Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reluctant Genius

It will come as no surprise to most of you to learn that I have what is considered to be a “high” IQ. I don’t say this as a point of bragging but as a means of establishing my credentials and qualifications for the topic upon which I am about to pontificate. I first learned my IQ as an adolescent and have since had it tested again in adulthood. The number fluctuated very little…within the “standard deviation,” and I have little reason to believe it has changed much in the less-than-a-decade since my last test.

A word of caution here: when I speak of people whose IQs are lower than mine, there is no judgment intended. I am not better or superior to them in any way save for the fact that my IQ is in the top 0.3% of the population, something I was born with like my blue eyes. And just as my blue eyes do not make me a superior human being to people with brown eyes, neither does my higher IQ make me a superior human being to people whose IQs are lower than mine…in fact, the nastiest excuses for human beings I have met in my life were invariably people with high intellects…often higher than my own. It could well be that the simple fact of my above average ranking puts me at risk for being a less-than-stellar member of the human race.

In practical terms, however, and assuming a uniform distribution of IQs amongst the participants, if you took 1000 people, I would be one of the top three in terms of IQ (the other two being higher than me). It is estimated that 68% of the population has IQs between 70 and 130, the “average” being 85-115 (100 +/- one standard deviation). So, unless you are rocking an IQ below 70, you are in excellent company…probably better company than I am!

And this is what this is all about…the burdens of being “smart” in a society that neither understands nor values uncommon levels of “smartness.” I know it sounds like the rich man complaining about a miniscule hike in the price of bread, but there really is more to it than immediately meets the eye.

First of all, it is tough being a smart kid, no matter what age you are. My late husband, Chuck, was a big man and growing up, he was very large for his age. When he was three, he was the size of a five- or six-year-old. People expected him to act his size not his age, and he dealt with a lot of pressure from people who had unrealistic expectations of him based on his size, rather than his age and developmental level. Just because he was as big as a five-year-old did not mean he was as emotionally mature or physically developed as a five-year-old.

Smart kids get the same kind of pressure. We may have the intellectual capacity of children several years older, but emotionally and developmentally, we are not on their par. Parents seem terribly impressed with the idea of their children being prodigies of one kind or another, but from the kid’s point of view, it sucks. In my own case, I had an unusually well-developed singing voice and the gift of perfect pitch, a gift that cost me a good portion of my childhood while my mother shopped me around various talent shows, TV programs, movie auditions, nightclubs and county fairs, trying to make me into the next Shirley Temple. I didn’t want fame and fortune, I wanted to play paper dolls with Janet who lived across the street.

In the second grade I was given a bunch of tests which revealed why I was weeks ahead of the rest of my class in our workbooks and other tasks…I had an unusually high IQ. This, unfortunately, did not translate into more a more stimulating curriculum or even blanket permission to plunder the classroom library when my assignments were done. No, this culminated in a three-way tug-of-war between my mother, my father, and the school (notice Little Miss Genius was not consulted on her fate) and ultimately I was skipped a grade, mid-year…with devastating results.

I am not referring only to the dismal academic results…which were pretty bad because I completely missed borrowing numbers in subtraction and wasn’t introduced to multiplication at all. No, I went straight from second grade and learning to carry numbers in addition into a classroom where the kids were learning long division. It was more than fifty ago and to this day I can remember the overwhelming sense of being totally over my head with no hope whatsoever for catching up.

Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy if you will, but that is exactly what happened…I never caught up. I failed math miserably and ultimately became math phobic to the degree that I seldom balanced my checkbook as an adult, I simply took the bank’s word for it when my statements came in. The whole idea of taking out that statement and my check register literally put my stomach into knots and made my hands shake. Small wonder I happily leave the household finances to my husband!

Being a smart child is often a curse for the child, something parents who may never have experienced the isolation a “superior intellect” can generate may not be able to relate to. I was once excoriated by another classmate (9th grade French class) for “ruining the curve” because I consistently scored perfect test papers. It did not occur to me that “doing my best,” which is what parents, family members and teachers all encouraged, was sealing my fate as an outsider with the other kids. Between my mother’s obsession with making me some kind of media darling and my eagerness to please the adults in my life with academic achievement and intellectual prowess, I was socially doomed.

People have peculiar expectations of a person once that person is outed as a “brain.” At the tender age of seven I was apparently expected to absorb that missing year of math by osmosis because nobody ever offered to teach me how to multiply, a prerequisite to learning how to divide. Everyone just assumed I knew…or would figure it out…or learn on my own. I don’t know what they assumed, but despite my lovely IQ, I did not truly learn my multiplication tables until well into adulthood, which had some really unfortunate effects on my later school career…imagine how it felt to bring home report cards with five As and a C-, the math teacher having felt sorry for me and having given me the benefit of the doubt instead of the deserved D.

As an adult I regularly come across people who, when my eyes glaze over as they discuss something far, far out of my particular set of intellectual gifts, become annoyed or downright angry with me because I “don’t get it.” I’m supposed to be smart, right? So what is my excuse for not grasping the finer points of string theory or why the borehole pump can pump water up from the below the earth but can’t pump it uphill through a pipe?

The smarter you are, the fewer mistakes you are supposed to make. It is as if there is some unspoken rule that says the smarter you are, the faster you must master something. Today I type like the wind, but I have been at it for decades. When I was in secretarial school, I struggled to get to 55wpm so I could graduate…I had long since completed the rest of the course (I was allowed to work at my own pace and I completed a nine month course in under six) but I struggled with getting that typing speed up to snuff. And yet, an astonishing number of people took this as evidence that I wasn’t as smart as my other achievements might indicate I was…if I was so smart, why was I having trouble hitting the marks necessary for graduation?

Which brings up another of the curses of being saddled with the giant, economy-sized brain: schadenfreude. It’s part of the bully thing…delight in someone else’s misfortune and if they don’t find enough misfortune on their own, let’s give them a little. Any person who is outside the norm, however that norm is defined at any given moment, is subject to negative repercussions from those around him. They can be anything from a quiet snigger because his shoe laces are the wrong colour for that particular day of the week to an outright physical attack, and anything in between including sabotage, rumour-mongering, and harassment. We are presently seeing an epidemic of suicides among young gay people for exactly this reason: they are singled out for being different, that differentness is defined pejoratively, and then they bear the brunt of social disapproval ranging from ridicule to ostracism and even assault.

Believe it or not, that’s how it feels to be the smart kid. Unless you can do something with that smarts that the other kids find really cool, if you are lucky, you are just ignored. If you are not lucky, you can get everything from pranked to hurt. The only way to survive it is to hide your light under a bushel in order to fit in…if you can.

It doesn’t get better as an adult. If you hook up with a bunch of other intellectually gifted people, you can become “average” or “normal” within the group. But outside the group you learn to be wary, and even inside the group, people sometimes fall prey to the same set of expectations of intellectual magic that those outside the group throw at you…the ability to “just know” stuff you have no clue about!

The worst part of it, however, is that eventually you start doing it to yourself and that can paralyze you. If you expect yourself to know stuff, to know how to do stuff, to be able to do something perfectly the first time…if you do not give yourself room to fail and to learn from your failures…eventually you stop trying for fear that you will fail, which you are not allowed to do. And when you don’t try, you cannot fail. Of course you cannot succeed, either, but that’s OK…your successes were all too often the catalyst for an outburst of jealousy or schadenfreude on the part of your peers, so they aren’t too hard to give up.

Some of us just throttle back our expectations and, essentially, coast. I liked being a secretary, for example. It was not hugely intellectually challenging, for the most part, but I like making order out of chaos and I like organizing and such, all of which is a big part of the job. Don’t get me wrong…stupid people don’t make good secretaries, it really does take a brain to do the job well…but in the big picture, it’s not a job that regularly requires brilliance. Some of the finest secretaries I have known were highly intelligent underachievers like me.

Some people do take their intellectual prowess forward and carve out empires for themselves, some of them large like Microsoft or FaceBook, some of them much more modest but which make just a few people wealthy. And yet, for all their money and obvious intellect, are Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg considered “hot” by the girls or “cool” by the guys? Strip away their millions and would you want to hang out with them? (I would, but I'm a geekophile.)

But intellectual superiority does not mean, by any stretch, that the individual is a superior human being. Smart kids do not pop out of the womb with their values and morals fully formed, they learn just like every other kid. And some of them, unfortunately, learn that their formidable intellects can be used to manipulate and even control others, especially in these times when parents are afraid to be parents and opt, instead, to be pals or cheerleaders or even servants to their children. A highly intelligent child cursed with wimpy parents can easily develop an overweening sense of entitlement that grows faster than he does, resulting in a cynical narcissist of an adult who truly believes he is better than everyone around him…and entitled to exploit others without conscience or consequence. I have met numerous such people and they are an embarrassment to others of equal…and even higher…intelligence, and they can be very dangerous people to be around.

There is a downside to being super-smart. From unrealistic expectations of others to perfectionism in ourselves, people of very high intelligence face challenges seldom recognized or appreciated. When you are seven and your teacher expects you to know how to do something you’ve never encountered before and reacts to your failure with “They told me you were smart…guess they were wrong, huh?” you realize that while the other kids can expect to be taught things, you are expected to magically “know” stuff, a disheartening realization for a child. When you are 16 and you don’t grasp a concept, people think you are malingering because you are smart, after all, so you must be able to instantly grasp everything from Latin declensions to calculus to why the earth rotates clockwise and not anti-clockwise. When you are an adult and struggling financially, you get “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” There is a whole set of expectations, mostly unrealistic, that plague those with very high IQs, expectations that expose a total lack of understanding what it means to score high on the Stanford-Binet.

IQ does not measure what you know, nor does it measure what kinds of things you can learn…and it isn’t an accurate predictor of success in anything. So, people with high IQs may be unaware of many things and they may have difficulty learning certain kinds of things as well. There is more than one kind of IQ…in fact, there are seven recognized forms of intellect and most IQ tests measure only three of them. It is entirely possible for a person to be a linguistic genius and be hopeless at math, or to have a superior grasp of spatial concepts and math and be unable to spell “dog” without help from a dictionary (my brilliant engineer of an uncle qualifies here). A high IQ not only does not intimate that a person is capable of understanding and performing in all intellectual endeavours, it doesn’t mean that a person can magically know things to which s/he has not been previously exposed. It doesn’t even mean a good memory…I cannot remember a string of numbers, like a phone number, more than seven digits long…in fact, number strings more than four digits long often get jumbled in my head, even short term. But I can spell just about any word I have ever seen (and many I have never seen, just heard), I retain information about botany and biology and medicine without effort, but can’t remember (or even truly grasp) the basics of elementary physics. And yet, my IQ measures in the 99.7th percentile.

So, the next time you are tempted to be scornful of a “smart person” who doesn’t know something…or doesn’t grasp something you are trying to explain…remember this rant. Like everyone else, we have our strengths and our weaknesses, we are not necessarily smart across the breadth of human knowledge and experience, and our brains, while high functioning, are not magical…we have gaps in our knowledge and understanding just as everyone else does. We are, after all, no more than human.


  1. Great post, SV. I am forwarding this to my daughter and to a very good friend who in her 60's is only beginning to recognize how smart she is. You also write well :-).


  2. The educator Ken Robinson had something quite clever to say on Creative Intelligence on his TED Talk a number of years ago. CHeck it out on:http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html.

    Well written as usual by your good self.


Your comments welcome! Anonymous comments are enabled as a courtesy for people who are not members of Blogger. They are not enabled to allow people to leave gratuitously rude comments, and such comments will not be published. Disagreement will not sink your comment, but disagreeable disagreement will.