Good Will Hunting and Multiple Intelligences

We often look for film clips, photos and quotes that exemplify what we’re trying to say about intelligences. Sometimes there are one-off statements that resonate completely. You’ll see many of them “retweeted” by us on our Twitter account (@3diassociates). Other times there’s an entire film that demonstrates both the “right action” and the opposite – behaviour that we would consider as unintelligent, or only using one of the intelligences instead of a combination of two or more.

One such film that says so much about intelligences is “Good Will Hunting”.

Good Will Hunting

The story of its evolution is interesting in itself. Here we have two young writers who had known each other most of their lives, working together on a screenplay and then having the bravery or the nerve to tout it around Hollywood. The bastion of the American film industry is often associated with nepotism and although Ben Affleck and Matt Damon knew certain people, it was acting on their own initiative that managed to get them through the doors of film studios to have this film endorsed and produced.

For those who don’t know the story of “Good Will Hunting”, here’s a brief synopsis.

Will is a genius mathematician who has chosen to spend his life doing menial jobs such as being a university janitor in order for him to enjoy a stress-free and time-rich lifestyle and spend plenty of time with his friends. His learning appears to have come mainly from his own actions and interests rather than a formal education.

When a complicated equation is written on a chalkboard in the university none of the enrolled students can unscramble it. Will, on the other hand, manages it with relative ease. Meanwhile, he’s managed to get himself in trouble with the law by beating up someone who bullied him as a child. A custodial sentence awaits.

In time, the lecturer discovers who it is who’s broken the code for the mathematical problem and offers to take Will into his care to avoid jail as long as he agrees to see a counsellor. He also at this point meets “the girl” who he has great affinity with.

After a long drawn-out series of problems, Will is offered a job whilst his partner asks him to move to California with her. In a self-destruct moment, in fear of failure, he disregards the job offer and pushes his girlfriend away. It’s his counsellor who eventually tells him to confront this fear of failure and do something positive.

We can have endless discussions as to whether he made the right decision but [spoiler alert!] he ended up travelling to California to be with his girlfriend.

This all sounds fairly straightforward but there are underlying issues, like the fact that he was abused as a child, that he is an orphan, and that he feels inferior and insecure, getting most enjoyment from a group of childhood friends.

So what has this all got to do with intelligence?

Well, everything – as indeed most things do.

Watch this clip (move on to two minutes into the clip for the important section).

Will and his friends have gone into a bar full of Harvard University students, and Will gives them a piece of his mind, telling them that everything they are paying astronomical amounts of money for could actually be found in the public library. He explains that in fifty years’ time, the college jerk may not have ever had an original thought of his own, whereas he, Will, will still be free to think for himself – unconstrained by the curriculum imposed by an educational institution.

Whilst we aren’t advocating a complete free for all, there is much to be admired in a character such as this who has developed a learning path for himself. Wouldn’t it be great if children and young people felt free to do this for themselves alongside whatever formal education they receive?

Too many times in recent years, we’ve heard stories about children and young people who’ve been prevented from “studying” something that interests them for the sake of having to comply with the curriculum. We hear stories of children who would love to read a different book than the one that’s set for A-Level but there’s not time to do so. That has to be wrong, on every level.

This lack of freedom is more pronounced when it comes to seeking employment. Will has chosen to be a janitor. He’s a genius, but as Robin Williams’ character points out, this doesn’t make him intelligent (a quote on this later). As soon as his mathematical brilliance is discovered, people automatically try and get him a job that matches their idea of what a genius should be doing. But Will doesn’t want that.

There’s a brilliant speech in which he explains precisely why he doesn’t want to work for the National Security Agency. He explains that he is concerned:

“Say I’m working at N.S.A. and somebody puts a code on my desk, something no one else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, ’cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East, and once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hidin’- fifteen hundred people that I never met, never had no problem with, get killed.”

The quote is more complicated as it continues, but essentially he’s questioning whether it really is intelligent to work for such an organisation when the implications of his work could affect so many known and unknown to him. His argument concludes that he may as well cut the corner and immediately shoot his best friend because there’s a possibility that the action of his work could result in that outcome anyway.

Ed Miliband last week talked about the forgotten 50%: those who have no intention, aspiration and/or ability to attend university. Someone has to clean the corridors, sweep the roads, mend the pipes, and yet we devalue their significance and make horrendous assumptions about their ability based purely on the role that they choose to take. Will Hunting would be one of those 50% and we ignore their desires to live according to what their intuition tells them rather than what other people expect of them. So frequently, compliance isn’t an intelligent choice. And intuition is one’s best guide.

Will Hunting had no family. What family he’d had in the past had abused him. His new family, his life was his friends – if he’d gone to Harvard or moved away then he’d have lost far more than he would gain, in his eyes. To ostracise himself from this core need of his just because people thought it was a waste for a mathematical genius to be sweeping floors wasn’t something that he was prepared to do.

Surely that shows some personal intelligence. Surely it shows that he is aware of his spiritual needs and how the whole belonging to a group is vital to him, and that if he was working on high-powered mathematical equations he might not have anything in common with the most important people in his life?

He made the choice.

Through his emerging relationship with his counsellor, he continues to make choices; right ones and wrong ones.


One of the most poignant moments of the film is when Sean, the counsellor, makes Will realise that whilst some of his decisions not to change and move are perfectly valid, i.e. his commitment to his friends, there are other reasons that are totally based on the fear of failure.

“You’ll never have that kind of relationship in a world where you’re afraid to take the first step because all you see is every negative thing 10 miles down the road.”

Whilst the quote is about Will’s relationships, it’s equally about his relationship with himself, his fears and his inability to decide on one course of action for fear of failure.
How many of us do this? How many of us hide away because it’s gone wrong in the past and therefore it is bound to happen again? How well do we really know ourselves and are capable of being true to ourselves if this overriding fear of failure or rejection prevents us from following our true path? This shows just how careful we must be in knowing, understanding and appreciating  ourselves, and also having a little more faith in other people.

A favourite part of the film is quoted here in full. If skim-reading is wanted, there are sections in bold that are particularly significant.

 “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you’d probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can’t tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You’re a tough kid. And I’d ask you about war, you’d probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, “once more unto the breach dear friends.” But you’ve never been near one. You’ve never held your best friend’s head in your lap, watched him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I’d ask you about love: you’d probably quote me a sonnet. But you’ve never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable. Known someone that could level you with her eyes, feeling like God put an angel on earth just for you. Who could rescue you from the depths of hell. And you wouldn’t know what it’s like to be her angel, to have that love for her, be there forever, through anything, through cancer. And you wouldn’t know about sleeping sitting up in the hospital room for two months, holding her hand, because the doctors could see in your eyes, that the terms “visiting hours” don’t apply to you. You don’t know about real loss, ’cause it only occurs when you’ve loved something more than you love yourself. And I doubt you’ve ever dared to love anybody that much. And look at you . . . I don’t see an intelligent, confident man . . . I see a cocky, scared-shitless kid. But you’re a genius Will. No one denies that. No one could possibly understand the depths of you. But you presume to know everything about me because you saw a painting of mine, and you ripped my fucking life apart. You’re an orphan right? [Will nods] You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are, because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you? Personally . . . I don’t give a shit about all that, because, you know what, I can’t learn anything from you that I can’t read in some fuckin’ book. Unless you want to talk about you, who you are. Then I’m fascinated. I’m in. But you don’t want to do that do you, sport? You’re terrified of what you might say. Your move, chief.”


If ever there was a speech about what intelligence was about within a film!

Sean explains that no amount of book-reading will bring forth or make up for a lack of life experiences and it’s from these social and spiritual interactions that we truly understand who we are and what we want.

This explains what spiritual intelligence looks like, feels like. It explains the brilliance of intimacy and the strength of lovingkindness. It gets to the fundamental principles of many a religion – you will only truly know yourself when you have given to others, and in doing so you will receive so much of what you are and who you are. This is intelligence.

In fact, there is another point in the film where this is demonstrated. Chuckie, Will’s best friend, doesn’t really want to lose him, and yet he puts Will’s needs before his own. He gives in order to receive. He realises Will needs to move on in life and he explains what would give him joy.

“Look, you’re my best friend, so don’t take this the wrong way. In 20 years, if you’re still livin’ here, comin’ over to my house to watch the Patriots games, still workin’ construction, I’ll fuckin’ kill you. That’s not a threat, that’s a fact. I’ll fuckin’ kill you…………you got somethin’ that none of us-……………..Let me tell you what I do know. Every day I come by your house and I pick you up. And we go out we have a few drinks and a few laughs, and it’s great. You know what the best part of my day is? It’s for about 10 seconds from when I pull up to the curb to when I get to your door. Because I think maybe I’ll get up there and I’ll knock on the door and you won’t be there. No goodbye, no see you later, no nothin’. Just left. I don’t know much, but I know that.”

Greater love hath no man…………

There are many moments in the film when Will acts unintelligently. His reactive thumping of a childhood enemy isn’t the best course of action, yet one can’t dismiss his genuine and understandable anger at being bullied throughout his life, possibly because he was the smart kid in the school. There are times when his determination not to get hurt are bordering on emotional abuse when it comes to his lover. There are times when his obstinacy detracts from his intelligence, and equally there are times when it completely demonstrates his intelligence. But if we look at all of these, through the medium of the film, we can begin to get an objective insight into human behaviour. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to have some of these flaws and some of these exceptional characteristics.

So the film ends with him driving off in the sunset after his best friend has told him that he mustn’t fear everything, and must travel the road even if mistakes trip him up along the way.

“How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man? …………… How many years can some people exist, before they’re allowed to be free? ………………….How many times can a man turn his head, pretending he just doesn’t see?……… The answer, my friend………….”

Like all of us, Will Hunting is not perfect. He’s far from it, but what he’s prepared to do that shows an amount of intelligence is that he learns from his mistakes. He also learns from others. He also realises that intelligence is far greater than the ability to solve mathematical problems or quote verbatim from texts. He realises that free thinking and creativity are important as expressions, not necessarily of intellect or ability, but of oneself.

I’m sure there are many other film characters that our readers can think of who reflect examples of what we want to say about intelligence. We’d be interested in hearing your views.

Will Hunting


A footnote: In recent times we’ve made comments about real people’s intelligence and will continue to do so, but we’d also like to make a point about studying the works of other great people. Our previous blog talked about facts and how our current government seems conditioned to ensure that every child is fed with facts. Whilst writing this, my thoughts went to the well-known Bob Dylan song, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, as quoted above.

Why isn’t such a song on every national curriculum in every country? How much can we learn from such lyrics? But would we really want that rigid expectation?

The answer is an absolute “no”, however much this song may resonate and make people think. The fear of an entire nation becoming bored with a song because it has been force-fed to them is not one that we’d like to see. Yet children and young people could certainly be directed towards such great works without making them compulsory. Having said that, it would be good to see more contemporary brilliance in the arts being considered for inclusion in a curriculum guidance. More of this later, perhaps.

About 3D Eye

Gary Foskett and Clare Blackhall are educationalists, writers and consultants. We work with schools and other organisations who share our vision of how schools, businesses, etc should work in the 21st Century. We also run courses and contribute to conferences - speaking about our three dimensional model of intelligences and how schools, colleges and universities can develop the full potential of all their staff and students. We also offer consultancy for businesses and public sector organisations to support staff training and organisational change and development. For more detailed information read our blog at or see our website at
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5 Responses to Good Will Hunting and Multiple Intelligences

  1. Pingback: GWH – Jennie With An IE

  2. Professions for PEACE says:

    Wow… this post is amazing on so many levels. Not only as an excellent discussion about a wonderful film, but the points you made about the worth of jobs such as janitors and such are worth further discussion as well. Also what Will said about possibly contributing to the bombing of a village just because his brilliant mind can break a code is powerful. Reminds me of Einstein saying once how maybe he should have become a watch-maker. Oh, and the amazing speech that Sean gives… THANK YOU for writing that out! And your comment of: “This explains what spiritual intelligence looks like, feels like. It explains the brilliance of intimacy and the strength of lovingkindness. It gets to the fundamental principles of many a religion – you will only truly know yourself when you have given to others, and in doing so you will receive so much of what you are and who you are. This is intelligence.” I will be enjoying many a reread of this incredible article. Thank you so much! ~Gina


    • 3D Eye says:

      Gina, thank you. We are always so grateful for any feedback on what we write but when it’s so positive, it’s all the more rewarding. I feel very passionately about how much we can know ourselves through what we do and give to others. Within this all of our intelligences are working, therefore it must be the “right action”.

      Yes, that speech from Sean was pretty special. I’m ridiculous when I watch films, crying at any opportunity – and this film, and that speech was no exception. Wonderful writing and beautifully acted. Cx


  3. brennagee says:

    I was just thinking about introducing this film to my kids. I’m not sure what it’s rated but I remember the amazing messages that came out of this film. I very much want my children to value free thinking and free expression. I recently re-watched another good film with positive notes about alternative methods of teaching – Dead Poets Society (also with Robin Williams). I loved seeing how intelligent the boys in this movie are outside of the classroom.
    Thanks for shining a light on Good Will Hunting. Brilliant. I welcome any other recommendations of films or books that represent a strong showing of multiple intelligences.


    • 3D Eye says:

      Thanks Brenda. I remember watching Dead Poet’s Society for the first time too, and although there was a certain amount of schmaltz, I too was affected by the response of those young people, and the love of teaching and learning.
      I can’t remember how old your children are. There’s a lot of swearing and a bit of sex and violence in the film but it depends on their age and your outlook on that.

      It’s good to consider where we can see intelligences reflected in something that is accessible to all – so that others can gain an insight into the need to live with all our intelligences being developed.

      Thank you as ever for your comments. Cx


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