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The gift and curse of intelligence

With superior processing power and cognitive ability comes great responsibility and isolation.

First of all, I’ve been putting off this topic for a while now. For a number of reasons this is so, primarily because of my fear of being misunderstood with people thinking this is just some self-aggrandising sanctimony in the pursuit of pretentious intellectual pride. Most people don’t talk about intelligence and those who do are usually seen as self-serving – and not necessarily wrongfully so. After all, no one is running around going, “Oh poor you with higher intelligence”, it’s usually resentment, bitterness, anger or condemnation stemming from their own intellectual insecurities.

“No one seems to be able to have an intelligent conversation about intelligence.”

I’m certainly not saying that intelligence is not revered and rewarded in society, obviously it is, but there is always that disdain at the intellect, the pompous prick perpetually purporting Plato – I’m making this too easy, aren’t I? – the disdain at the intellect usually acts as a counter to the implied, and often inflated, sense of moral superiority that the intellect proclaims – though not always demonstrates. The more intelligent you are does not inherently mean the more moral human being you are. Regular doses of humility and gratitude can check your intellectual arrogance and pride at the door. However, the self-righteous will always proclaim their superiority, regardless of intelligence.

It's a fine line between bringing someone down because of your own intellectual insecurities/inferiority (that’s usually the “you think you’re better than us” comment), and keeping the intellects humble. Conversely, the sooner you stop demanding society reward you for your intelligence and that the people prostrate themselves before your brilliance, the better off we all will be.

There are great expectations for those with greater intelligence, and it really eats away at you like a poison pill for not realising that potential. Such potential can be paralysing especially in gifted children/young adults, and make them prone to burn out. Anxiety is usually worse in people with higher IQs because with a higher IQ you have an increased predictive capacity. With greater intelligence, we can find ourselves quitting before with start, but this is not because we’re lazy or lacking energy (although it might be), we’re just motivated NOT to do things (see predictive ability) – and there’s a technical difference. Potential and expectations can be a bit like false idols and it’s a real delicate balance between what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger…or it cripples you (sometimes completely and/or for eternity).

Such high expectations can set the conditions for not being allowed to fail. I was supposed to succeed/do well, so why get excited when it happens? You’re meant to. Just get on with it. However, I would severely punish myself for even the minute amount of failure. This was how I stayed motivated. This was how I got better. The first thing I’d see in obtaining a mark of 179/180 was what was the one I got wrong and I’d be more annoyed at that than elated at my near perfect score. Why? Because I should have got them all correct. I’m intelligent enough to. My perfectionist tendencies have mellowed over the years as well as changing my thought process from being outcome oriented to focusing on task mastery.

Or, as the philosopher Clintus Eastwoodius put it:

“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

One thing the intellect can fall into a trap with, especially if supported by others, is extending beyond their domain of competence. Expertise is limited and there are problems with overreaching, even if people demand it from the person. It’s insanely rare for someone to be a genuine polymath like Leonardo Da Vinci, but we can all come up with examples of people who think that their expertise/success in one field carries over into another.

It's very easy to take the view of “in a world run by idiots, what is the point of being smart/intelligent?”, but that statement is infused with such cynicism, nihilism and narcissism. I’ll leave this for greater discussion in another article, but it warrants mentioned here: the prominence of popularity vs truth (has it ever really gone out of fashion?) – we see experts selling themselves out and the rise of alternates bypassing traditional credibility and integrity “tests” – the loud and obnoxious triumphing over the quiet and civil. I’ll always promote a healthy level of scepticism and a critical mind, but you got to know your limitations.

So, where and when to use are intelligence? Intelligence can make us blind. You can be an expert at one and a novice at another. Watch the below short video for more.

“For in much wisdom, there is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.”

I’ve always loved this quote from the first time I heard it voice by the character Al Mualim in the original Assassin’s Creed (15 years ago now!), but later discovered it was what Solomon said in Ecclesiastes 1:18. This is wise time to bring up that the correlation between intelligence and wisdom is zero. Plenty of intelligent people do not grieve or have sorrow for those less fortunate than them, nor do they necessarily seek wisdom and its application, but merely manipulation and self-serving.

Some of you might know the story of “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes and the themes discussed, of which many took it to be about the poor treatment of the disabled – and rightfully so. What stuck with me, however, was the two-fold intense feelings on isolation and loneliness by those of higher intelligence – briefly, the low intelligence man and higher intelligence man equally suffer in isolation, though the latter is only too astutely aware of it. As the main character Charlie’s intelligence dramatically increases, he finds people can’t relate or keep up or don’t want him around any longer. Also, like Charlie, I don’t want you to pity me.

People don’t like to be made a fool of, but that has never been my aim.

People don’t like having their bad qualities highlighted or reflected back to them, which I’ve been routinely known to do.

People are afraid of someone more intelligent, but I don’t know what I’ve done to be this isolated from people – I’m still human, after all.

I try my best to make use of my gifts in service to others – and they are gifts that I have been blessed with. Gifts are to give out, to spread around, to bring joy to others. The curse, however, is my burden to bear.

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