2012-10-04

It's Like Normalcy, Only More Neurotic

Via James Taranto, I came across this Salon.com article, entitled "What Does It Feel Like To Be A Smart Person?" In it, an anonymous writer and self-proclaimed smart person describes the double-edged sword of genius. He or she opens his or her recount of what it's like being a smart person with the following:
At the peak of my high school math competition "career," I was ranked about 25th in the United States among all high-school students. Given that there were  about 15 million high school students in the U.S., this put my math skills somewhere in the 1-in-a-100,000 to 1-in-1-million range. This felt—and still feels—pretty freakin' awesome.
The author then goes on to describe the attendent benefits of having systemic recognition of one's proclivity for mathemathics: "a ton of confidence," first prize in sundry "Science bowls" and "marketing competitions," and the taking of more Advanced Placement (AP) tests than his or her peers.

Gosh, that is "pretty freakin' awesome."

The author then sums up where all that test-taking leads a person:
Anyway, the confidence was great, and doing well in various math competitions helped me get into some of the top universities, which resulted in me getting great jobs after college, and subsequently led to a very happy and successful career (so far).
Next, the author dives into the downsides of being smart. Before we take a look at that, though, let's quickly tabulate what the benefits are of being a smart person:
  • Being nationally recognized as smart.
  • Winning science bowls and marketing competitions.
  • Taking tests.
  • Getting into top universities.
  • Getting great job offers and having a very happy and successful career.
From the above, we can largely conclude that the one major benefit of being a smart person is having other people tell you that you are smart.

Next, the author switches writing styles, opting for a list format to recount the negative aspects of being a smart person. Those negatives are:
  1. The author "assumed intelligence and academics were all that mattered, and things like friendships, sports, etc., were nice, but not as important."
  2. "For a long time," the author "used to discount people who were less smart."
  3. The author assumed that being "in the top 0.001 percent in math" meant that the author was "in the top 0.001 in general intelligence;" but later came to believe that his or her lack of "social skills" and "work ethic" prove that he or she was not of exceptional intelligence at all.
  4. The author felt under pressure to over-perform.
  5. The author finds it difficult to make a personal connection with potential mates.
  6. The author believes that most of his or her success was the result of his or her "innate intelligence," which paradoxically translated into quitting a lot of endeavors that felt challenging.
  7. Perhaps most bizarrely, the author writes, "I sometimes feel guilty about how much easier some things are for me than others."
I think it's safe to say that most people have believed points 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 regardless of their own personal level of intelligence. Discounting people who we feel aren't smart is fairly natural; believing that "intelligence and academics were all that mattered" is basically the party platform of both Democrats and Republicans; the belief that social skills are a kind of intelligence analogous to the ability to solve equations is a well-documented and generally held bias among the general population; we all feel pressure to perform well; and who among us has not had difficulty connecting with people on the dating scene?

The only items on that list that are definitely not universal are the author's belief that he or she is "innately" intelligent, and that he or she feels guilty about how much "easier" math is for him or her.

Reading this article, it becomes clear that what the author is actually describing is his/her psychological hangups acquired at youth from being told by recognized authorities that he or she is a "smart person." The author doesn't even have enough perspective to understand that most of what he/she recounts about being a smart person is universal to the human experience.

This person isn't smart, this person is self-absorbed, neurotic, and obsessed with being "smart."

It's difficult to find any lessons in an article like that, but hidden in the midst of all those unstated therapy sessions, we find the following:
Recent studies have shown that people who believe intelligence is innate tend to give up much faster than people who believe it can be developed, and that was definitely true for me throughout most of my 20s. I'd try things once or twice, then stop if I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere, which was often. There's a lot of cognitive dissonance when you're not good at something you expected to be great at, and the easiest way to resolve that dissonance is by quitting.
The Moral Of This Story Is...
This poor soul, after having been told from an early age that he/she possesses the kind of special intelligence that only a fraction-of-a-percent of other people have, was unsettled. He or she didn't feel particularly special:
Thinking back to those days is pretty amusing because I wasn't that great at most of the things I was being recognized for, but it turns out that being good plus  being a good test-taker plus being confident can take you pretty far in the academic world.
So what is such a person to conclude, other than that he or she was born with an "innate" sense of intelligence that put him/her asunder? Defined as gifted and special, but without any real feeling of having earned anything unique or exceptional, the author learned to feel over-confident in whatever brought him/her social recognition while eschewing (quitting) anything that proved to be a real challenge.

Other than being a bit of a jackass, what was the author's main fault? I'd argue that it was the belief that intelligence is an innate gift you're born with, rather than understanding that anyone can solve a math problem if they learn to think logically; anyone can achieve career success if they work hard and apply themselves correctly; and anyone can feel special if an ivory tower authority gives them the label of being in the 99th percentile.