation of experiences that it falls into a category of “original research” (cf. below).

  4. Many points in theoretical learning can be hard to fully appreciate and understand without having corresponding experience; OTOH, often experiences made at a later time can still affect old learning. The reverse can also hold: Without previous theoretical knowledge, someone could fail to draw the right conclusions after a certain event.

  5. Other aspects can be impossible to master without practical experience—consider e.g. something as basic as touch typing or something as complicated as designing enterprise architectures. (Note that mastery of either is equally impossible without developing the appropriate theoretical knowledge.)


    Touch typing and theoretical knowledge?

    It is true that touch typing is heavily tilted towards practice over theory, that the theory involved is soon internalized, and that much of it could be discovered through trial-and-error or some such. However, imagine a new user with no prior knowledge of typing, possibly in a setting of typewriters instead of computers, and think about how much an experienced typist and/or computer user might take for granted that the newbie still has to learn, e.g. the use of shift keys to input capital letters and many other characters. Or consider how to enter a line-break in a computer file (and why he should) resp. how to get the typewriter carriage back to the starting point and focused on a new line. Or what about the knowledge that typing with more than one or two fingers at a time is actually worthwhile in the first place?

A reasonable analogy to the above could be to consider experience a bicycle, and studies a car with an unfamiliar control system. Initially, the biker will have an advantage, while the motorist figures out the controls; and if the race is sufficiently short, then the biker will win. OTOH, once the motorist gets going, he will make up the ground lost in no time, and pull far ahead. For a sufficiently long race, however, the motorist might see his tank grow empty and be forced to walk, and the biker will gain ground again; whether the latter manages to catch up will depend on the volume of gasoline (written knowledge) originally available—for the typical field and the typical person, this will not be a major risk. Notably, however, in sufficiently poor conditions, where no-one else has “paved the road”, the motorist might be at a constant disadvantage—in an extreme case, even the biker might be forced to walk on his own two legs.


An excellent illustration of some of the above points is mudding: I have from time to time played MUDsw, and invariably found that most of my progress in playing ability has been a direct consequence of character deaths: Seeing a character actually die, after having survived ten close calls and having killed hundreds, or even thousands, of mobs, has been what brought me to read up on how to play better, how to find better equipment, how potions work, etc.—and which has within an hour done more for my playing strength than twenty times that time spent actually playing. (Note that mudding can be such an intense form of entertainment that, unlike e.g. work, taking time of to study the help files requires considerable self-control.)

A very unfortunate tendency in many (in particular, the unintelligent and uneducated) is to disparage “book learning” and those who have gathered it. This is highly naive and destructive: There is so much to be gained from theoretical studies that it should be an integral part of the life of anyone in a non-trivial profession: Others perspectives and mistakes, more abstract views, other paradigms, best practices and “bad smells”, new tools, inter-disciplinary perspectives, ... A construction worker might have little need for theory, or might be able to pick up everything he needs by reading two hundred pages with many pictures; however, for e.g. a software developer, a project manager, an executive, a business analyst, or a lawyer, theoretical studies are of immense importance. That so many fail to engage in these studies goes far towards explaining the prevalence of incompetence, poor products, etc.

The rarer error of considering book learning, without practical knowledge, everything that is needed, is equally dangerous: Anyone who strives to be competent must also gain practical experience. (However, there is nothing wrong with gaining knowledge for the sake of knowledge; in particular, in a field where one has no intention to work. It is, e.g., laudable for an engineer to read a book on art, even without making any practical efforts; and, vice versa, for a sculptor to read a book on engineering.)

Free for all

When looking at all three factors together, the following analogy can be useful:

Competence Inc. is owned in equal parts by Intelligence Inc., Knowledge Inc., and Understanding Inc. The latter two, in turn, are owned in equal parts by Intelligence Inc, Experience Inc., and Studies Inc.—leaving Experience Inc. and Studies Inc. with 2/9 each of Competence Inc, and Intelligence Inc. with 5/9.

Intelligence does not only affect performance directly, but also indirectly through how studies and experience is turned into something valuable. The latter, however, only have an indirect influence over how they influence knowledge and understanding.

An important caveat: Intelligence Inc. cannot exercise its full 5/9 share on its own, but only with sufficient support from Experience Inc. and Studies Inc.—without sufficient support, it could be stuck with the 1/3 that it controls directly.

Other forms of learning

For simplicity, other forms of learning, analysis, original research, etc., have been left out of the above discussion. Partially, there is an overlap (in particular with theoretical studies in the wider sense); partially, they would complicate the discussion severely; partially, they will be irrelevant for most humans (who tend to be poor at developing own ideas; and rely on what they have heard or mis-heard from other sources, trial-and-error, and similar). I note from experience that a major difference between me and most others is that I actually have many own thoughts and ideas; whereas most others are void of original thought—and, when they do have a rare spark, they hang on to it relentlessly, no matter its quality, and no matter what counter-arguments are presented.

It is very noteworthy, however, how all forms of non-trivial learning eventually boil down to thinking (here, again, being closely related to intelligence). For instance, the main benefit of reading a book is, to me, not receiving preprocessed information. Instead, it is a matter of receiving impulses for my own thoughts and reflections. Even when we look strictly at the contents of the book it self, what I gain is mostly based on thinking reflection upon what I read—not on something that goes in through the one eye and out the other. The case for experience is very similar: Merely noting that action X lead to outcome Y can be valuable, but a far greater value can be found by considering why and how, whether this lesson can be generalized, whether there was some crucial detail missing that could lead to an easy fix (assuming that Y is something bad), whether there was an actual causation or whether the apparent connection was a coincidence, etc. Original research is often a matter of thought alone or a combination of e.g. thought and thinking experimentation.

Opinions of others

(Here I used to give three links that now seem to be defunct. New links might or might not be added in the future.)