The downside of brilliancy

Call it a hunch, but based on my observations over many years, being exceptionally intelligent, like being a celebrity, is at best a mixed blessing.

I am not speaking of smart people in general. I am talking about the exceptionally smart, the top 1 to 2 percent of the population. It is easy for them to dazzle me with their intellect. Yet typically, when I get to know them beyond the surface level I find that their lives are often a disordered wreck. Many cannot hold a job. Some strike me as introverted to the point of paranoia. Others leave a trail of wrecked relationships. (Albert Einstein used the proceeds from his Nobel Prize to pay alimony.) Many of them are dealing with major psychological problems. I have known more than a few who have been diagnosed with manic depression or dyslexia.

Yes, all humans suffer from stuff, but over the course of 50+ years, I have gotten to know many extremely smart people. I definitely think the brilliant suffer from more issues than the population as a whole. I wonder if the problem is because they are born into a society that for the most part cannot appreciate their gifts. In any event there are plenty more of us average folk than there are geniuses. Just as I have difficulty relating to a moron, I think it must be challenging sometimes for the brilliant to relate to people like me.

Yet I suspect this is not the case because many of the super intelligent people I know find people like themselves annoying too. While I suspect that most end up in a Mensa club at some point, few hang around. Apparently, when you are brilliant it is not necessarily that much fun to hang around other brilliant people. I hear from brilliant people that they have come to revile their peers’ personalities. For many, attending one Mensa meeting was enough for a lifetime.

My parents like most parents encouraged me to make the most of my intelligence. I suspect I am smarter than most, but I doubt what intelligence I have is due to genetics. Rather, it comes from perseverance. I fought for almost every A on my report card. I cannot say the same about the many very intelligent people I have met. To learn, I find it necessary to memorize, futz, underline facts with yellow highlighters and retype my notes. The very intelligent soak up information the way a dry sponge soaks up water. They just cannot help it. Their brain is fine-tuned for acquiring and retaining information. When a teacher speaks, the knowledge is automatically stored, filed and properly indexed. They read a textbook and they get it: the concepts, the relationships between ideas, the detail and the inner meaning. Term papers become academic exercises. Studying for tests is rarely required.

This allows them to get 4.0 or better averages and be the class valedictorian. Yet based on my observations over many years, many of them have problems applying their knowledge successfully to the real world. I think this is because to succeed in the human world you must also master human relationships. Humans are endlessly complex and non-deterministic. I am guessing this is as baffling to the brilliant among us as it is to me.

Perhaps I am just rationalizing my prejudices because I cannot join their lofty intellectual ranks. However, I am left to infer that being too intelligent may be something of a handicap. Unquestionably, it is hard for many of us to relate to people far above our mental plain. It would not surprise me if it went in both directions. I find it challenging to relate to the guy who empties my trash or the security guard who checks my badge. I frankly envy people like my wife who can relate to pretty much anyone. I suspect she is a rather rare bird.

Having great intelligence does not mean you are also functional in society. I suspect the biggest movers and shakers in our country, the Donald Trumps and Jack Welchs are not Mensa material. However, I suspect they are shrewd by nature, organizationally gifted and have mastered perhaps the most important skill needed to be successful: relational skills. After all, machines do not change the world, people do. If you can win friends and influence people, you have a skill that is arguably much more important than extreme intelligence. Nor does excessive intelligence mean that you will be blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit or an intense drive to succeed.

Despite the focus given to intelligence in the schools, overall it is a poor predictor of ultimate success. Perhaps we should value skills like leadership and innovation over high intelligence. I do not mean to discount the value of intelligent people. Brilliant people made many of our important scientific discoveries. Yet, it takes people with a plethora of talents for the world to make progress. The very intelligent serve an important role in human progress. I am not sure they necessarily deserve the accolades that we give them or that so many of us really need to aspire to be like them. We may be better off aspiring to be simply who we are.

One thought on “The downside of brilliancy

  1. Excellent work. I fear I must agree with you. Many times, just being well educated will place one at a disadvantage. Living for 12 years as a student and 20 as a teacher does not prepare one for social interaction in the real world. Academia is indeed its own world. I find it is easier to make an ‘A’ in mathematics than to get along well at a large dinner party.


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