academia, childhood, lessons, reflections

on the relative unimportance of extreme intelligence 

My IQ has regularly been measured to be well above 150, beginning at age 5 and continuing through the last time it was tested (one year after brain surgery to see what neurological deficits I might still have had a year later).

I find this article (both now and when I first read the answer on my Quora feed) to be (a) very much a MALE perspective, (b) focused almost entirely on ONE type of intelligence, and (c) based on the (very shaky) assumption that, if one’s brain is high-powered it can ONLY be satisfied when surrounded by high-powered people, places, and things. I especially thought his take on relationships to fall into these three categories. CAN I talk about complex things with my partner? (Yes, and the most successful relationships I’ve had are those in which I haven’t had to dumb down the things I was studying during conversations, and in which my partners were also quite intelligent but studied in fields other than my own so that they could similarly share their work/interests with me.) But I also rather enjoy mainstream culture, and I would (and did) suffocate in an environment in which the only form of conversation involved highly intellectual discourse.

And I’m working very hard on this with my children as well, who have for various reasons (either ruling out learning disabilities or for curiosity, given their precociousness) also been tested and shown to have elevated IQs. As my parents did with me, I will not tell them their scores (which are all relatively debatable anyhow) until they are well into adulthood, but I’m pretty sure they know that kids who skip grades and still manage to be valedictorians and kids who start 1st grade when they’re three aren’t average. I will say they are both considered “profoundly gifted” by the modern terminology. But rather than letting them think this makes them special, I have for years encouraged them to find something that they can learn from everyone. Because this is the truth. I have learned how to be a good friend from a man who is an ex-felon who dropped out of high school. I have learned how to have compassion by working with homeless women who have been abused by the system, some of whom never learned to read. I have learned how to be a functioning member of society from a group of rag-tag garden-variety drunks largely rejected by the world. I learned how to love from a man who worked with concrete and wore khakis and had never heard of Derrida but could explain financial models to me in his sleep.

And what has been “smart” gotten me” in the life? Shame, for one. As a child I wasn’t allowed to say I was smart (Catholic sin of pride). Also: a lack of any sort of discipline. Would it surprise you to know that I’ve rarely studied for a test? That I made it through grad school skimming books and writing papers the night before, seeing whether anyone would notice, always shocked when the As kept coming? That I took the comprehensive exams for my second MA (which is supposed to be a weekend-long ordeal producing more than 125 pages of answers to questions relating to classes taken over two years) and waited until the last six hours, then typed it all out pretty much based on memory, and I still passed? Or that I’ve had at least three distinct careers, passed the first three actuarial exams (then decided not to become an actuary), got a 175 on the LSATs & admitted to a top law school (then decided not to attend), been offered jobs at think tanks in DC (at age 24) that I declined fearing I’d be bored, and on and on and on… because I’ve never quite known what, exactly, I was supposed to do? I only knew I was good at a lot of stuff, so I tried a lot of stuff, and I changed my mind. A lot. And at 42, I still wonder what path I’m supposed to take. I know what I like to do and I know what I’m good at, but most of the time the points at which they overlap are in very precarious places, financially speaking.

Today this makes me a good listener and conversationalist. It also makes me an excellent and versatile editor, since I just happen to have dipped my toes in so many things. But it also makes me look flighty (because I’m a woman), which translates into being perceived as “not very intelligent” (not infrequently people are visibly shocked when they discover I’m educated and can hold my own in serious conversations). And I can’t say that I did all of these things because I was so good at so many things that I couldn’t make up my mind—then I’m just a ditzy broad who can’t settle down (rather than a multifaceted thinker with a broad range of talents). I think maybe a man could get away with it. Maybe. Or perhaps if I had fewer tattoos, which also add to preconceived notions (most often, people guess I’m a bartender, then an artist, then a musician—sometimes even a famous one), I’d be taken more seriously. I can’t say.

I do know that my children are being taught how to study and plan ahead (even though they could probably get away with what I did) because their dad is smart but not super-doesn’t-have-to-work-for-it-smart, and he knows how to teach them those things (I’m glad someone does). I have to try hard not to minimize the efforts he’s making in this regard, which frequently seem excessive to me but are probably what normal people do when they’re in school.

One reason (among many) that I finally gave up on academia is that I realized it would never be the place I found the challenges I went in looking for. Instead I went out into the world to find other sorts of challenges: figuring out how to be a good friend, stay put in one place for more than five seconds at a time, love and see myself as others saw me, get close to people without fear, take chances, develop a deep sense of faith, and allow myself to both love and be lovable without eventually turning into Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride. 

So, yeah. I don’t much agree with that Quora answer, which I find particularly self-important and elitist. I have a super-high IQ, I was raised by blue-collar parents who never went to college, and I think I owned (and had read) more books by age 5 than my mom had when she was 20. And I spent a lot of time, both at home and at school, feeling lonely and misunderstood and yearning to find a place where there would be a bunch of other people just like me. First I thought that would be college. When it wasn’t, I dropped out. Then I thought it would be in a certain field of business. When it wasn’t I went back to college, then to a different business, then back on to grad school. That place, the one where people were all super smart and quick on the uptake and didn’t need hand-holding through a minefield of ideas didn’t exist, really. Or if I did find it, in pockets, it was filled with men who sounded like the one who wrote that Quora answer. Even Mensa bored me.

Instead I focused on being an interesting person who also happened to be pretty damn smart. I’ve never tried to hide from or back away from my intelligence, but I also purposely avoid using it as a weapon. If I encounter someone who seems as though they are looking for a fight, I warn them that it will mean nothing to me but will end up feeling horrible for them, and I’d rather not. Most of the time it’s left at that. The times it isn’t (usually when young men are involved), it ends badly. But I warn them. And I don’t participate with a nasty or mean demeanor. Because in the years since I’ve stopped trying to find “my people” and instead become “a unique person of my own,” I’ve also learned how to be kind and generous and gentle. I’m not out to be right; I prefer to be happy.

So, these days you’ll find me capable of a conversation about lots of things, interested in learning about many more, but resigned from (as they say) the debating society. I’m happier, I look (and feel) younger, I’m softer (but not soft). I’ve learned how to be a blessing in people’s lives rather than the one who’s always showing up to argue. And most of the time, these days, when I open up my mouth to offer information, it’s something that will help people: an answer to questions for directions or the best place to see Santa in NYC (ABC Carpet), or where to go for s’mores at your own table (The Station, in Brooklyn). Because in seeking out to be a unique person, I found out that I’m good at exploring the world around me as I attempt to meet people from whom I can learn lessons you won’t find any textbooks. And sharing what I’ve learned is something I do out of gratitude for being given that gift. I doubt it’s something that Quora author would ever learn; he’d be too busy trying to find someone to talk with nuclear physics about, not realizing that the person playing chess in the rain in Union Square might be able to teach him a lesson about unconditional love (and help him with his game, to boot). It’s no lie; it happened to me, and all I had to do was stop looking so hard for all the wrong things just because a made-up number tricked me into thinking I was “supposed” to.