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I'm not the smartest guy in the room, how do I accept that?
March 13, 2013 10:27 PM   Subscribe

How do I get over my obsession with intelligence, and embrace what I have now?

For some reason lately, I've been obsessed with intelligence. Particularly feeling jealous of people who have stratospheric intelligence — those who test in the 99th above percentiles. I'm talking about the Nathan Myhrvolds and Neil DeGrasse Tysons of the world; people who make amazing use of their intellect, while deriving absolute pleasure from their prodigious mental abilities.

I know that I'm above average, but nowhere near the gifted spectrum. My obsession has gotten to the point where I'm considering dubious nootropics. I know that IQ doesn't dictate successes, and there are plenty of drawbacks of having a high intelligence. For every success story, there are people like Robert Langdon and William Sidis.

However, I cannot help and fantasize what it's like to have an IQ of 140+ It must be very satisfying to know that you're the smartest guy in the room. I want that feeling!

However I'm nowhere near the big leagues. How do I come to terms with that, and embrace what I have now? To stop obsessing so much over this ridiculous insecurity of mine?
posted by pakoothefakoo to Society & Culture (77 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
 
I don't know, I actually think it would be very isolating to have that kind of intelligence - I think a lot of these people find it hard to relate to others. Also keep in mind that this is really only a measure of one very specific kind of smarts. Chances are a creative, inventive Steve Jobs kind of intelligence might get further in life than a pure insular mathematical genius. For all I know, you're a genius in a completely different way, you just don't realise it!
posted by Jubey at 10:35 PM on March 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I have gotten some good advice over the years in this regard, and have simply noticed some things that have helped me be less academically competitive.

1. It's better to be good than to be smart. You don't have to be in the top 1% of intelligence to work on being exceptionally good to others.

2. Faithfulness and persistence are both more valuable academic virtues than innate intelligence.

3. Even when gifted, what we know versus what we could in theory know is so far apart that we are actually all much closer together in intelligence than we sometimes admit.

4. Even if we aren't in the top 1% in intelligence, this doesn't mean that we can't work with people who are gifted and enjoy accomplishments via acquaintance and by being a support to them. If we see academics as a community endeavor rather than a lone ranger enterprise, it helps us interpret success a bit differently.

I grant that it would be fun to be very intelligent. But like Aristotle said (and I think he's correct), the more we know, the more we realize that we don't actually know. I'm not sure that there's any level of intelligence that helps us bridge the gap of wishing we knew just a bit more.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:37 PM on March 13, 2013 [29 favorites]


As someone who has tested quite well on intelligence scales, it is not nearly as useful as you think. Once you're an adult, nobody gives you anything for being smart.

In all seriousness, I'd recommend watching this Simpsons episode.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 10:42 PM on March 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


Your obsession is pretty obviously bound up with wanting to feel superior, which strongly suggests an inferiority complex. That's something a therapist can help you with, or you can do some reading on your own about it. You sound self-aware enough that you might make a lot of progress on your own.

There's also what SpacemanStix says: Most very accomplished people aren't in that 1% any more than you are, and their accomplishments are the result of a combination of intelligence, drive, luck, hard work, persistence, perception, etc. In other words, substitute "accomplished" for "intelligent", and you'll find that being that superior person is actually within your reach.

But seriously, first address the inferiority thing.
posted by fatbird at 10:42 PM on March 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


You aren't obsessed with intelligence. You are obsessed with a small fraction of the intelligence spectrum.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 10:42 PM on March 13, 2013


People who want to be the smartest in the room don't want to be smart -- they want to be superior, and being obsessed with being superior shows you're not very smart at all.

Funny how that goes, isn't it?

And for what it's worth, I was the smartest person in the room from elementary school to high school, and occasionally in college and grad school, too... And it was a very lonely thing to be.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:46 PM on March 13, 2013 [11 favorites]


I've got around a 140IQ and always tested in the 99th percentile. That's enough to make you the smartest guy in your high school. It's makes you absolutely nobody special as soon as you get out into the real world. People always tell me that I'm one of the smartest people they know, and really all it does is set you up to disappoint people. (The 'And you went to Harvard?' effect, i didn't go there, but the same basic idea.)

A lot of things help you a lot more in life than IQ, IMO -- Persistence, drive, organization, relationship skills, etc.
posted by empath at 10:54 PM on March 13, 2013 [37 favorites]


You could watch a couple of movies where one of the characters is 'the smartest guy in the room.'

I'm guessing that the character is either extremely isolated or extremely annoying.

You don't want to be either of those do you?
posted by Youremyworld at 11:09 PM on March 13, 2013


Even if you were in the 99th percentile of intelligence, you'd be sharing that space with 70 million other people on Earth. One out of 70 million is still, as empath says, nothing special.
posted by xil at 11:25 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The way you are thinking is kind of one dimensional. It's sort of like seeking wealth to achieve happiness. Happiness comes from many other sources, and wealth can at best only partially provide happiness. What you seem to want is a sense of self-fulfillment and a sense of respect or admiration from other people. There are so many ways you can get that. One of them is by being balanced. My sister once told me I'm one of the smartest people she knows. I told her I was surprised because I'm not the type of person who had anything near perfect SAT scores or who is a math whiz or literary genius. Her response was that I am one of the most well-balanced people she knows in terms of having a wide range of knowledge, wisdom, sound judgment, common sense, street smarts + book smarts, emotional intelligence, business acumen, etc. I have a few cousins who have super high IQs but are clearly much less balanced and well rounded. There you go - you don't have to be the "smartest" guy in the room to be, well, the smartest guy in the room.
posted by Dansaman at 11:29 PM on March 13, 2013 [6 favorites]


I'm totally thread sitting, but to clarify: Aside from the inferiority complex that fatbird astutely pointed out, big of part of my desire doesn't really have to do with being one of a kind, but to have this mess of extreme brainpower that I can have fun with.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 11:30 PM on March 13, 2013


There's more than one type of intelligence. Find your intellectual strengths and build on them. Don't try to be something you are not. Smart people don't do this.
posted by quadog at 11:32 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a high IQ. I frequently feel rather stupid. There is so much to know and so much I do not know. Drives me batty. Be inquisitive and kind, something I learned through a rather painful youth and young adulthood.
posted by fifilaru at 11:38 PM on March 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


to have this mess of extreme brainpower that I can have fun with.

Most people with the levels of intelligence you're talking about (top 1%) probably don't have that much 'fun' with their brainpower. Sure, maybe once you get up to 160 IQ, you might get to spend your days solving logic-based puzzles and advancing society. But I have an IQ in the 140 range, and mostly I use it to complete my grad school assignments, grade my students' papers, and analyse Taylor Swift lyrics. I don't think I'm alone in this.
posted by littlegreen at 11:41 PM on March 13, 2013 [37 favorites]


I think there's a distinction between being smart and being wise. Being obsessed with the former is fruitless; pursuing the latter is a life's delight. The thrill is in the chase.
posted by CincyBlues at 11:46 PM on March 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I've found that a lot of people ascribe to me an intelligence I don't think I have. Which I suppose is a somewhat different form of inferiority complex.

But look at it this way: you're smart enough to determine that this is a problem, you're seeking advice about it, and you seem responsive to others' responses. That puts you in some pretty elite territory.
posted by dfriedman at 11:49 PM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


to have this mess of extreme brainpower that I can have fun with

If you think being crippled by existential angst to be fun, sure.
posted by empath at 11:52 PM on March 13, 2013 [47 favorites]


Describe what kind of fun you imagine having with your brainpower that you aren't able to have now. I don't quite get what you mean.
posted by RobotHero at 11:59 PM on March 13, 2013 [12 favorites]


Hi, I'm up around the 99th percentile, at least in conventional standardized tests.

It must be very satisfying to know that you're the smartest guy in the room.

Not particularly, no. Not that I'm ashamed of it either; it just is. The idea that it would be satisfying to be the smartest person in the room is as alien to me as the idea that it would be satisfying to be the tallest person in the room. Why would that be satisfying?

Now, I also tend to be competitive, and it is satisfying to do well at some competitive intellectual endeavor—but only if I'm competing against other "smart" people. (For whatever value of "smart" is applicable to the particular contest.) To put it simply, I find it most satisfying when I do well at such a competition in spite of not being the smartest person in the room. Winning a game against someone who is evenly matched with me, or even better than me overall, is satisfying. Winning a game against someone I know I could beat 99 times out of a hundred is not.

but to have this mess of extreme brainpower that I can have fun with.

What sort of fun do you suppose you would have? It's not like I'm telekinetic or have other psionic superpowers. And as quadog says, there are different kinds of intelligence. I may be conventionally smart, but I'm very much not quick-witted, not the person who comes up with snappy comebacks in conversation. As I said, I do have fun at some sorts of intellectual competitions, but if I was just as competitive but not that smart I imagine I'd find other types of competitions that I was good at and enjoyed.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:07 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you think being crippled by existential angst to be fun, sure.

Yes, this. If you read about it, a high IQ doesn't particularly seem to correlate to life success or happiness.

Nthing what others have said: There are many different kinds of intelligence, gifts and life skills that take you a lot further than IQ.
posted by loveyallaround at 12:15 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I don't think those of us with high IQs are having as much fun with it as you think :)

My IQ tests between 140 and 150 depending on the age I was when tested and the specific test used (supposedly once you get above about 140 IQ tests are not that great anyway, since they aren't calibrated with enough people in the high ranges to make sure that they are detecting meaningful differences there.)

The thing is, most people I know hang out with other people who have similar IQs to them. And they gravitate towards work that challenges them, no matter what the starting IQ. Which means that ultimately the experience of life that people have is pretty similar no matter what their IQ. I am not usually the smartest person in the room - I feel about the same smartness level as my friends and colleagues (and if I haven't had coffee or am having an off-day, I feel much stupider than them.)

The guy who tests around average probably also works with people on the whole who are of average IQ and probably has friends of similar IQs because he met them through work or whatever. The guy who tests vastly below average probably also has similarly low-IQ friends because he met them through vocational programs or assisted living or whatever. So they probably also rarely feel like they are the smartest (or dumbest) person in the room.

I work in a really hard job where it feels like you can never be smart enough or good enough. My husband, who tests even higher in IQ tests than me works as a theoretical physicist and he freely admits that he feels like his IQ is actually the limiting factor in his career, and the real breakthroughs are made by people that he believes to be smarter than him. I don't feel like my intelligence is THE limiting factor in my career (luck and hard work and sadly sexism all come into it too). But the point is, neither of us feel like we can just effortlessly sail through our jobs because of being smart.

Other people I know who are maybe slightly above average intelligence have ended up gravitating into careers where they are challenged too, and so they also feel like they have to work hard, intellectually, to manage.

And family members who I know to have tested slightly below average on the IQ tests work at physical or customer service jobs where they also feel intellectually challenged (although I don't think that aspect of it is enjoyable to them but rather kind of annoying.)

I have to admit there are many hobbies and skills I have learned more quickly than I would have done without a high IQ, so I guess that's a benefit. But ultimately I gravitate towards hobbies that challenge me a bit anyway, rather than the ones that I pick up immediately. Something completely unchallenging is not fun.
posted by lollusc at 12:35 AM on March 14, 2013 [10 favorites]


Actually I guess what I am trying to say is that, in my experience, intelligence of the sort IQ tests measure is really about speed of thinking more than anything. So I can solve problems or understand complicated concepts more quickly than many people and without so much prompting, maybe, but less intelligent people who really want to understand or solve that thing can usually get to the same end point, just with more work. But since highly intelligent people usually ENJOY intellectual work, figuring something out more quickly just means you either don't enjoy the process as much as you would otherwise have, or it means you move onto the next problem and end up doing more work overall. So not really all that awesome.
posted by lollusc at 12:41 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


to have this mess of extreme brainpower that I can have fun with.

Having a smart brain compared to a regular brain isn't, I believe, like having a more powerful computer compared to a more average computer and being able to play the latest games or something. A smart person - even a genius - can't play piano, if they've never learned. Likewise, quantum physics, dancing, any number of things and ways of thinking.

It's not like genuine geniuses and super dooper intelligent people (which, forgive me, I suspect are far less prevalent than participants in this thread would have you, or themselves, believe) are somehow immune to the quotidian anxieties that strike the rest of us. Perhaps - perhaps - geniuses have the cognitive firepower to be mentally writing blackboards Will Hunting-style at parties. But they still wondering if that person likes/dislikes them, if broccoli is in their teeth, etc.

Indeed, many people who are genuinely gifted have had unusual upbringings as a result, and are often prey to more of the social and status anxieties we morlocks have to struggle with, not less, because they are so outside the norm, and they know it, and they know that society is not especially kind to those outside the norm.

This thread is full of examples of people who at one time or another believed themselves to be either the smartest person in the room, unusually gifted, or both. I think you can take from that a few things:

1. From their interactions on metafilter that I've seen, this is not a cohort spending their time idly solving equations whilst typing up answers.

2. They cover a wide range of occupations, income levels, and I would imagine happiness levels.

3. Outside of school, it's very difficult to assess how intelligent someone is beyond broad strokes - and even school is very flawed. Away from meaningless testing environments the question becomes academic. No one else in the room is posting here; I'm sure there were other people in those rooms who thought they were the smartest, too. So in this way, you can see that believing you're the smartest in the room is no guarantee that either you are, or that it puts you on the track to a certain lifestyle or life choices or abilities.

Friend, you don't want to be a genius - how could you? You honestly have no idea what it's like, and neither do most of the people here, including me. You need to ask yourself what you really want and are looking for fantasising about this. Perhaps it's more accessible than an intellectual pipe dream, and then you can do what most people do to pursue success and feelings of security: work. If you keep ranking yourself, you will always come up shorter than some people, and ahead of others. The only scale worth measuring to is an internal one. Good luck.
posted by smoke at 12:41 AM on March 14, 2013 [17 favorites]


RobotHero: In a way Nathan Myhrvold embodies what I mean, the guy clearly is having fun with his intelligence (along with his manic work ethic). The ability to grasp concepts and quickly develop skills, which in turn gives you more toys to play with so to speak.

On preview, as lollusc said, "I have to admit there are many hobbies and skills I have learned more quickly than I would have done without a high IQ, so I guess that's a benefit."

Thank you all for sharing your views and experience. I certainly got a fresh perspective on my issues, which will hopefully let me move forward.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 12:46 AM on March 14, 2013


I would like to point you to the fascinating story of a world-renowned physicist, in the news last week.
posted by The Illiterate Pundit at 12:48 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's not like genuine geniuses and super dooper intelligent people, which, forgive me, I suspect are far less prevalent than participants in this thread would have you, or themselves, believe

By definition, people with 140IQ plus are about 1 out of 100 people -- that is, there are probably 3 million people in the US with an IQ of 140 or higher. That's not exactly a small number of people. I think super-duper intelligent people like Feynman are pretty much beyond IQ, to be honest. I don't think that what makes them special is capturable in an IQ test.
posted by empath at 12:52 AM on March 14, 2013 [15 favorites]


You might try exhausting your obsession by indulging it vicariously. "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" is a fanfic that develops a supersmart Boy Hero specifically to derive absolute pleasure from his prodigious mental abilities. "Infinite Jest" has several characters who have fun with their mess of extreme brainpower. "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" lays out the fun had by a real-life high IQ person.
posted by kadonoishi at 1:11 AM on March 14, 2013


this is my personal view, as someone tested above the 140 level and well within the 99% level. I *do not* want to be the smartest guy in the room. If I figure that I am the smartest person in the room, either because its true or because I believe it to be true, then I am in the wrong room. I need to be challenged, I need to feel that I am learning and have something to strive towards. For me, this can only be accomplished by being around people that either have a very different viewpoint to things, or are much better at whatever subject matter I am interested in at that moment. So, again for me, being the smartest (which is a relative term anyway) is boring.
posted by alchemist at 1:28 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


A 140 IQ is only as good as the ground in which it's planted. Read Outliers, if you haven't yet. (I scored 140 in the 80s. You're welcome to review my posting history, if you want to see how that instantiation turned out.) Intelligence (classically defined) is rarely the limiting factor, in terms of happiness (or achievement).
posted by nelljie at 1:33 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


the guy clearly is having fun with his intelligence (along with his manic work ethic). The ability to grasp concepts and quickly develop skills, which in turn gives you more toys to play with so to speak.

If the shoe fits. I'm not the sharpest tool in the drawer, I don't have a manic work ethic and would be very uncomfortable in an environment where either are lauded. I figure, with my average brain, that I'm smart enough to know what I like and what I want from my life which are the simple pleasures of family, books, and drink and enough free time to enjoy all three. As I am clever enough to have been able to achieve this, this makes me IMHO the smartest man on the planet.

"All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, an' I'm fine." Words to live by.
posted by three blind mice at 1:39 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd happily swap 10-15 points of IQ for greater self-confidence and a longer concentration span - I'm sure that would make me happier and more successful than bumping up my IQ somehow.

I'm sure a bunch of us have been the smartest person in the room occasionally when we were kids, but in adult professional life that rarely happens to anyone - it all gets pretty stratified.

So even if we assume that IQ actually is a useful thing to measure and compare... Is it satisfying to have a 115 IQ and be the smartest guy in the meat packing plant? Guess not. 130 and be the smartest guy in the office? Terrible. Even if you're 150 and the smartest person in the lab you're just going to be trying to get out of there and into an environment where there are a bunch of other people around 150 and you can find people who can think and collaborate at your level. Being a super-genius must indeed be pretty lonely and frustrating.

If you want to see what it'd be like, perhaps try to get involved with some group of low-IQ people in your area (wouldn't want to suggest any particular activities, but you can think of some). :)
posted by dickasso at 2:49 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Your problem is ranking. Everyone thinks that their life would be better if only they had more $resource, whether it's looks, smarts, cash, or time. For the most part, they're wrong. The guy who was unhappy with 200k is no happier with 300k in the bank.

Choose something absolute and objective that you want to do. Solve the NYT crossword in 20min? Solve partial differential equations by hand? Freestyle rap?

There's always someone better than you, especially on the net. Especially on MF. The only escape is to stop worrying about that.

And speaking strictly about the intellectual elite... I've known a few and they mostly just have access to more complicated ways to be screwed up and unhappy. It's all just variations on the same human themes. Talk to therapists at elite institutions some time.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 3:04 AM on March 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


I tested 140+ as a kid. I breezed through most of school, but hit a wall the minute I encountered anything I didn't understand immediately, or any homework that took more than a half hour to do. And I got so used to teachers noticing how sharp I was, I always assumed people would just be impressed by my existence, and I'd never need to prove myself. In fact, I learned that standing out was a bad thing, and I developed a habit of cushioning answers I knew were right with phrases like "I think" and "it seems" and "is it...?" Even online I do this.

I don't have a smart-person resume. I feel inferior around my fellow alumni from Smart People College, who have published books and been on TV and won major awards. I live a stone's throw from MIT and Harvard, and when I meet people my own age who live in this town, I frequently feel like an idiot in comparison. I can't always keep up with intellectual conversation. There are huge gaps in my knowledge of science, politics, current events, history, literature. I can't help feeling like I've failed if I can't bring myself to finish a book. What's a nootropic? Who's Nathan Myrhvold? Or William Sidis? I even second-guess myself on vocabulary I've been using for years.

Sometimes I feel bitter, because I was supposed to be brilliant, my teachers told me I could do anything, so where are all the awards and money and talk-show interviews? It's hard not to feel robbed, even though I know it's something I never had.

And being smart was my thing! The thing I was known for in school! In any ragtag group of cartoon kids, there's always the kid with the glasses and book who figures it out. I was that kid, and I am not that adult, and it feels like a big chunk of my identity was a lie.

Boo fucking hoo, right? Okay, I can't deny that I do enjoy being smart. It's overall a net advantage. It's made a lot of things easier, and I like having my wit and creativity to keep me company. But it doesn't make me better or more sophisticated or more analytical or more confident. Instead, it opens all sorts of new dimensions in which I will never, ever measure up.
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:02 AM on March 14, 2013 [58 favorites]


I'm going to use my sock puppet account to answer this, for reasons that will soon become obvious.

My IQ is in the top 99%… or, probably the top 99.99% or higher. I say "probably" because I am not sure of technically what it is, having scored at the ceiling (generally 160+) for every IQ test I've ever taken.

Although I finally really like my life, I can honestly say that being this "smart" (enter all the caveats about testing etc) has caused more personal trauma and difficulty than anything else I've gone though. It is not something you should feel jealous of.

I only know my IQ because, at nine, I felt so isolated and confused and convinced something was "wrong" with me that I snuck into and read all of my parents' files on me. Turns out they had had me tested at age five in order to justify having me skipped a grade. At the time I was tested I was reading at the 10th grade level and doing math at the 7th grade level. I got to skip one grade, and that took a lot of trying on my parents' part. Skipping grades helped a bit, but only insofar as it meant that the hell that was public school was over a year earlier. The problem wasn't that I had already mastered the content of the classes a year ahead of me; more profoundly, the difficulty was that I mastered any content much faster than the other kids. So even if something was new -- which rarely happened -- it was deadly dull because of the pace at which the teachers had to go through it. Imagine wasting 8 hours a day, every day, between the ages of 5 and 16 -- like the worst corporate meeting ever but it Never. Ever. Ends. I get a suffocated drowning feeling just thinking about those years.

But two things were worse than the boredom. First was the social isolation. I literally didn't have any peers. People my age were rarely interested in the things I was interested in -- and if they were, they were interested in them at a level that I wasn't. For instance, I've always been interested in kids and babies -- as were many little girls my age. To feed my interest, I started reading (adult-level) child psychology and developmental biology books when I was eight. I quickly learned I couldn't talk about the ideas and questions I had because I'd immediately get accused of "trying to act all smart" or "you think you're so hot" … but I found the conversations my peers had to be mindlessly dull. (Think of how you would feel, as an adult, if you had to talk to 8-year-olds, as a peer, about their interests). Then I would feel like a jerk for thinking they were boring. But they were boring. It was so, so, SO isolating.

The other thing that was worse than the boredom was the mindfuck of trying to navigate the world with all of its mixed messages about intelligence. On the one hand, it was obvious to me that I was smart -- I was so smart that I couldn't hide it even though I tried, especially not from myself. Even if I didn't act like it, I could tell that other people found things that I thought were trivially easy to be quite difficult. And, in theory, I was told that it was "good" to be smart. But on the other hand I got many, many messages that I shouldn't be smart -- or that if I thought I was smart I was an arrogant asshole. My parents, who themselves are very smart and also have their own issues with intelligence, very much wanted me to be normal "in spite of" my intelligence. In an effort for this to happen, they wavered inconsistently between telling me that academic smarts meant nothing and being proud of my intelligence but increasing the pressure to fit in and have friends. And, of course, I got all sorts of messages from school either lauding me for my achievements or telling me that whatever they were didn't matter as much as X (where X is "social skills" or "attractiveness" or whatever) or telling me that if I thought I was smart or was proud of my achievements I was arrogant.

It truly was a completely mindfuck. I only got through school by basically sitting in the back of every classroom reading all the time, completely ignoring everything. But since I already knew it or could learn it that quickly, I still got great grades, and my teachers quickly learned to just leave me alone. I also read everything the library had on being gifted and high intelligence. I didn't even check these things out -- I read them hidden in the stacks -- because I didn't want the librarian to see I was reading those books, I was so ashamed that I cared about "being smart". I thought I shouldn't be caring about or noticing it as an issue, and that I did was a sign that I was arrogant and awful. But at the same time, my isolation stemmed from that, and depression stemmed from that isolation, and I didn't know what else to do. Those books did help, because from them I read that one of the big risk factors of being really smart is giving up on school, and never learning how to work hard. I vowed that those things wouldn't happen to me, so I forced myself to do the bare minimum necessary to be valedictorian (which meant bothering to do assignments that were tedious make-work, rather than blowing them off). I also tried really hard to push myself in my non-school time: I learnt to program, I spent a lot of time on computers back when that was much more of a rarity, I read a LOT, and I talked to my parents about all the things I was reading.

These skills (and my test scores) got me to Very Elite University for undergraduate, which was a lot better, and I made a few friends - but it still wasn't as good I had been hoping, because I was still pretty intellectually isolated by comparison even there. And I had all of these psychological issues from loathing myself for being smart, and being ashamed of it, but then using it all the time and being praised for it in my classes. After graduating from college, I was pretty aimless for a while, and then all of this stuff came to a head and I had a breakdown -- literally just left my job and my home one day because I couldn't take things any more, and spent a few months sobbing in my parents' basement, before slowly clawing my way back.

Life has improved a lot since then. I went and did a PhD at Other Very Elite University, where I finally found a bunch of people who I was on the same wavelength with. That itself took some getting used to, and I've battled a fair amount of imposter syndrome since then. I now have a career where I use my brains and I get to interact with really smart, interesting people. As lollusc says, I think it feels about like someone with a lower IQ would feel in a less high-powered career. Now I sometimes feel like I'm not smart enough, or I don't work hard enough to compete with those that are as smart as I am. I still have very few friends, but the ones I have (and my husband) have similar tales. And we cling tightly to each other; I treasure them very very much.

Bottom line: it ain't so great being that smart, and is nothing you should feel envious of. I now do like my life, but it was tough getting here. I just had a baby and before getting pregnant I thought very seriously about whether it would be fair to bring an infant into this world to face the same issues (in all likelihood, if genetics are any indication). I don't know how we'll handle her schooling if she is as bright as we are. I don't know how we'll teach her to love herself but not become an arrogant asshole about her brains. I don't know how we'll teach her to make friends if she, too, doesn't have many peers. I don't know how we'll teach her to work hard if everything comes so easily.

There is a lot of alcoholism in my family, a lot of misery clustered around this issue. It is true that my brains give me a lot of joy in many ways, but they have also been a challenge.

And obviously I am still somewhat ashamed of them, because I am writing this with my sock puppet. I am not even sure I will submit this post, and I certainly don't want it out there under my main metafilter account.

Sorry for the length.
posted by fluffysocksarenice at 4:05 AM on March 14, 2013 [71 favorites]


Hmm. I commend you on the awareness that led you to ask this question. With every passing year I feel more strongly that the mindset of comparison is one of the most painful we humans can inhabit. A few disparate thoughts:

1. In my opinion, self-awareness is a far more attractive, admirable *and* a far more useful trait than "intelligence". It is by definition a process of learning (continuously, not once when you're 5) about yourself and your mind, and nobody is born with it. I want to stress to you that I don't consider self-awareness to be a consolation prize when intelligence can't be had. It's honestly the most beautiful human quality there is.

2. I test in that top 1%. I do learn extremely quickly and handle concepts easily, etc. I've never talked about that fact before, so I'm a bit nervous about expressing my frank opinions (fear of judgment, mostly), but here goes. It seems to me that I do have a bit more "mental firepower" than average, but I truly don't think it's made my life more fun. Although I do deeply appreciate how my mind works when I can learn a new concept or skill quickly, it seems that 90% of the time, that "extra processing power" basically exists to guide me in to black holes of existential confusion. I'm utterly serious about this. I have spent a HUGE amount of time paralyzed by existential doubt, and I'm not even being dramatic about it. Existential doubt is exactly what it was. As time goes on, I have learned to be both more grateful for my strengths and the relative ease with which I can do certain things, and more aware of the ways in which my strengths are fundamentally not capable of being relied upon to produce happiness. Being smart will never make me happy.

3. I went to MIT and I'm a Ph.D. student in neuroscience. I know a LOT of smart people. I know people who learn and understand more quickly than me, and I know people who learn and understad less quickly. I see no correlation between "intelligence" (we'll call it that for the purposes of this discussion) and any of the following: material success, happiness, magnitude of contribution to the wellbeing of the world. I would say there was only a very weak correlation between "intelligence" and GPA at MIT, if such a correlation existed at all. I know some "geniuses" who are doing incredible things with their lives, but I don't think it's just (or even mostly) because they are geniuses. Many, many successful people have expressed their view that raw brainpower is not very important in the equation for scientific or humanitarian success. I'm just chiming in to say that my personal experience has been in line with that view. I expect you've heard this before and don't find it terribly convincing, but I figure it couldn't hurt to mention.

4. Here's where I get really nervous, but I'll try to be completely honest. Having high "intelligence" has not satisfied any of my heart's desires in life. It isn't fulfilling. Like everybody else (I suspect), I desire closeness, connection... a relaxed and unguarded intimacy in life, not just in the romantic sense, but in many ways. My own mind is part of how I understand and seek these things in life, because that search has to be undertaken by the whole person, everything included... and sometimes I feel I have a beautiful understanding and I feel grateful for my mind, but that's such a small part of what it means to live happily. I would wish everyone in this world peace, joy, safety, health... I think almost everybody (I don't want to talk about absolutes; the human condition is so complex) has the intelligence they need.

5. As a scientist, my best ideas - those exhilarating moments of inspiration and understanding - come from collaboration, not from sitting alone thinking great thoughts. (Even if I happen to be sitting alone when the final connection gets made in my head.) Most of the time it's unclear who really gets to take credit for an idea. Maybe I thought of it, but only after being perfectly set up by my colleague, or the other way around. I think that this is rarely understood by people outside science.

6. Make of this allegorical example from my own life what you will: I often imagine that having the physiology to be a great runner would be really fun. I even became a little bit obsessed with that notion. I've had so many daydreams about what it would be like to have the ability to just bound along for long distances, looking so graceful and strong... I've really ascribed a lot of enjoyment to those beautiful marathoners. I'm short with unusually short legs, and I just don't run fast. When I run, I feel like a lousy knock-off of a real runner and sometimes I don't have very much fun. I'm not sure what it is about running that caught my imagination - there are a million things I'm not good at. For some reason not being good at running really got under my skin. Of course, that's because I wanted to be "the sort of person who is good at running" because I had imagined what it was like to be such a person, and judged it to be super fun. This is actually ridiculous, isn't it? Maybe great runners love running and appreciate their ability to run, but the notion that this somehow makes their life automatically fabulous is just... silly.
posted by Cygnet at 4:46 AM on March 14, 2013 [16 favorites]


What is intelligence, anyway? When I was in the army, I
received the kind of aptitude test that all soldiers
took and, against a normal of 100, scored 160. No one at
the base had ever seen a figure like that, and for two
hours they made a big fuss over me. (It didn't mean
anything. The next day I was still a buck private with
KP - kitchen police - as my highest duty.)

All my life I've been registering scores like that, so
that I have the complacent feeling that I'm highly
intelligent, and I expect other people to think so too.
Actually, though, don't such scores simply mean that I
am very good at answering the type of academic questions
that are considered worthy of answers by people who make
up the intelligence tests - people with intellectual
bents similar to mine?

For instance, I had an auto-repair man once, who, on
these intelligence tests, could not possibly have scored
more than 80, by my estimate. I always took it for
granted that I was far more intelligent than he was.
Yet, when anything went wrong with my car I hastened to
him with it, watched him anxiously as he explored its
vitals, and listened to his pronouncements as though
they were divine oracles - and he always fixed my car.

Well, then, suppose my auto-repair man devised questions
for an intelligence test. Or suppose a carpenter did, or
a farmer, or, indeed, almost anyone but an academician.
By every one of those tests, I'd prove myself a moron,
and I'd be a moron, too. In a world where I could not
use my academic training and my verbal talents but had
to do something intricate or hard, working with my
hands, I would do poorly. My intelligence, then, is not
absolute but is a function of the society I live in and
of the fact that a small subsection of that society has
managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of
such matters.

Consider my auto-repair man, again. He had a habit of
telling me jokes whenever he saw me. One time he raised
his head from under the automobile hood to say: "Doc, a
deaf-and-mute guy went into a hardware store to ask for
some nails. He put two fingers together on the counter
and made hammering motions with the other hand. The
clerk brought him a hammer. He shook his head and
pointed to the two fingers he was hammering. The clerk
brought him nails. He picked out the sizes he wanted,
and left. Well, doc, the next guy who came in was a
blind man. He wanted scissors. How do you suppose he
asked for them?"

Indulgently, I lifted by right hand and made scissoring
motions with my first two fingers. Whereupon my
auto-repair man laughed raucously and said, "Why, you
dumb jerk, He used his voice and asked for them." Then
he said smugly, "I've been trying that on all my
customers today." "Did you catch many?" I asked. "Quite
a few," he said, "but I knew for sure I'd catch you."
"Why is that?" I asked. "Because you're so goddamned
educated, doc, I knew you couldn't be very smart."

And I have an uneasy feeling he had something there.


--Isaac Asimov
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:09 AM on March 14, 2013 [23 favorites]


However, I cannot help and fantasize what it's like to have an IQ of 140+ It must be very satisfying to know that you're the smartest guy in the room. I want that feeling!

I also test pretty highly. Maybe not genius level, but I'm often the smartest in a room. It is not a fun place. The only benefit I get from my relatively high intelligence is that learning new things doesn't always take as long as it does for other people. Yay, a little extra free time.

More often than not, the feeling of being the smartest person in the room is not satisfying, but frustrating. Sitting there waiting while the idiots who weren't paying attention start asking questions that were JUST. ANSWERED. A. MINUTE. AGO. Plus, the smartest guy in the room usually gets picked for the hardest work. Great.

Look, I won't bullshit you: it's nice to be able to grasp things quickly. But there is ALWAYS something just beyond the horizon of your own intelligence that frustrates you. I do not understand quantum physics. It doesn't make sense, and I can't accept things that don't make sense. It is beyond frustrating.

Drugs won't make you smarter, any more than software can make your computer suddenly more powerful, or high octane fuel can make your car's engine bigger. The best drugs can do is temporarily make you work at greater than your own 100%, at the expense of something down the line.

The only thing that makes you smarter is learning more stuff. The more stuff you know, the more new things fit into existing frameworks and the easier they are to understand. Look at something super simple: multiplication. If you understand addition, you can understand multiplication. It's the same thing from a different perspective. Sometimes the appearance of intelligence is simply having been lucky enough to have all the "prerequisites" in place when you are learning something new.

So I'd suggest that your problem isn't a lack of intelligence, but a lack of patience for your own learning style, and perhaps a desire to be seen as more intelligent than you are. If you want to be seen as intelligent, ask more questions.
posted by gjc at 5:48 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'd happily swap 10-15 points of IQ for greater self-confidence and a longer concentration span - I'm sure that would make me happier and more successful than bumping up my IQ somehow.


This.

My IQ is somewhere in that range. I had it tested when I was eight, and then again just last year at forty-two as part of a definitive inattentive ADD diagnosis. Anything verbal comes extremely easily to me. Writing is like breathing. Math, spatial reasoning...not so much. The problem is that I make an awful teacher, because I never had to learn or struggle with reading or writing.

What comes naturally to you? What are you incredibly good at, so good you don't notice you're good? There must be something. The Neil DeGrasse Tysons and Richard Feynmans of the world are way, way beyond the rest of us, but I believe all have a little genius in us somewhere. It's just not necessarily in a field where genius is traditionally celebrated. If you figure out what it is, then you'll know how it feels to be the smartest guy in the room.
posted by tully_monster at 6:12 AM on March 14, 2013


In a way Nathan Myhrvold embodies what I mean, the guy clearly is having fun with his intelligence (along with his manic work ethic). The ability to grasp concepts and quickly develop skills, which in turn gives you more toys to play with so to speak.

There is really no reason you can't do that now. Quite possibly you won't become an accomplished amateur chef overnight, but you could throw yourself into building electronic toys or restoring classic cars.

I think Neil DeGrasse Tyson is a great example of how you're missing the mark, a bit. He is a smart guy,in the sense that he's "smart enough" that he was able to get a Ph.D. in astrophysics (there are lots of people who have a Ph.D. in astrophysics). But Neil DeGrasse Tyson didn't become "Neil DeGrasse Tyson" because he was some kind of "supper dooper genius". He became "Neil DeGrasse Tyson" by being excited about his field, making important connections with people at the Hayden Planetarium which got him his initial position there, and deciding "I'm going to write popular books that lots of people will read." I don't look at Neil DeGrasse Tyson and think, "That is a guy who thinks on another plane of existence." I think, "That is a guy who does a lot of awesome stuff!" We can't all be charismatic media personalities, but we can accept challenges that are just out of our comfort zone and slam our heads against the wall until we master and overcome those challenges.

Being in the top 1% of intelligence isn't that big a deal. As everyone mentioned, there are 3 million people at that level. And the number of problems that need to be solved that are really only graspable by the most intelligent people in the world is a lot smaller than the number of people who are capable of grappling with them. So find some other problems that are interesting and available that no one is working on. Once again, look at Neil DeGrasse Tyson: he's not working on some abstract piece of astrophysics that only a few people in the world are even capable of understanding, instead he's working on something that no one else was doing: explaining astrophysics to the masses and running the Hayden Planetarium.
posted by deanc at 6:12 AM on March 14, 2013 [17 favorites]


My experience pretty much mirrors gjc's. That said, I do get quantum mechanics. Automatic transmissions though? That's black fucking magic -- it's a goddamned hydraulic computer. Auto mechanics make me feel _really_ dumb.

IQ is overrated. Figure out what you want to do with that big brain, and then go do it. I know plenty of smart folks that sit around and do nothing. Action is what makes a DeGrasse Tyson. It's the old Edison line -- 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration.

As another comparison, what if you were the strongest in the room? That won't make you an elite athlete, and there are millions of stories of genetically gifted individuals that just didn't have the drive to be elite.

I'd highly recommend reading The Talent Code if you want some more insight into this.

All of this said, you know which superlative I'm jealous of in the room? The most compassionate. _That's_ something worth aspiring towards.
posted by bfranklin at 6:17 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Being the smartest person in the room sets you up for isolation, resentment, and as the target of schadenfreude, and the smarter you are, the more difficult it is to find those rooms where you're a collaborative peer instead of that isolated (or at best, "weird") "smartest person in the room." Making other people feel much less competent (even if just by virtue of your existence) is seen as a serious social transgression in most strata. A guy who was on the varsity basketball team at a non-competitive high school can find plenty of satisfying pick up games to join; a guy who was NBA material but just missed getting drafted domestically or internationally is bored, and perceived as an asshole who is ruining it for all the weekend warriors, if he tries to join his local YMCA league--no matter how much he tries to convince folks that he respects them as people and just wants to hang with the guys.
posted by availablelight at 6:36 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Read about multiple intelligences. Some people have math smarts, some have language smarts, some have physical prowess and grace, etc. I know some people who are genuinely extremely intelligent and accomplished. The ones who have maximized their gifts are way more interesting than the ones who have coasted on it.

Push yourself. Learn more math, do crossword puzzles, read challenging books, listen to the word game shows on NPR, read magazines that inform you about the world. Read Scientific American, not Discover, The Economist instead of Time, etc. Use the dictionary for the words you don't know. And spend time listening to people; most people have areas of expertise that they'd love to share.
posted by theora55 at 6:56 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have a high IQ. It doesn't solve your desire to always want to be more perceptive, a faster problem solver, a better learner. If I could even score 10 points higher, I'd still want to get better. The horizon always recedes, I can always see someone who seems more adept than me. That, I think, is part of human nature. So don't expect that increasing your IQ would make you feel like you'd "arrived" there, wherever there is. You would always compare yourself to the people who are sharper than you.

That said, it helped me a lot to read about the history of intelligence testing and what a ration of BS it has in its foundations - The Mismeasure of Man is a valuable and thought-provoking work despite its criticisms. Theora55's recommendation of reading about multiple intelligences is an excellent one, because it should complexify your understanding of intelligence and begin to reveal that there is no single set of intellectual powers that is, or should be, most valued in society. We need them all and we need them all at different intensities in different individuals.

A raw score on a irrelevant test is not the thing to obsess about. It tells you nothing about an individual's propensity for insight or their potential to impact society. What matters more is getting interested in things, delving into them, and finding a way to make a contribution that no one else is making, even if it is simply a contribution of effort, on something worthwhile. Don't ask yourself where people rank on an imagined intelligence scale: ask yourself - what are they interested in? What are their ideas? What have they done? What do they plan to do? What do they recommend? And develop those questions for yourself. What are you very very interested in - enough to apply yourself to some of the serious questions in that topic, to read and research about them, to think about them even on your free time, and to advance the discussion? Apply yourself to something. It can be ideas but it can be objects or creations or nature, as well.
posted by Miko at 7:26 AM on March 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have never been IQ tested, but I was classed as gifted because I was reading at an 11+ level by the time I was three. I had to take my English lessons separately at primary school as the existing lessons didn't challenge me enough. Like fluffysocksarenice, I had a very, very hard time fitting in with my peers, and I struggled to relate to people my own age without them thinking I was strange or boring, and without revealing that what they were interested in did not interest me. (Even the dinner ladies at school would call me 'weird' for reading a book or wanting to do things on my own instead of skipping.) This means that I didn't get the social experience that many take for granted, and there have been times in my life when I have found getting on with people really difficult as a result.

There are two other problems for me:
1) I never learned to work hard. Never needed to revise. I read at a very fast speed and retain information very well -but when it comes to rote learning, I just can't do it, because I can't sit down and learn information in the same way I can when reading about it. I don't know my times tables, and while I have a good Spanish vocabulary and a reasonable French one (I studied Spanish at school but not French) my grammar is terrible, because I can't sit and make myself learn the various conjugations. When I've done jobs that didn't challenge me, my performance was very poor, because I wasn't stimulated enough to bother working hard - not ideal when you are temping or working in something as a stopgap - and people thought I was lazy or incompetent. When I chose a degree subject new to me for the challenge, and didn't realise that a lot of that subject in the first year involved memorising tables and diagrams, I found myself failing classes for the first time in my life. If you've spent the first 18 years of your life being the smartest person in the room, that is genuinely unsettling. The first term of university was when I started getting bipolar symptoms for the first time, and I think the combination of social difficulty and experiencing something which challenged my fundamental idea of who I was was the trigger. Which brings me on to...

2) You always feel like you're wasting your potential. I'm not particularly motivated by money and I like my life to be simple, so I work in a steady job which provides intellectual stimulation and enough money to pay for my living expenses without needing to think about it too much. However, I'm not writing a best-selling novel, I'm not creating a publishing empire, I'm too old to make one of those '30 under 30' lists, I spend a lot of time doing things to relax (as a way of managing my health) rather than to challenge myself, and I often have the feeling that my brain is atrophying because I'm not using it for Great Things. The person I theoretically could have been aged 8, or 12, or 16, is probably not the person I am now. I don't think 'proving something to yourself' is a good reason to take a PhD, but part of the reason why I haven#t attempted Great Things is that, since I hit something I couldn't do without thinking about it, I worry that I won't be able to. The fear of not being able to do something to my level of satisfaction is something that really holds me back.

Note that I am NOT claiming to be a genius here, and I am really not very good at maths or science (for some reason, people find it easier to believe in maths or science prodigies and not English/reading early achievers - I've often been accused of lying when I've talked about it, a horrible reminder of being a kid and having to hide my intelligence to fit in).

One other thing: I frequently burn myself when cooking, because I can't seem to remember that something that came out of the oven a minute ago is still hot. Different intelligences are very much a real thing. Just look at Scott Adams and his 'genius level IQ'...
posted by mippy at 7:46 AM on March 14, 2013 [13 favorites]


As someone who has also pretty much always been the smartest person in the room, it ain't that great. Agreed with everyone upthread who said how bored you always get in school/training environments, people have lots of expectations about how far you'll go and if you don't have the motivation you start to get really depressed about expectations vs reality, and yeah I have rarely ever NOT felt weird and isolated. Having the extra brain capacity (or however you'd like to refer to it) just makes me that much more capable of analyzing myself into oblivion.
posted by agress at 7:59 AM on March 14, 2013


Usin' my sockpuppet. My IQ is above 160. I am married to a person with an IQ above 160. We both have huge academic firepower resumes. I have a pretty happy life and I think I'm pretty well-adjusted. This answer started out really long but I've tried to condense!

Just about everyone I meet is smarter than me in some way or another and has something to teach me. What turns out to matter most in my life is people skills (which I was a little late to develop because of, yes, the isolating experience of being crazy smart but -- more importantly -- that I was an arrogant little shit about being crazy smart). Looking at my facebook feed of people I knew from a high school for gifted students, it's not the smartest kids who have turned out the best and happiest; it's mostly the hardest-workers.

My life is mostly like anybody else's. I do grasp new ideas faster than other people, and master material faster. The downside of that is that I find after about five years, I start to get bored because I like the work of learning new things. And I'm a little lazy when I don't feel excited about things because I didn't have to work hard for a long time.

I tend to dive more deeply into topics that interest me than most people I know (although, my spouse does not do this; I think this is a matter of personal attitude rather than intellect); I don't just read a book about my kid's first year of development, I read half a dozen books and dive into textbooks on neurological development of children. But I think the big reason I do this is because I know I'm very smart, I'm not intimidated by these topics; I know if I work at it, I can understand it, and that I'm good at learning things. I'm also not afraid to ask people about things I don't understand, because I'm not really afraid of appearing stupid. And it is fun! Learning new things is great.

But here's the good news, OP: Anyone can do this! Intelligence is plastic (at least to a degree), and if you want to have fun with your brainpower, you should do it! Go read yourself silly about paleontology. Or high-speed particle physics. Or Dostoyevski. Ask questions about what you don't understand -- most experts are very generous about sharing their understanding. Most topics are accessible to the "intelligent layman" who's willing to put in the work.

I derive a lot of pleasure from being in a room with interesting and passionate people. I no longer spend really any time thinking about how I'm the smartest person in the room (unless someone mentions it, like this question!), and I've definitely learned that it's not really a pleasure-giving experience. I mean, not that it's a bad experience; just that it's an irrelevant thing most of the time. Intelligence is a tool, that can be used for good or bad ends, selfish or generous ends, etc. If I'm in a room with good people who care about the right things, it's great that I can bring the tool of my intelligence to the task, but it's no more important than other tools people bring.
posted by Sockish American at 8:40 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I should also note that Robert Langdon is probably the "smartest guy in the room" a LOT more than Neil DeGrasse Tyson is.

You DON'T want to be "the smartest man in the room." You DO want to be the person who's constantly challenging yourself and developing your talents and working on difficult tasks you are interested in. When you get to the point where you feel your intelligence is an impediment to conquering those challenges, THEN come to us about how to grapple with the issue. If you were more intelligent, it's not that those challenges would be easier, it's that your baseline for what challenges to accept would be higher, and you'd be just as frustrated as you would be if you were less intelligent

This is the reason "imposter syndrome" is so common among "smart" people-- because they are constantly placing themselves in situations where they are in over their heads. Are you in over your head? If not, why?
posted by deanc at 8:46 AM on March 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


The smartest guy in the room is rarely the smartest guy in the room he just knows the most about one topic. A person could know everything there is to know about a subject have doctorates out the whaazoo but say you are in a car on a cold winters night with 3 guys with doctorates, top of their field and a mechanic and the car breaks down, the mechanic is the smartest guy in that car at that time. Everything is relative.

Also if you want to have an IQ of 140+, take a few of the tests and practice and you too can learn to be good at IQ tests, really they test nothing but your skill in taking IQ tests. Practice for a bit and you too can join Mensa. Also as someone who is married to a guy who joined Mensa smart people can be as dumb as bricks about so much stuff and so boring and one tracked only wanting to talk about their one area of interest, I'd take a conversation with an interesting high school drop out over some of my husbands "genius" friends any day of the week.

To stop obsessing, pick something that you are interested in and become good at that. Being knowledgeable about something you are passionate about is going to give you so much confidence in your own intelligence. So you can be the football statistics genius, the bird watching genius, the DIY genius what ever you want and you will know more about that topic than anyone else in that room.
posted by wwax at 9:01 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Due to quirks of my youth, I have very few friends who don't have 145+ IQs, verified by my school district. I've never dated someone with a lower IQ than that. I would say I know about 200 people with verified IQs in the range we're discussing in this thread. And some of them are in the crazy 160+ range - my best friend throughout middle school and high school, for example. My mother would never tell me mine.

I assure you that there are plenty of losers who go nowhere in life who have long-tail high IQs. You would be shocked at who in your day-to-day life is rocking the genius-level IQ you covet.

Someone in the thread mentioned that theoretical physicists are actually IQ-limited. I've heard that too. I think academic physics and math are the only domains I've heard of where having that basic brainpower really helps. In any other field, what you need is more work ethic, powers of concentration, drive to succeed, and social skills.

I would definitely take a big hit to my raw intelligence in exchange for normal social skills. And yes, being the smartest person in the room generally means you ought to be looking to upgrade rooms. If you aren't aiming to be the dumbest person in any room you're in, you aren't working hard enough.
posted by town of cats at 9:12 AM on March 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


And, of course, geniuses can feel insecure or self-conscious in areas that have nothing to do with intelligence, just like everyone else. Maybe the smartest guy in the room never relishes it because he's aching to be the most popular guy in the room, or the most stylish, or the bravest. We all have areas where we feel like we don't measure up. Most of us are doing some combination of trying to improve those areas and just working with what we've got, and often secretly worrying that we're not good enough.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:29 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I know someone with an 150+ IQ and he can't tie his own shoes. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. Figure out what your superpowers are and enjoy them.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:30 AM on March 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


Intelligence: relative capacity.

It doesn't matter if your capacity is the size of a gallon jug or a swimming pool, the mind is always filled. Compare a mosquito with yourself. Your horizons are obviously much broader, but subjectively, you and the mosquito both fill your respective universes to capacity.

Intelligence: Smart v Stupid.

The biggest difference between smart and stupid is that smart understands about ignorance and stupid thinks he already knows all he needs to know. It's always easier on the stupid person in that respect.

The Yearning to know everything:

Yeah, I get that way, too. I want to know it all. Really, no snark. I'll never stop scratching that itch. When I was in junior high school I knew a man who claimed to be fluent in over twenty languages. I hated him for that. Well, not hated, but it still pisses me off that I don't have that particular talent, and must struggle with languages. No matter what I do there's always someone there in front of me, doing it better. Pisses me off, yeah, but then it also gives me heroes.

Your awareness can be the stimulant to continue to learn, or strive. If your only objective is to be superior to others, hell, that's no big problem--just look around and find somone you can feel superior to. Small comfort that. But the notion I took from your post was that you value intelligence (um, let's say, the same way I like chocolate), and you just want more and more. Good on you. Go for it, but lighten up on the ratings. Only one guy at a time can be at the top of the heap. (think S. Hawking as one example a man who makes the most of what he has)
posted by mule98J at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2013


On meeting one another, people need to establish a pecking order. They will use any and all criteria available to them to do so. You have a choice to either accept or reject their judgement of your place in the order. You also have a choice on whether or not to invest effort to work through their judgement of you (and you of them) to build a relationship.

What you're doing is self sabotage. You've established your own pecking order, in your own mind, with a very difficult standard, where success is only possible relative to others. There's something to be said for reaching out to a difficult goal, but is that what you're really doing?

I've run into quite a few folks who actively don't want to get to their stated destinations. There's nothing wrong with that, necessarily - but if that sounds like you it might help to at least recognize that.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 10:33 AM on March 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


This thread has been enlightening, thank you all again; especially those who took the time to share their personal experiences. I hope that my fellow Mefis got a lot out of this as I did.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 11:52 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I realise I am late to the party but I think you should question what exactly it is that you want. Why exactly do you want to be the smartest person in the room? Taking that wish at face value, would everyone else in the room have to know? Would it be the same if they didn't know?

dickasso and others made a similar point, it easy to arrange to put yourself in a room full of lower-IQ people but how much fun would that really be?

Be careful what you wish for.
posted by epo at 12:09 PM on March 14, 2013


Have you ever actually been the smartest person in the room? I don't think you'd want that all the time.

I'm probably around the same level of intelligence as you, but there have been those moments where I have been the more informed and/or more intelligent person in the room. It's not fun. It's hard to talk freely without thinking you need to dumb down what you're saying or the person you're speaking to won't understand. Finding common ground is difficult. And hearing people talk about stuff incorrectly or ignorantly and not rudely telling them how wrong they are requires an unnerving amount of self-restraint. In those few moments where I actually was the smartest person in the room, I hated it.

Echoing others here that intelligence matters far less than work ethic. People of average intelligence who work hard and take aggressive control of their lives are the ones who are Fortune 500 CEOs and Harvard grads. Being a genius doesn't seem like it'd be a free pass to anything. You'd still have to apply it. If anyone figures out how to bottle motivation, I will buy a whole case, please.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:12 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


As someone who has sometimes been the smartest person in class, back in school, I made it my goal to NOT be the smartest person in the room.

Would rather be the big fish in the small pond or the small fish in the big pond?

As the smartest person, nobody understands you. You don't get any challenges. You don't learn anything. Or grow. You get frustrated by other people's slowness and lack of energy. You're constantly dissatisfied because things. just. don't. get. done. right.

It's quite an adjustment to not be the smartest person in the room, and a little painful too. But after the adjustment, I'd choose being a small fish in a big pond any day. There are people around me with whom I can bounce ideas around. They can actually contribute to a project, instead of making me feel like I'm doing it all by myself. We make similarly nerdy jokes. And best of all, I can see different paths that I can try to achieve, instead of feeling like life's already stale.

And anyway, there's ALWAYS someone smarter than you. You'll be much happier embracing that, and seeing it as an opportunity to better yourself, than to be bitter about it.
posted by ethidda at 1:54 PM on March 14, 2013


Well there are studies that question whether natural talent is even relevant, since the real way to excel is effortful study.

I knew a girl who had an IQ of 86 verbal and 84 nonverbal. She wasn't ever going to be a genius per se, although from time to time she did some outstanding things. She pushed herself very hard and her whole family were intellectuals. She passed all her exams at 16 with grade C or higher, putting her above (I think) at least half the population, and then passed enough exams at 18 to get into an okay university to study the subject of her choice. You see, she was very driven. No-one who knew her would ever ever describe her as below average. Her IQ was below average, but it wasn't the sole measure of her mind.

I think your trouble is that you're focusing too much on yourself, and not enough on the subject matter. What are you really into? What can't you put down? (Maybe it's the concept of intelligence!) Get stuck in, and study the shit out of it.

p.s. I have a very high IQ and I work on really smart things all day. It's more fun than the alternative but I assure you most of my inner narrative doesn't involve revelling in how smart I am. It's more like, oh gawd how am I going to get this done in time for the meeting, I won't have answers and the boss will see... Only an hour till lunch... I'm hungry... less than an hour to get this done I wonder if I should work through lunch... Oh gawd why is it so difficult to install and configure this thing, I swear I spend all my time installing stuff... 57 minutes till lunch... WTF is cumulative quantile autoregression? What's that little squiggle in the notation... 56 minutes till lunch...

Plus I've been the smartest person in the room in lots of places. You don't want that. That experience consisted mostly of people telling me I was irrational or stupid or had a [tap side of head] *problem* or was lying or was psychotic. And they'd *mean* it and all. At least where I work now, I never ever have to hear anyone banging on about how clever they are, and nobody ever tells me I'm stupid.
posted by tel3path at 4:46 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ditto to the smarty pants above. I score remarkably high on all sorts of tests (including a perfect score on the GRE) and all I seem to get from it is bad life decisions (like graduate school) and the uncanny ability to be marked almost immediately by average joes and janes as Mr Professor, the walking encyclopedia. And I don't even try to be a know it all. I'd give up 20 iq points for some charm, social grace, or at least emotional stability.
posted by dis_integration at 6:22 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


When I was in school, I was that kid who always scored 99th percentile in all the standardized tests, got the top grades without really trying, and was constantly told by my teachers that I was brilliant and destined for great things.

But the more I progress in my career, the stupider I feel. I've come to realize that actually, I'm only "smart" in a very narrow sense, and that other types of intelligence are needed to get ahead in the corporate world. I think the higher up in the chain you get, the less being "smart" matters. Because you can always just hire some smart people to do the smart stuff for you. One thing I've noticed in myself and sometimes other "smart" people is that I often miss the forest for the trees. I'm so buried in whatever very technical thing I'm doing that I miss the bigger picture.

What I'm really in awe of is people who are blessed with smarts, social skills, and athleticism. I was the typical "nerdy kid" who didn't play any sports in school, but ever since I entered the real world I've noticed a high correlation of athleticism and general competency. In my school days, I always thought that if you were athletic, you weren't smart, and vice versa, so it was a mindfuck for me to start working and encounter people who were not only just as smart as me (if not smarter), but were also athletic and socially skilled. It was like the "popular kids" who ended up getting stuck in my hometown with crappy jobs had some mutant superhuman clones who not only got top grades in school, but played varsity sports and went to an Ivy League.

Other people have mentioned "impostor syndrome" and that's one thing I've felt ever since I started working. I tend to give the impression of being smarter than I actually am, so I feel incredibly pressured to say things that live up to how smart I'm supposed to be, and I hold back from asking questions about things I don't know. And if there's one skill I need to work on, it's the skill of learning from other people. Because as a "smart kid" I was used to being the smartest kid in class, I never had to ask anyone else for help. As a result I don't talk to and learn from other people enough, and I'm poorer for it.
posted by pravit at 6:43 PM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


To me, always being the smartest person in the room = always being incredibly lonely.

I'm around 150. My parents, who are as smart or smarter, took this for granted. After advocating for a grade jump early in elementary school, they stopped paying any attention. I never went to a gifted school or special classes or anything like that. Instead my whole family wanted me to "be like the other kids." So I was usually the smartest in the room.

If IQ is a bell curve, then you are just talking about being at one of the very far ends of that curve. Both ends are socially isolated. Imagine you were the only person of average intelligence in a room full of mentally retarded people: would you feel "satisfied"?

Or why don't you imagine what it would feel like to be in a room full of people who are sick of you always asking random questions no one else cares about? Who think your interests are stupid and worthy of ridicule? Who find you annoying? Who resent you for making them feel stupid? Who say "Why do you know that?" (not how—why) while looking at you like you have two heads?

When I am the smartest person in the room, I feel varying degrees of loneliness, boredom, annoyance, and sadness. Yes, in this one aspect I am "superior" to the others in the room, but for me to find that satisfying or enjoyable in any way would kind of mean I was a jerk, wouldn't it?
posted by thebazilist at 7:26 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


So many great comments on this thread. I just wanted to add that Nathan Myhrvold and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are interesting examples for your point. Myhrvold is a billionaire who currently operates as a patent troll. Tyson is a science popularizer. Both of these guys are pretty smart but their success is about so much more than stratospheric intelligence. You haven't heard of them because of their joyful scientific discoveries, you've heard about them because they excel at getting good press.

People are often essentialists and reductionists and sometimes it's tempting to think that life outcomes are basically functions of IQ scores. But life doesn't work that way. In many ways it's easier to succeed in life if you have 95th-percentile intelligence than if you have 99.9999th-percentile intelligence. This is because there aren't actually that many activities where you *need* to be that smart; for most things you have to be "smart enough." Also, much of human life is social, and success comes from one's relations with others. I don't know much about Myhrvold's career at Microsoft but presumably he needed some political chops to rise to CTO. Tyson is famous because he's great at inspiring people who *aren't* astrophysics PhDs.
posted by leopard at 8:35 PM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Anonymous asked: i've been told i'm intelligent my whole live long life. all i'm able to do is throw pebbles into the vast chasms in my base of knowledge and listen for the plunk that never comes. i sense these great shadowy immense potentials just beyond the realm of my comprehension. how do i begin to make my intelligence my own and utilizing my "potential" before it becomes, lorax-style, the lone word chiseled on my tombstone?

it’s so easy you’ll think I’m joking

pick a book that you’ve read just to say you’ve read. White Noise or Moby Dick or Under the Volcano or something.

now read it again with no thought given to finishing it. read it like it was the last book in the world. don’t let any sentence slip past because it’s difficult and you want to get to the next one. treat it like a job. give it a month. take notes. make the book fall apart.

people who were called intelligent are raised to believe in great strides. brilliance and insight. geniuses. but those never exist. there are only people willing to crawl for longer distances than the average person could tolerate.
posted by Iridic at 8:28 AM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


I will add one thing, at the end of this huge list: The pleasures of engagement, of flow, are entirely unrelated to the absolute complexity of the task. You say you think you'd get more joy out of being a bit brighter, that it'd be like having more toys to play with. But it doesn't work like that. Think of something like video games --- the graphics may be practically 3D these days. But the greatness of the game, how fun it is to play, has very little to do with how many billowing ripples are visible in the smoke cloud, and a lot more to do with whether the game continually challenges you, pushes you, just enough but not too much, so that you can feel your ability expanding.

That feeling, that pleasure in learning and performance, of a difficult task done well, the state of grace you can attain --- that feeling is the same for each individual even as the nature and complexity of the task which generates that feeling varies. Michael Jordan might have to put up a 60 point game against some of the best players in the world in order to experience that same flood of weightless, effortless competency I'd attain if I ever managed to make 10 jump shots in a row, but the feeling would be the same. Nathan Mryvold or Neil DeGrass Tyson may be able to write a trickier bit of code or understand a more complex equation than you or I, but the feeling of pleasure when the light blinks on and they finally get it, that's the same for all of us. The key is not the absolute. It's the relative. It's not being able to do more challenging things. It's being finding the level at which you are challenged and pushing it.
posted by Diablevert at 7:14 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


Catching up on all the latest comments. This thread is very insightful and humbling.
posted by pakoothefakoo at 9:50 AM on March 18, 2013


So many other people in here have spoken of their own experiences with genius-level IQs, I'm not going to add to them because they've already spoken for me. And yep, I'm one too (I was even a member of MENSA for a while and everything). So I'll just tell you an analogy I've told people in the past.

See, IQ only measures potential. It's, like, a measurement of the size of a pitcher. All a high IQ means is that you got a half-gallon size pitcher when everyone else got a quart or something.

But, the size of your pitcher is only part of the equation - and it's not even the most important part. The most important part is what you put in the pitcher, and everyone can put good things into their pitcher. And the world is going to respond better to the people who put good things into their pitcher, no matter how big it is; people are going to be way more interested in the quart pitcher of mimosas than they are in the half-gallon pitcher of rancid strawberry Yoo-Hoo.

It's not the size of the brain, it's what you put into it that counts.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:30 AM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


If you want an object lesson in how little IQ means when it comes to achieving worldly success or happiness, I recommend Errol Morris's interview with Chris Langan, whose tested IQ ranges between 195 and 210, "The Smartest Man in the World".
posted by Doktor Zed at 11:23 AM on March 19, 2013


Having a high IQ is nice, but not everything as everyone above me has stated or alluded to. My lessons in that were learned in college quiz bowl, where high IQ or Jeopardy experience alone were not enough to guarantee victory. And number of career victories wasn't the greatest predictor of future success either.
posted by ZeusHumms at 11:47 AM on March 19, 2013


I'm late to the thread here, but thought it would still be useful to put in a few thoughts.

I'm fortunate enough to work with some of the smartest and most respected people in my area of academic research (computer science, human-computer interaction). Even though I tested very highly on IQ tests, I am in awe of some of the skills and abilities of my colleagues.

However, it's worth pointing out that a lot of these skills are due to the 10000+ hours required for expertise that they put in. I once asked an expert in machine learning about how I wish I was as skilled as they were in doing data analysis, and he commented that it took him a lifetime to get to where he was. (If you want a more pithy version of this, check out this wonderful SMBC comic on expertise)

Also, while a high IQ helps a lot, it's by no means sufficient. Persistence really matters. It doesn't matter how smart you are if you give up after the first, second, or even third failure. I tell all the students I work with that you should make failure a regular part of your life, that failure is the norm.

Just as important I would say is imagination. I knew Einstein's famous quote about imagination being more important than knowledge, but I never really understood it until recently. In computer science, there are tons of people who have lots of knowledge, but what really separates the good from the great is that the most creative people are those that can envision a far better world. And, as pointed above, they have the persistence and the skills necessary to make it happen.

Just to underscore all of this, a funny thing that I've learned as a faculty is that it's no longer about my IQ and my skills, but more of how well I can train my students and organize them to be effective. That is, as I go up the food chain and try to tackle harder and bigger problems, it's no longer about me. It's about how well I can organize, direct, and motivate people. (If you've ever read Ender's Game, you might remember the part of the story when Ender discovers this as well)

So the short of it is, all of the things that people are saying in this thread is right. Yes, high IQ does help, but it's just one dimension of intelligence. I'm sure it's nice to be the smartest person in the room, but if you really want to succeed, you need perseverance, a willingness to fail, imagination, social skills, focus, and more. And there really aren't tests for that.
posted by jasonhong at 11:50 AM on March 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


I can pretty much give a big ditto to Empress's comment that IQ is a measure of potential, and having a sooper-genius-level IQ doesn't actually mean anything when it's not combined with so many of the other qualities that others in this thread have mentioned: work ethic; kindness; EQ; morality; peace of mind; skill that comes from practice, not brains; etc. Having that IQ also puts disproportionate cultural expectations on you to BE GREAT AT SOMETHING. SUCCEED WILDLY. But IQ alone is no guarantee of that--not by a long shot. There is a bit of a curse that comes with being a "gifted" person.

As for how great it must be to be the smartest person in the room--well. When the movie Broadcast News came out in December of 1987, I was on my first winter break home from Prestigious University. My parents took me to see the movie one night, and a big group of my high-school classmates, on their first winter break home from college, were sitting in the two rows in front of us. I'd never really been friends with any of them--I'm sure they're nice people and all, but I just didn't have that many friends in high school--but we exchanged "Hey, how are you, how's college," before the movie began.

In the movie, Holly Hunter's character, Jane, has an argument with her boss at a party. Here's how it ends:

Paul: It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you're the smartest person in the room.
Jane: No, it's awful.

Two rows of my former classmates turned their heads in unison and looked at me, as if choreographed. I excused myself to the bathroom and threw up.

I had been promised by guidance counselors in high school that, once I left Really Good High School and went to Prestigious University, I would no longer be the smartest person in the room. They were wrong, I was still the smartest person in the room, and it was never going to end.

Trust me: strive to be the friend people would think of when they need someone come pick them up if their car broke down. Be kind. Be helpful. Be good to other people. Expand your mind all you want with classes, and books, and tutorials, and whatever else--but do not strive to be the smartest person in the room. It is a terrible goal.
posted by tzikeh at 11:53 AM on March 19, 2013 [7 favorites]


Intelligence is a matter of luck, like height. Being proud of it is rather shallow.

Also, I'd imagine that being the smartest person in the room is mostly boring and occasionally frustrating. My college professors didn't seem to enjoy teaching much unless someone closer to their level was involved.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:54 AM on March 19, 2013


The most creative people have IQs in the 120-130's. Mine is 136 and that is plenty good enough. Also from what I observe intelligence and success do not necessarily correlate.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:00 PM on March 19, 2013


Echoing many in this thread, it was not nice to be the smartest person in the room, at least not back in first grade. Three of us were tested for intelligence and I came out ahead of the two other people, both boys. Boy A had always been thought of as the smartest person in the room and when our scores were compared, the tester blurted out, "Why no, Lynsey, you can't be smarter than Boy A because he's a boy and boys are always smarter." This is in first grade, mind you. That's a hell of a thing to do to a kid.

I think I'm over it now, but some days are rougher than others....
posted by Lynsey at 1:00 PM on March 19, 2013


However, I cannot help and fantasize what it's like to have an IQ of 140+ It must be very satisfying to know that you're the smartest guy in the room.

Honestly -- being the smartest kid in every class and being able to read and do basic math when I arrived in kindergarten got me weird and uncomfortable attention from teachers who didn't know what to do with me and made me a social pariah with my peers in elementary school. (This was in the late 60s; maybe really smart kids have it better now.)

but to have this mess of extreme brainpower that I can have fun with.

It causes as much trouble as it does solve problems. Not the least is the endless social awkwardness of knowing people are saying stuff that's flat-out incorrect, but knowing if you say something they'll think you're a jerk/dork/arrogant asshole. Not wanting to talk at parties for fear of people looking at you like you're from another planet. Having to back-track ten steps in your thought process to try to explain what you were thinking about, and then having them still not get it. It can be depressing.

I have assumed all my life that people with 65-75% my IQ but a healthy amount of social self-confidence are vastly better off. They're still above average intelligence, but not so much that it gets in the way. They end up in good jobs and fulfilling careers.
posted by aught at 1:20 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never taken an IQ test, or at least never taken one that I know was one and for which I later was told the score, but I did consistently score in the 99th on basically all standardized tests way back when. I don't think it's as amazing as you're making it out to be.

"It must be very satisfying to know that you're the smartest guy in the room", you say, but I never really had that feeling in general (I've certainly had it in some specific rooms!). One in a hundred is not uncommon when there are billions; there are lots of people around who are as smart or smarter, even if "standardized test scores" were equal to "smarts".

I mean, I think I'm a reasonably smart guy, and if you put me in, I don't know, a math or spelling or trivia contest against a totally random person, I would definitely bet money on me, given the chance. But I've got plenty of friends who I feel are basically as smart as me, or smarter. That was even the case back when I was a kid and getting those 99th scores, and I was in a small school. And I felt a whole lot smarter then than I do now.

And I sure don't feel like one of the "Neil DeGrasse Tysons of the world".
posted by Flunkie at 1:26 PM on March 19, 2013


I'm not going to comment on intelligence per se, but I have two other comments that might be relevant.

For a while, when I was younger, I taught people how to whitewater kayak. It's a fairly non-intuitive thing to learn, and takes most people a measure of both athleticism and intelligence. As you might imagine, young kayakers can be a brash and cocky group, and this is particularly true for the young men. When I was learning to be an instructor, my instructor made it very clear to our group of instructor-wannabes that we should always remember that the people we were teaching were novice kayakers, but were almost all talented and successful in whatever it was they did for a living. This was particularly true because we all worked for a pretty boutique place. Remembering that my own particular expertise, or intelligence, is always trumped by someone else's different expertise has always stood me in good stead. Not only does it help me to not use specious metrics to confer status (I'm a better kayaker than you!), it allows me to more easily admit my own ignorance about something secure in the knowledge that what I do know is simply different.

I'm a psychotherapist. There is absolutely no correlation between intelligence and happiness that I have ever seen. That isn't to say that really smart people are not necessarily happy, but they are no more nor less likely to be happy, and no more nor less likely to be tripped up by the vicissitudes of normal life, than normally intelligent folks. They are also no more nor less likely to have insight into themselves, their situations, and their motivations.
posted by OmieWise at 1:32 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


My IQ is pretty high. When I was 5, I got skipped up to 3rd grade. I was always like miles ahead of everybody else.

Nothing truly gratifying in my life has come from being smart--everything has come from hard work, my personality, and my positive attitude. No lie.
posted by puppetsock at 1:39 PM on March 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


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