Thursday, December 22, 2011

I Am Much Smarter than Average

Just writing the title of this post gives me sort of a sick feeling, not because it isn't true, but because it's one of the things you just don't say. Everyone knows that intelligence is not equally distributed, and that individual differences can be very large, but there is no good way to talk about it. While people are happy to label themselves as much more athletic (or artistic) than average, saying you are smarter than average just sounds totally conceited and weird. This is so even though intelligence can be objectively measured (via standardized tests), and a person's level of intelligence is generally pretty apparent within the first 5 minutes of conversation with them.

I am certainly not the world's most brilliant person, and I've met plenty of people who are smarter than I am. But it's also true that I am more intelligent than most people I meet, and this has been true since I can remember. One of my earlier memories is being 3 or 4, and having the preschool teacher call me over to talk to my dad. She asked, "Grace, what do you call a man whose wife has died?" I answered, "A widower." Then she said to my dad, "You see, this is what I was talking about." He made some off-hand comments about how I had a large vocabulary. The whole interaction disturbed me, because 1. the answer seemed so obvious that I didn't understand why it needed to be discussed and 2. I was being identified as different from others: was there something wrong with me?

As I grew older, I began to realize that what was obvious to me was in fact NOT obvious to most other people. I would use a lot of "big words", because I felt like they expressed my meaning the best, and then other people wouldn't understand me because they didn't know what the words were. Discussing ideas or learning new things was frequently frustrating because other people were so much slower at grasping them.

School was of course extremely easy, which meant that I spent a lot of time being bored. For example, I taught myself how to read when I was 4. But in first grade, when my class was learning phonics, I had to complete all the phonics worksheets too, even though by then I was reading chapter books at home. I didn't really learn anything that year. I think this is one of the reasons I didn't develop good study habits or a solid work ethic until college, because I never had to try (something which seems most undesirable).

Being especially intelligent sounds good: who wouldn't want to be smarter? But actually it's just like being odd/abnormal in any other respect, and brings with it a lot of challenges.

1. You are kind of a freak. I didn't fit in that well with most other children, because our interests, knowledge base and cognitive development level were so different. I often found adults easier to talk to, but I didn't fit in with them either since I was a child.

2. It's lonely. Since most people are not intellectual, they aren't interested in intellectual topics whatsoever (and frequently wouldn't understand them even if they were interested). While you can connect with people on common topics (like personal relationships, or popular hobbies like TV or sports), it's as if large sections of your self must just be ignored (especially because talking about intelligence is so taboo). Maybe it's similar to how closeted people feel? that an essential part of themselves can never be discussed?

3. People can be hostile. Because intelligence is perceived as desirable, if you are obviously smarter than someone, they frequently will resent it (and you), especially if they are insecure. A few of my teachers disliked me for this reason (one of them told my parents I "intimidated" her. I was 8.). This is especially the case as American culture is relatively anti-intellectual.

4. It is not under your control. Being intelligent was never something I chose; it was just a fact about me, like my eye color. I couldn't help learning more quickly or knowing more any more than I could help breathing: it just came naturally. All the strong reactions I got, from impressed awe to hostility, made me feel bad, because they were for something I had no ability to change one way or the other.

In a way, intelligence doesn't mean that much, really. Really smart people aren't nicer, or more virtuous, or happier, or richer, or more successful, because all those qualities depend on other characteristics like one's ability to work hard. Certainly the most important aspects of life, like being a good person, don't have a close connection with one's brainpower. Intelligence is not a moral quality: it's just a resource, like money. It does mean that some things are easier (like problem solving, or getting advanced degrees), but alone it's not enough for anything.

So, knowing what I know, would I want little R to be really intelligent (she is far too little to know one way or the other; differences don't really become apparent until two and a half or so)? The answer is yes.

Being highly intelligent is a little bit like having discovered the Matrix (or having left Plato's Cave for those into classical philosophy). You perceive and understand things that aren't apparent otherwise. Often this is painful (especially because now you no longer see the world in the same way as your companions), but there is something invaluably precious about it. Even though intelligence doesn't make you happy (quite often the opposite, actually), I still wish it for little R. It's a strange thing to realize about myself.


  1. You sure do say thing that no one else has the guts to say!

    I actually had similar issues growing up - socially I had a hard time past elementary school because it was not cool for girls to be smart. I didn't know how to study (or think I needed to) because I never had to, so it was a shock to get to college and have to work at some things. Thanks for sharing (I live vicariously through your boldness).

  2. Very interesting post, I liked reading it very much! I'm a new reader, I'll keep coming back for more.

  3. I came across your blog today and rather enjoyed this post. I just wanted to comment that I personally find it difficult to judge how intelligent someone is because there are so many different types of intelligence. Some people are strong communicators who present mediocre content with big vocabulary and great delivery. Others are weak communicators (often immigrants or children of immigrants) who develop strong content but struggle to effectively deliver their ideas. Some people's minds work very quickly and pick things up fast, but may be limited to simpler concepts. Others work at a slower pace, but given time can absorb and retain a complex network of data. I just think that there are so many ways that intelligence can present itself that it's challenging to measure from casual conversations.

  4. It's an interesting point, Anonymous, that you make about the difficulty in judging others' intelligence. It's very true that cultural/language barriers interfere with this, so what I said about knowing in 5 min certainly doesn't hold cross culturally.

    I don't really believe in the multiple intelligences theory though (for which there is actually very little evidence). Certainly everyone has their different skills/weaknesses (math vs. language arts for instance). But I do think there is something like general intelligence, which is difficult to describe but immediately apparent. It has something to do with a certain ability to grasp concepts and perceive relationships, in a way that is kind of effortless, sort of like watching a natural athlete play sports. In fact, I sometimes feel that usually very intelligent people look different (their eyes look more awake, for one thing), although this might just be hokum.