By Peyton McDonald

What truly defines intelligence? In the United States, the common metrics might seem quite simplistic – IQ tests, good grades, or perhaps admission to an Ivy League school. Yet, during my visits to India, the complexity of this question has become even more evident. New perspectives on intelligence are obvious particularly when contrasted against the backdrop of our seeming ineptitude as visitors, struggling with tasks such as starting a fire or navigating through stinging nettle.

Our guides in India, Suman and Praveen, seem to be the essence
of resourcefulness and capability. They haven’t attended prestigious universities or led materialistic lives, yet there is an undeniable wisdom and adaptability in their lives. Living and traveling with them has led me to ponder much of my life. On this trip, as I fished down the Saryu river, I found my mind churning around the stark differences between what I considered “smart” back home and the intelligence I saw in them.

During my time chasing mahseer, I also had the chance to meet a fellow fisherman from England, Greg, who took a keen interest in my trout hatchery project in the Assi Ganga Valley. Greg had rented one of the local fishing camps for 6 weeks and was more eager than most traveling fishermen to chat because he had so much time on the river. Greg introduced me to a man named Tiku, a Punjabi, who had set up his own camp right by the famous confluence who hailed from an influential family and was an alumnus of Oxford University. Tiku immediately invited me in and I found him to be wealthy and proud, immediately showcasing much of his intelligence and affluence. However, as I looked closer at his life spread out in tents along the bank of the river, he seemed more consumed by his extravagant pursuits than being genuinely happy or content.

Later that same day, we encountered a village elder who had spent his entire life in Pancheshwar. As Suman translated what the old man had to say, it became clear that he held an abundance of life’s wisdom. He was robust, despite the various injuries evidenced on his fingers from years of hard work, and he exuded contentment. He outlined his four keys to a satisfying life: maintaining a healthy body, having a good life partner, garnering respect and obedience from children, and possessing just enough to live, not to amass wealth.

As I sat on the wise man’s porch thinking about his fulfilling life, I started comparing Tiku’s version of life. As I remembered his flat screen TV, foreign girlfriend, 10 man support crew, air conditioned tents, and much more, it became clear to me that intelligence can’t be measured merely by academic accolades or monetary wealth. Despite his Oxford education and significant wealth and how much he wanted me to see his life through our conversations, Tiku never spoke of happiness. He did make it clear that he cheated on his wife, smoked heavily, seemed disinterested in his children’s whereabouts, and was overly consumed by material accumulation.

The village elder’s life might have seemed modest in comparison with the opulence on display but it radiated joy and wisdom, which felt in this place so much more valuable. His life was guided by simple but profound principles that fostered a deep sense of contentment. The contrast between these two men illuminated a new understanding of true intelligence. When it comes down to it, I think it isn’t about the ability to command servants or showcase wealth; it’s about leading a balanced, respectful, and fulfilled life. So, I urge everyone to ponder: who is truly intelligent? The man clamoring for more whiskey or the one sharing life wisdom and proclaiming himself the happiest man alive?

3 responses to “True Intelligence”

  1. JEB Avatar

    Peyton you have struck gold!

  2. Mary Pryor Avatar
    Mary Pryor


    Awesome stuff here and well written! Also, what does it truly mean to be “rich” or “fulfilled” in life as well? I cannot wait to see/ hear about what other experiences you take part in while in India this summer, and at Sewanee this fall (YSR!!!) that make you pause, think, and reflect. Keep us updated on the trout hatchery!!

    Ms. Pryor

  3. Mollie Avatar

    Peyton, I love that you are always observing and asking yourself hard questions. It seems to me that you, in your transition to the next phase of your life, are thinking about the purpose of your education, your projects, and your next steps. Do you want to be known as intelligent or do you want to bare the scars of wisdom that come with challenges and struggle?

    Also, I can’t help but notice that in your careful wording you’ve missed out on considering how this question of “true intelligence” applies to half of the world’s population? You might roll your eyes at that, but really, how can you apply this kind of thinking to women in India, to the women in your life? What can the women of Agora teach you about your questions? Can you even imagine a woman “clamoring for whiskey or proclaiming herself to be the happiest woman alive?” Think about it, if equal education, rights, and employment opportunities aren’t a reality for women in most of the world, and in most cases in India, it may make it much clearer to recognize and value “true intelligence”. I know that there are mothers and grandmothers in Agora who raised sons, whose wisdom you treasure, and frankly there’s no question of how brightly they shine and how valued they are in their families and the community.

    Enjoy your time working on your hatchery project and living in Agora! You are brave! Keep your eyes open and as always seek to broaden your perspective. It can lead to great things in your life and hopefully in the lives of those you respect and cherish.

Leave a Reply

Blog at