The Drawbacks Of Knowing You’re Smart

When a high IQ brings you more misery than it’s worth.

The self-aware man stands in the shade, regarding the hole he’s dug. Is it a big hole? It’s OK. It’s a regular-sized hole. It’s the kind of hole that might be dug by a man who’s got an innate talent for digging holes but who’s never worked hard at developing that talent. (Or who hasn’t worked hard enough, the man thinks. Who could’ve been digging holes for Olympic stadiums, if he’d set his mind to it.)

The self-aware man moves out of the shade, squinting, and walks over to the foreman’s office. The foreman is drinking a Sunkist. He looks out at the yard and he appraises the self-aware man’s hole and he says, “Helluva good hole.” The self-aware man murmurs a thank you. (Not my best work, he thinks.)

When he gets home, the self-aware man considers his day. He recognizes this day as one of many in a year; this year as one of many in a life; this life as a microscopic drop in the vast blanket of time. He considers his own insignificance. He thinks about calling the woman he met at hot yoga the other day, but he knows that although she liked him at first, the joke he made on their way through the parking lot had fallen flat. Surely she’d been disappointed, if not entirely turned off.

“Lone stars, isolated even as they burn their brightest”

So, are brilliant, self-aware minds like our hole-digger’s doomed to a life of obsessive introspection and failure to live up to their own standards?

In 2015, BBC’s David Robinson tackled this very (and very morose) question. “Think of Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing, or Lisa Simpson,” Robinson writes, “Lone stars, isolated even as they burn their brightest.” He invokes Hemingway’s famous assertion that “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

To determine whether a high IQ — and, in turn, an elevated level of self-awareness and -reflection —affects happiness, Robinson brings up a study begun by Lewis Terman in 1926.

Long story short: Terman, a Stanford psychologist and former child brainiac, devoted his career to studying gifted children. He used IQ tests to collect more than 1,500 subjects for his “survey,” the goal of which was to prove that smart kids aren’t by nature abnormal kids. In other words, Terman wanted to abolish the stigma of intelligence as the territory solely of nerds and losers. Well, he succeeded. But it didn’t stop there.

“A worrying and ruminating mind”

Even four decades after his death, 200 of Terman’s “Termites” — those gifted children, now all grown up — were still being interviewed by Stanford University. The results? The public and early acknowledgement of their intelligence had inflicted a sense of “burden” on the Termites which caused disappointment in themselves later in life.

During the 1990s, the surviving Termites were asked to look back at the events of their 80-year lifespans. Rather than basking in their successes, many reported they had been plagued by the sense that they had somehow failed to live up to their youthful expectations.

Of the original group of Termites, some did “fail.” Some took their own lives, some worked “humble” professions (Robinson’s word), some succumbed to addiction. Others thrived. What does this mean? It means, according to Terman and his successors, that intelligence is a poor indicator of achievement.

But Robinson takes that a step further. If intelligence is no good at guessing someone’s future success, what does it indicate? He writes about the hyper-aware intelligent person:

Another common complaint, often heard in student bars and internet forums, is that smarter people somehow have a clearer vision of the world’s failings. Whereas the rest of us are blinkered from existential angst, smarter people lay awake agonizing over the human condition or other people’s folly.

This turns out to be a half-truth. According to MacEwan University’s Alexander Penney, smart folks do worry more. Just not about the big picture stuff, necessarily. No — instead of worrying about war or famine or nuclear proliferation, people who scored high on verbal intelligence were found to worry about, say, an awkward social interaction.

“More verbally intelligent individuals are able to consider past and future events in greater detail, leading to more intense rumination and worry,” says Penney’s study. In other words: One social hiccup can ruin a whole day.

(Interesting note: People with higher scores on non-verbal intelligence showed less inclination to worry about those same sorts of interactions.)

Cobbling these different studies together paints an odd picture. You can be tremendously gifted and still turn out mediocre. You might be the smartest guy in the room, but the most prone to social worry. You might be so acutely aware of your own (min0r) shortcomings that broad swaths of success — both professional and social — go largely unnoticed or forgotten.

Penney’s final, glum assessment?

“A worrying and ruminating mind is a more verbally intelligent mind.”

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