Genius Club

October 1, 2009

This is a response to Sylvester, who left this comment on the Societal Norms post:

…but even more could be done if we brave forward and try to openly create a network of individuals like ourselves who can transcend the achievements of the average person on an (intellectual level) TOGETHER… each one of us may be capable of greatness but i am sure a room full of us could accomplish the near unthinkable, solve the almost irrational and design the unimaginable…. and that would be a truly great day for us all.

I was discussing this with my wife today, actually.

On this blog I’ve briefly explored the ways that “genius clubs” tend to implode under the weight of all our collective social dysfunction, but it’s still quite a tantalizing problem to solve.

I think there are two major issues that geniuses face:

  1. Freedom

    We are constrained by the structure of our society which rightly has optimized to support the average populace, at the expense of minorities. The systems aren’t equipped to readily support a genius in his work/play.

    My wife and I decided to solve the first problem four months ago. Our goal was to create a context in which we can think and behave exactly as we want to. “Freedom” is largely a state of mind, so much of that work has to be done internally; that’s work that we’ve largely completed. The main external factor that constrains us, however, is money. How much time and passion is wasted with jobs we hate and are unproductive in? Those same jobs tend to constrain us geographically, as well as confining us to just one discipline.

    We solved it that problem: in February we will have become independently wealthy. From there we can work on whatever we choose to and go where ever we want to without ever worrying about bills.

  2. Company

    By virtue of our rarity, geniuses are a lonely bunch, as evidenced by this blog and the continued attention it attracts.

    My wife and I also have an interim solution for the second problem: each other. We found each other online and moved across the country to live together. It was just a chance meeting. What happened to us is not a systematic solution, but I think a solution exists that would tend to bring geniuses together at a frequency greater than random chance would.

I propose that what we need isn’t a problem solving group. If we assemble with the explicit purpose of doing “something great,” I fear we’re doomed to the fate of all the other high G societies. The important point here is that that’s okay. “Doing great things” isn’t among the fundamental and unfulfilled needs I listed above. We simply need freedom and companionship.

I belong to a creative collective that operates mostly as a closed, online forum. It’s invite only, and when someone is sponsored that new person has to be voted on by the existing members to be let in.

We are mostly graphic designers, with illustrators, photographers, and handful of programmers and musicians. The talent pool here is unbelievable. We have talented students, as well as creative directors for major Ad agencies, programmers for companies like Yahoo, top fashion photographers, and others equally talented.

One issue that has been discussed at length in that community is what we “should” be. The idea originally was that the collective is a place to share professional knowledge, contacts, and critiques. And in fact, we are all those things. The controversy surrounded the rest of the interaction: indeed, most of the material on the forum is not professional at all, but actually just chatting and socializing.

We were came to realize over the course of our 10+ year existence is that we not a community about creative professions, but instead a community for creative professionals.

Creatives, like geniuses, think and interact in fundamentally different ways than the average person. Only part of the value of this collective is in the [wildly valuable] professional resources it provides. The lion’s share can be found in simply sharing the company of unusual people who, as it turns out, are very similar to each other.

My Proposal

I think we need a genius collective. Just like the creative collective, we could share our projects and lives with each other, and receive meaningful feedback. A side effect of the creative collective has been the formation of strong, real life friendships. We have a conference every year, and this year we had two.

I think we should use that model to form a genius collective. It’s closed, invite-only. It’s anonymous from outsiders, but internally it’s not, which is perfect for us because among each other, we have nothing to be ashamed of in owning our abilities. It has no explicit goal, but resources grow from it by virtue of the people in it, so in our case, we have a repository of creative material like all the major software packages, 1000s of fonts, templates, instructions, member discounts, you name it. I’m sure similar resources would develop in our collective, perhaps with brain teasers, directories of worthwhile organizations and people around the world.

Through this online, social collective I could then teach members what I did to achieve independent wealth. It’s not difficult for a person of high intelligence to achieve, and with the support of a whole group of us, each of us in turn could achieve the freedom we need, precisely because of gaining the companionship we crave.

The one part that I’m not so sure about is something I also addressed in another post, which how to recognize a genius when you see one. The method in the creative collective is to rely on the inviting member for the first level of screening. Then, the candidate shows their work and accomplishments for others to vote on. This seems to work.

For us, I foresee one of the primary sources of new candidates, as Sylvester said, being lost travelers who stumble upon us from a keyword search. Perhaps what we need is a sort of entrance exam in which the landing page is the first question, and each subsequent page is a difficult question from a different field of study. If the candidate makes it through, he is in.

I see the test as being less like a usual IQ test, and more like a scavenger hunt, but I’d really like feedback on this idea.

Societal Norms

September 22, 2008

The Dance

I’ve noticed a pattern among the intelligent that can be a great boon or a grave disadvantage, and I want to offer some advice about it.

I don’t think I’m alone among my peers in viewing social interactions, especially in crowds and populations, as fascinating from an anthropological perspective. We watch the sometimes crude, sometimes subtle dance of evolutionary psychology play out with a predictable and occasionally hypnotic rhythm.

The difference between people like me and the population at large, is that they are fully engaged in this dance, while we are interlopers. To us, the dance is transparent, like the moving parts of a Rube Goldberg machine, each activating the next in a pattern that is interesting but entirely mechanical and arbitrary.

The Wallflower

This is the dance of norms, and most participate blindly — perhaps as the Goldberg parts rather than an observer of the machine. Those who do observe choose to participate to one degree or another, and the literature indicates that the degree of participation is inversely proportional to intelligence.

Genius caliber minds tend to be cloistered and anti-social. They often don’t like people and people often don’t like them. The reason is this dance: the genius ignores the dance that is implicit in other people’s way of thinking and mode of behavior. He regards their expectations as silly, while others are troubled by his refusal to adhere to conventions.

This mutual distrust is not ideal.

In the Groove

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I deliberately undertook to learn this dance — to understand people on a visceral level– and as a result, I am more “well-adjusted” than most geniuses. Whether this is the natural result of my IQ, which is low for a genius, or the fruits of my study and practice (or some combination thereof), I can dance, and dance well. The movement still feels awkward at times, but I’ve grown accustomed to talking and moving in certain ways that I might not feel compelled to if I had no interest in other people.

There is no subterfuge here. I honestly want to interact naturally with people, and it’s a skill I’ve practiced. If that’s lying, then so is learning and practicing any kind of skill.

Finding the Rhythm

Here’s the rub: dancing well requires balance. The quintessential anti-social genius behaves the way he does because of some sense of efficiency — “Why should I bother interacting with people, when there are all these plants to catalog? The plants don’t care what I wear or how I talk, and neither do I.” That sentiment is true but can only be applied in a limited context.

The larger question is, should these plants be cataloged at all? Or more directly: what experiences should I have during my life? What shall I accomplish in the time I have?

I’ve found that most important experiences relate to other people in some way. I have come to view the extremely anti-social genius as disabled: fundamentally unable to function in their lives in a meaningful way. We can all catalog and calculate, but who among us can make the world a genuinely better place?

On the other hand, it’s impossible to say that people who conform to norms automatically contribute value to the world. I think it’s fair to say that those who are obsessed with the trappings of the dance are as uniformly useless as those geniuses whose legacy includes taxonomies of vehicle transfers.

I propose a middle way: I believe we should choose some norms to adhere to and some to discard as actively harmful. We adhere to the socially helpful or neutral norms, and by ignoring the harmful ones, we maximize the value and perhaps personal satisfaction in our lives.

Go to a Toastmaster’s meeting and learn to speak to people. Read some popular psychology books to practice your body language. It pains me to say it, but I know there are people out there who need to hear it: hygiene is important, and you might as well wear clothing that suits your body and is relatively stylish.

Discard the nonsense that really holds you back, but embrace the small changes you can make it your life that will make you more approachable. This will open up personal, professional, and intellectual doors that you won’t have access to otherwise.

If Mr. Plant Cataloger put on some decent clothing and stopped staring at his feet when he spoke to people, he might find some fascinating new opportunities to catalog exotic plants along side his mind-bendingly brilliant and gorgeous life partner. Good luck to you, Mr. Plant Cataloger, I wish you the best.

The Outsiders

May 30, 2008

Grady Towers wrote an article in 1987 called “The Outsiders” (republished here), which 20 years later is still relevant.

Towers raises several questions that I’d like to explore in more detail. I’ll cover one of the interesting ones in this post.

One of the problems faced by all gifted persons is learning to focus their efforts for prolonged periods of time. Since so much comes easily to them, they may never acquire the self-discipline necessary to use their gifts to the fullest. Hollingworth describes how the habit begins.

Where the gifted child drifts in the school unrecognized, working chronically below his capacity (even though young for his grade), he receives daily practice in habits of idleness and daydreaming. His abilities never receive the stimulus of genuine challenge, and the situation tends to form in him the expectation of an effortless existence [3, p. 258].

This is a serious problem for gifted children, including my own.

I avoided it by being curious and irrational. I bet against the status quo by doing poorly in school in favor of the subjects that interested me, and it so happens that I won the bet. But you won’t. No one can expect to win a bet whose expected value is negative, so it’s silly to make that your policy.

Still, it does seem that the status quo doesn’t work for us. My advice is different depending on your age:

To Young People

If you are a young person of high intelligence who wants to conquer this creeping blasé, I suggest doing some of what I did and not doing other parts. Like I said, it’s not in your best interests to fully bet against the school system. Instead, play it.

Worst case scenario, slog through your classes doing the minimum to keep a B average. Meanwhile, pursue your passions. Do something monumentally difficult — bonus points if it looks good on a college application.

Alternately, make it your goal to manipulate the situation such that you can set up a non traditional educational setting for yourself, that will allow you pursue your passions while getting educational credit for doing so. You can do this in a number of ways, including Existential home schooling, or a special arrangement swith the school district or individual teachers.

It’s a difficult social engineering problem, but you’re a genius, you’ll figure it out.

At the end of the process, if you must, go to a top school for the most difficult subject you can imagine, or don’t go to school at all.

To Adults

I think you may have it worse. You may be the slightly dysfunctional product of a school system that failed you. At this point I think you should find a difficult problem of some social importance, and make that your obsession. I know it may be difficult for you to work and obsess separately, so I suggest you work as little as possible, and try to live with some austerity. Alternately, set a reasonable time period and develop a plan to become independently wealthy, which really isn’t that difficult.

The effect of finding a difficult problem to obsess over is that you will train your mind to be curious. If you have a tangible issue to solve, you will be forced to learn about it and tinker with solutions. The act of learning, which has been largely stolen from you by a lifetime of rote memorization and negative affect toward the educational machine, will become second nature when you put it in a practical, interesting context. I have no doubt you find something interesting and know a great deal about it, but I bet it’s not of practical value.

People with your affliction have the minutia of the fictional Star Trek universe emblazoned on their short term memory. They know everything about a particular genus of organisms like birds or dinosaurs. They memorize hollywood movies complete with scripts, actors, and meta information.

These are the rabid flailings of an idle mind with more horse power than it has information to process. If a mind like that can be trained to focus on problems of difficulty and importance, instead of wasted as a repository for disconnected taxonomies, the possibilities are endless.

You will live a happier life if you are engaged in a meaningful pursuit, and if that pursuit helps others as well, all the better.

I have a tendency in my life to look for solutions to problems, then move on. This is how my career works, and how most of the pursuits I undertake work. When I started writing here, I discovered shortly that the goal I had in mind — to reflect upon and then unravel my loneliness once and for all — wasn’t a sensible goal. As I said in the previous post, it’s not really a difficult problem per se.

The thing is that more than any other material I’ve written, I get a high volume of emotional feedback from this blog to this day, despite not having updated in many moons. I seem to have hit an emotional chord with people, and I really enjoy providing a forum for other people of high intelligence to vent their frustration in what I hope is a positive way.

That’s why I’ve decided to revisit my writing here. This time I’ll bring my secondary goal to the front and forget trying to “solve” loneliness: I want to speak to those lonely geniuses, and provide them an outlet and maybe a mirror through which they can see their own lives, and my hope is that I can help them find more fulfillment in a world that isn’t made for them.

Signaling Genius

December 5, 2007

I wanted to write a post about how to form a community of geniuses, but it immediately occurred to me that the fundamental problem is how to find genuine geniuses (say that 5 times fast), and let them know that you too are genuine. That is a question of signaling, so I’ll talk about that instead.

We are wired through evolution to signal many things, especially availability to mate. We have ways of signaling group membership, but they are insufficient to signal genius because they are all superficial. For example, I can easily integrate with a clique of teenagers by being a teenager, dressing exactly like they do, and holding similar opinions about superficial topics. I could signal my availability to mate by playing with my hair and showing a potential mate my wrists. That’s easy.

Not so easy: how do I walk into a room and spot a genius? The short answer is that I can’t. The first issue is that there are no reliable, outward signs that a person is intelligent. There are signals that I can rely on to give me a statistic-level knowledge of a person — their mannerisms, their mode of dress, their vocabulary, and others. This level of knowledge is an acceptable heuristic for day-to-day interactions, but it can do nothing for uncovering an individual’s true nature. This works for mates (in an evolutionary sense) but not for geniuses because potential mates make up a significant proportion of the population and tend to behave similarly, whereas geniuses are rare and tend not to have common characteristics that reliably map only to genius (eccentric people might just be insane).

To complicate matters, there is motivation for other people to lie about their group membership. People “front” all the time for various reasons. Some people want to be a member of the “genius group” because they like the internal narrative it allows, and they want the social benefits (hah) of being considered wildly intelligent.

I would be lying if I said that I don’t catch myself “acting the part,” even under this veil of anonymity. “Why,” I ask myself, “would I still try to ‘sound smart’ if I cannot possibly derive any benefit from doing so?” I think it’s because I’m trying to signal — I’m putting a sign out front that says “Geniuses Enter Here.” And of course, just as I am skeptical of other people’s genius, those who visit here must be skeptical of mine, so I’m trying to prove my genius preemptively. Of course this isn’t very effective.

The way I personally try to signal genius, and decode incoming signals of genius is through conversation. I try to stay away from fluffing the actual words I use, and being susceptible to the fluff of other people. I am not always successful at either, but it’s something I strive for.

Even if I could strip down communication to the bare essentials in order to really evaluate the merit of a pure idea, when would the bulb flash on? What can be said that guarantees that the speaker is a genius? What attitudes can be held that do the same? Is conversation really a reliable signal of genius, or is it merely a method of finding people who agree with you that you can assume are geniuses thanks to confirmation bias?

I sometimes tell people that I like programming media applications because they combine a few disciplines that I really enjoy working in, like math, art, and information design. The response I often get is a condescending smile, and the phase:

“Jack of All Trades, Master of None.”

Ah, spoken like a true anyman. If you are a genius, you should put this cliched colloquialism out of your mind forever.

Of course there are limits to the acquisition of knowledge, but the phrase isn’t used to start epistemological conversations. It is used to disparage people who have multiple talents: the only function it has is to discourage people from expanding their horizons for fear of some phantom mediocrity which will inevitably settle upon their every action.

I think it started with the fear within people that they are not meeting some external standard of excellence, or that they can not compare to the people around them. They invoke this phrase as if it’s a law of nature, in the hope that it will expunge their responsibility to be the best they can be since, after all, it’s impossible to be excellent. Right?

Another interesting theory starts with psychological scripts, and Robin Hanson Eliezer Yudkowsky (thanks for the correction, Eliezier) at OvercomingBias.com wrote an interesting article in which he renames the concept of scripts “caches.” The idea is that we deal with far too much information at any given time to actually process it all in real time, so we rely tremendously on “cached” thought, so even though a person hasn’t really considered the implications of what they are saying, any mention of high aptitude or interest in multiple subjects will immediately call to mind the cached thought: “jack of all trades, master of none.”

I can see both of these forces and others still being responsible for the phrase’s staying power.

I guess the thing that allows the perception to exist beyond the psychological convenience of it, is confirmation bias and in-group, out-group thinking.

For example, a racist may think that black people (the “out-group”) are stupid. They will attribute any behavior by a black person to this stupidity, confirming their bias. When faced with a black person who clearly and undeniably isn’t stupid, instead of reevaluating their position on black people, they will assign the person as an “exception.”

Similarly, most people are average (no seriously, that’s the definition), and so they exhibit no exceptional abilities. Occasionally you’ll find a person with one exceptional ability, but rarely will you find a person who excels in many diverse areas… and therefore, it’s very easy to assign those multitalented people who do to a special exception category.

There is a limit to human skill that prevents any person, genius or otherwise, from becoming more proficient after a certain point. Presumably, with directed practice and commitment, one can reach that point. For a person gifted in that discipline, the amount of time it takes to reach that point is smaller than for others. For a genius, there are at least a few particular areas in which that time is very short compared to most.

That’s why Leonardo DiVinci could be an artist and a mathematician: he was skilled in both disciplines far beyond the capacity of most people to be skilled in even one. That’s because he was a genius! Imagine if he had listened to some slack-jaw who told him early on: you can’t be good at more than one thing, so you should give up on all but the thing you’re really talented in. How does a guy like DiVinci narrow down what he’s “really talented in”? How would you?

As a person of exceptional intelligence, I am often faced with difficult questions of honesty, so I set out to decide how to handle the problems.

Honesty is an odd thing. People in general are vaguely aware that our childhood understanding of what it means to be honest isn’t sufficient to describe the actual nature of it, but I suppose it doesn’t cause people enough cognitive dissonance to actually think it though. I think I’ve made progress understanding it though. First, let’s define a lie. I think I’m safe defining a lie as:

Communication with the intent to deceive.

This definition hints that it’s not merely the words you choose that define your lie, but the context as well. For example, you’ve stolen something from your friend. If your friend asks you doubtfully if you stole something from him, and you respond with “Yeah, I did,” that may or may not be a lie. If you say it seriously, then you’ve told the truth, admitting the theft. If you say it sarcastically, you intended to deceive him by feigning insult at the thought that you could have stolen the item, and made it easier to lie for yourself because you get to avoid many of the physical symptoms of lying, since you said words that could have been the truth. The net result, despite the content of your answer, is that he thinks you didn’t steal the item, when in fact you did.

But what about jokes? You say something with the intention of momentarily deceiving a person for the purpose of humor. That’s deceptive, but I think we can agree it’s not a “lie.” What about “white lies”? You tell your mom the hat looks great, you tell your friend his haircut is awesome, but neither is the case.

I think the key is understanding that the object of communication isn’t always the subject of communication.

When your mom asked you if the hat looked good, her concern was never the hat, it was her self image. She was asking you to bolster her self image so that she could face the world confidently. You responded honestly to her, that she should indeed face the world confidently.

The communication was false in that you think the hat is ugly, but the hat wasn’t the object of the exchange, only the subject. With a joke, the subject is never the object: the object is humor. You honestly want to communicate humor when you tell a joke, so it doesn’t matter that the subject of the communication was misleading.

This is exactly the case with allegories and metaphors. It doesn’t matter if we are all really in a cave watching shadows, that’s not the point (or object), that’s just the metaphor (or subject). The point is that the world as we perceive it is not the world as it truly exists, so it doesn’t matter that the subject of that communication isn’t literally true.

So, what about job interviews, genius?

Most jobs that you get with a resume instead of an application, are jobs that require skills and experience. A technical position might require “5 to 7 years experience.” That number or range of numbers doesn’t matter, it’s only the subject of communication. The underlying truth is that 5 to 7 years experience corresponds to a certain skill level and knowledge base on average, and that skill level is the real object. A more accurate request would be for a candidate with the skill level that a person of, for example, IQ 130 intelligence would have in 5 to 7 years.

For a genius, that range is reduced drastically. So when you interview for a job you know you are very qualified for, but you don’t have that number of year experience, you have a conundrum. Do you remain accurate in the subject of communication, being “honest” about the true number of years you have been practicing a skill? Seems like the safest bet, but if you do that, you are putting yourself in a precarious position!

You will undoubtedly feel the need to say “I don’t have that number of year experience, but I can do the work anyway.”

“Really?” the potential employer will say, incredulously. “How is that, exactly?”

If you say what is the case: “It’s because I am extremely intelligent, and it doesn’t take me as long to learn skills as it takes other people,” you have shot yourself in the foot. You’ve violated the very social convention that led to the writing of this blog: you’ve “tooted your own horn.” People in our culture will label you as pompous, and you will leave a sour taste in the interviewer’s mouth.

The more likely scenario is that you’ll say: “It’s because I’m a really hard worker, and I’m really dedicated.” Ah, the safe answer. You’re dependable, bright, dedicated. You are also a liar. Even if those things are true, you have communicated with the intent to deceive, because you have skirted what you know to be the true source of your expediency for the sake of avoiding the awkward social situation of explaining how intelligent you are.

What was the point of being accurate in the number of years you claim to have practiced, if you lie about this now? You’ve succeeded in being honest about the subject, but dishonest about the object of conversation (years of experience, versus skill), and you’ve also been dishonest about the subject of the question in an attempt to be honest about the object (hard worker, versus highly intelligent).

I think the better approach is to be honest up front. They are asking for people who have a certain level of skill. You have that skill. You tell them, using a context they understand, that you have that level of skill. They ask for 5 to 7 years of experience, and you say “Yes, I have 7 years of experience,” which honestly communicates to them that you have the skills they are looking for.