Intelligence: it’s a notion we’re all intimately familiar with. After all, we are intelligent, right? Do we not attend a top-tier public university? Have we not made all the necessary, intelligent moves to get where we are? Have we not been told by the ones who ought to know — university ranking agencies, teachers and employers — that we are the sharpest of the sharp?

The sad truth, dear reader, is that contrary to these comforting assurances of our ability — not necessarily our intelligence — many of us lack a good idea of just what intelligence is. Yet it has been revealed in numerous psychological surveys that the average person thinks of himself as exhibiting above-average intelligence.

One interpretation for that statistical impossibility is that most people overestimate their abilities. More centrally, it suggests that people don’t have a universal or even coherent idea of how to define intelligence.

So, what is intelligence?

From a general standpoint, intelligence is ability in some form or another. But none of the aforementioned authority figures explicitly mean to compliment your intelligence as pure cognitive ability, as is commonplace among psychologists. There’s a fine line between being cerebral and being capable. Barring any sophisticated brain monitoring or reliably comprehensive test measures, you’re usually being told by assurers that you fall in the latter category.

The problem with regarding intelligence as excellence in purely cognitive capabilities, such as abstract reasoning and pattern recognition, is simply that is it too narrow. It doesn’t tell the full story, and neither do the IQ tests that attempt to suggest otherwise (and that perhaps inflate scores so that you open your wallet to a more “comprehensive” intelligence profile).

Intuitively, we consider intelligence a desirable trait. We want to be intelligent. But does that mean we simply want to be more cognitive?

A study conducted at Boston College from 1981 until 1995 measured 81 Illinois high school valedictorians’ success levels into their late twenties and early thirties. Surprisingly, the valedictorians achieved average levels of success overall, according to Boston College education professor Karen Arnold.

“To know that a person is a valedictorian is to know only that he or she is exceedingly good at achievement as measured by grades. It tells you nothing about how they react to the vicissitudes of life,” Arnold said.

In other words, academic intelligence and IQ do not reflect a person’s ability to cope with emotional and unexpected situations in life, which arguably are great forces in shaping one’s destiny.

We also tend to think that the intelligent person is successful. He ends up in positive situations; we assume he has the ease of ability to get there. Defining this ability should be the key to properly conceptualizing intelligence and the truly intelligent person.

Arnold, however, noticed that a majority of the valedictorians participating in her study had lowered their intellectual estimation of themselves as well as their career aspirations by the time they reached their third year in college.

“I think it is part of the maturing process. They decided that there are lots of ways to be intelligent, not just through occupational success,” Arnold said.

What’s important to realize is that abstract reasoning and pattern recognition do not necessarily lead to success. It is more crucial to apply the right skills in the right contexts; that is, knowing which skills are most useful in a given circumstance and adjusting our strategies accordingly. Being strategic also involves cognition (how effectively we think), motivation (how driven we are toward our goals), personality (how suited our temperaments are for specific situations and roles), confidence (how capable we think we are) and performance (how well we accomplish our tasks). Intelligence is harnessing these and other factors to optimize our strategic gains.

The most useful way to quantify the sort of intelligence outlined here would be to calculate the probability of any intended strategy’s success. “How likely is my chosen strategy to yield the desired result?” is the essential question. Intelligence is being able to answer this question, and the more you answer it in varying contexts, the better you’ll get at calculating the probable success rates of your strategies over time. Eventually, you can form an idea of what strategies yield advantageous situations. Intelligence can come down to having a knack for taking full advantage of desirable opportunities and dealing well with the undesirable ones.

Self-knowledge is individualized and can’t possibly be captured or measured by any one test. Intelligence ultimately comes down to how you define it.

A version of this article appeared on page 4 of October 22nd’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.