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.

This post is an outgrowth of the conversation between A. Carrozza and I in the comments of my opening post, The Plight of the Lonely Genius. The question is, why can’t wisdom be taught?

At this point in the dialogue, we’ve failed to disagree on any major points, but I wanted to give the conversation a chance to develop into something interesting, so I’m making a post.

Wisdom: The ability, developed through experience, insight and reflection, to discern truth and exercise good judgment. (Ironically enough, a definition from Wikipedia, which was the most appropriate for the circumstance).

The definition is a useful starting point, but does not capture the breadth of the actual concept. Maybe this is a semantic debate in disguise. We’ll see.

Carrozza opens:

Human beings are not the logical, open-minded rationalists that they pretend to be. There’s an invisible dimension to human cognition that runs parallel to logical thought. For lack of a better term, let’s call it “belief” or “non-rational conditioning.”

To summarize the post, Carrozza sees wisdom in the context of a dichotomy between itself and mainstream beliefs. Humans delude themselves with the notion that we are primarily rational and logical, when in fact we are governed by superstition that is evolutionarily advantageous.

He provides the following example of wisdom, which he lifts from Zen philosophy:

  1. All things are interconnected and interdependent, therefore nothing exists independently from anything else.
  2. The universe is in a constant state of flux, and nothing exists in the same form for more than an instant at a time.
  3. Thoughts and the words that define them are static, grossly overly-simplistic, cognitive “maps” of an infinite, multi-dimensional, dynamic reality. They have utility in the same way that a street map has utility

He asks why, given these simple, largely self-evident principles, does Zen take a lifetime to master? His answer: “…all of these principles run counter to our culturally-defined and biologically-hardwired cognitive programming. Wisdom has to swim ‘upstream.'”

The reason, he supposes, if that the mind must be stripped of its assumptions and biases, and that this is the path to “wisdom.” Having described the rigors of Zen practice, he goes on:

My sense is that, most likely, these traditional practices serve to bend, fold, stretch and— hopefully —“crack open” the unconscious (innate and culturally conditioned) premises and assumptions that define and rule a zen novice’s life and and thought processes.


My response:

I call that conditioning the “animal brain” — it’s very much at odds with enlightened thought, but I don’t see the dichotomy as being so adversarial.

My position is that the animal brain is programmed by evolution, or “the frenzied, fearful belief in some eternal enemy,” and that human behavior on the whole tends to be governed by this animal within. My position is that “wisdom” isn’t so much running against the mainstream per se, as it is conquering the animal and bringing its passions and focus in line with the higher values of interconnection and the like.

In summation: “…I don’t think it’s like two sides of a coin, as much as it is to two steps in a process.”


Carrozza splits into two topics here, one about mysticism, and one continuing this line of discussion. I’ll focus on the latter, and split the other into a separate post.

He opens by drawing a distinction between the knowledge of wisdom, and the thought process that allows it to be useful, likening it to a farmer using seeds (knowledge) but needing good soil, or in the opposite case water being poured onto a duck’s back.

He expounds on this distinction, then brings up a related issue: most of the information disseminated to us is wrong. He uses this point to argue that direct experience is necessary for deep, reliable knowledge.


My response, is this:

I see what you mean about wisdom being able to be taught both in the Zen sense, and the sense of subject mastery altering one’s thought process, but I think that is a trick of semantics.

Maybe it’s by definition that the two are not the same. If we allow that “wisdom” related to a topic can be acquired by traditional study of the topic, then we’ve failed to discern between wisdom and expertise. The term becomes meaningless if wisdom is both the soil and the seed. There is clearly a correlation, but I think it’s worth separating the ideas in our mind.

Expertise does create changes in thought process. I remember clearly when I was very young, first learning to program — the moment it clicked was when I had to create a conditional statement with multiple clauses, for some reason the act of differentiating between and combining “AND” and “OR” in my mind provided me with clarity and insight that would inform my entire thought process.

Now, many years later, I occasionally dream in code, which is a sensation that a person who hasn’t mastered a subject will probably not know. I have mastered several subjects, and in each case I have been hit with that same sort of clarity. Thinking in terms of movement and equations, thinking in terms of sounds and vibrations.

These epiphanies force one to realize that our mentally abstracted view of the world is both profoundly limited, and entirely arbitrary. Were we born with a slightly different chemical makeup, we would have monumentally altered views on spatial relationships, color, tone– the list goes on.

So, I find that the act of using knowledge to break into new ways of thinking is a wizening experience, but the knowledge one gains in the subject matter isn’t inherently enlightening.

I think that’s where the seed and soil connect: the process of expanding outward into mental territory one hasn’t traveled before is precisely the process of becoming wise. One fuel for that expansion is subject matter knowledge. I would argue that the more dominant fuel is experience.

…Which brings us to the next point, which is that learned knowledge alone is not sufficient to produce wisdom, as you were saying with the young, misinformed genius. This is the realm of the mystic: to experience, as directly as one may, the fabric of the world surrounding him. To allow the universe to ply his mind, to let it bend his perception until he sees the back of his own head, and realizes that perception has nothing to do with the raw material of reality, and everything to do with the internal state of he that perceives it.

What a marvelous duality: an idea so radical as not to be believed or even comprehended by the anyman, yet so mundane and true that it is one of the most celebrated and ancient beliefs that we as humans still carry to this day, dating back to at least the dawn of history.

Unless a third person jumps in here to disagree, I can’t see this line of discourse going that much further, because I think that Carrozza and I are both of the mind that wisdom, by definition, is a measure of how mystically enlightened one is. Please, correct me if I’m wrong.

In either case, I’ll be posting the discussion about mysticism in its own post, so stay tuned for that.