The Difference between Smart and Knowledgeable


English: The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company theme r...

The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company theme restaurant in Long Beach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is smart? Is smart different from knowledge or are they somehow intertwined? If we witness someone with a powerful command of both verbal language and a broad array of facts, able to craft stunning intellectual castles with a few swipes of their crafty verbal sword, we might be inclined to note how smart they are… but is this really smart? To explore the question adequately we must be mindful not to descend down a rabbit hole of unanswerable questions, lest we wind up on a tedious journey through philosophical wonderland and end up negotiating with a blank grin and belligerent paper queen. To tease apart any distinction that might exist between smart and knowledgeable without too much in the way of wordy formication,[1] let’s consider the following story:

Forrest Gump was a 1994 film loosely based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Winston Groom. We can examine “smart” through the lens of some elements of this movie plot.[2] Forrest Gump, the main character, would not be considered smart by most traditional measures. He had an IQ of 75. Along with impaired intellect, he had physical impairment in his legs for which he wore braces. It could be said he accidentally overcame his physical impairment through persistent running. His running was sparked in part by the need to get away from bullies that made fun of him and sought to harm him. It was in part based on advice from his childhood friend, Jenny Curran. Forrest became quite physically fit as a result of following this simple advice. His life was guided by simple rules that descended from Jenny and the homespun, loving wisdom and care administered by his “mama”.

As a child, Forrest fell in love with Jenny. Although Jenny recognized his signals, she couldn’t reciprocate. She probably felt they were incompatible for other reasons, but she was actually unable to form deep and nourishing emotional bonds because of emotional impairment that stemmed from the physically and sexually abusive environment she grew up in. Since she was far more able to grasp verbal concepts, Jenny would typically be considered more knowledgeable than Forrest, but she was unable to forge satisfying relationships. To the contrary, using the same running advice she gave Forrest, she tried and failed to escape the wounds and starvation she had experienced. Although she tried every way she could figure how to run from – in reality she ran to abusive relationships of the same caliber she experienced in childhood. Instead of bringing resolution to her plight, her calculated efforts embroiled her in an echo of the emotional climate from which she came. A series of abusive self-destructive relationships, roaming from place to place and drug abuse defined much of her adult life activities.

In contrast to Jenny, Forrest was able to form a number of deep and nourishing relationships. One of these was with Benjamin Buford “Bubba” Blue. Forrest met Bubba in the army which he joined after a chance encounter with a recruiter on leaving college which he attended on a football scholarship due to his physical talent for running. He and Bubba went to Viet Nam where, based on Bubba’s dreams and prompting, they planned for a shrimping boat business after the war. Bubba died in Forrest’s arms after Forrest carried him out of a fierce firefight in the war along with his commanding officer Second Lieutenant Dan Taylor. Dan’s legs were blown off in the same firefight that killed his friend Bubba. Dan was impaired by an exaggerated sense of family military tradition and duty which included the notion that he was destined to die in a war like his forefathers. He deeply resented Forrest after the rescue. Forrest eventually started the business and was later joined by his commanding officer. Dan went through a period of depression and alcohol abuse until he finally came across Forrest on his shrimping boat, which he pledged to be first mate on if Forrest ever actually realized what he thought was a ridiculous and impossible dream. After a hurricane wiped out the entire shrimping industry, except for Forrest’s boat, the business became a spectacular success.

Perhaps the most defining line in the movie was on the heels of Jenny’s inability to respond to Forrest’s consistent expressions of caring for her. He said; “Why don’t you love me Jenny? I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” Jenny sporadically encountered Forrest during down times in her cycles of destruction. This was one of those. One encounter resulted in Jenny and Forrest consummating a child, but Jenny left before either of them knew she was pregnant.

Jenny raised the child and supported herself by waitressing but became ill. The child inspired her to come to understand “what love is”. She recognized she was not going to live long enough to see her child mature, so she reached out to Forrest, who not only took over those child rearing responsibilities, but married Jenny who was by then able to truly love him. Lieutenant Dan also learned to appreciate what Forrest had done and came to find a great appreciation for life and love as well. This was due in no small part to being tutored by this very smart man – Forrest Gump.

The movie opens and closes with a feather set adrift on a journey at the whim of a fickle wind that eventually pushes it onto Forrest’s foot. He picks it up and places it inside his favorite book, “Curious George”. This seems a fitting symbol for the way that chance brushes against the substance of our lives and how, if we’re either lucky or intentional, we too can find that curious place. Like Forrest and the other characters in the movie, we are all impaired in some way, sometimes we drift, sometimes we erratically tumble through various circumstances to finally light on our curious place. It is also curious that behaviors and self-awareness of our emotional needs is by far a more appropriate measure of “smart” than any of the intellectual castles we could ever craft out of knowledge.


[1] Formication is a medical term for the sensation of insects crawling on or under the skin.

[2] Spoiler alert: If you have not seen the movie Forrest Gump, you may not want to read further. This contains plot details that you may not want to know.

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10 responses to “The Difference between Smart and Knowledgeable

  1. I needed this today. And as per usual–spectacular writing 🙂

  2. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    ‘What is smart?…. What is smart?….’ I don’t know, really, but my dad always said ‘You’re being smart”.

  3. Wonderful post! It brought back a lot of memories and made me realize how immensely valuable human, emotional skills are.

    • Thank you so much. I think it is ultimately it is how much we are connected in community, giving to each other, that makes wealth in our experience in life, not how much we can get from each other.

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