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.

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The Fact of the Matter

January 16, 2008

The fact of the matter is this: geniuses are lonely on average because they are rare, and therefore unlikely to congregate at random. If I want to find companionship, I will have to look for a group of smart people, and go to them. It’s really not a complicated issue warranting its own blog.

There’s the business of signaling such that they accept me, but I imagine it working something like this:

1) I find a group that does interesting, revolutionary things
2) I say hello, and show them the interesting, revolutionary things that I have done
3) We like each other’s work, and therefore work together

Problem solved, blog over.

Rock on, don’t take yourself too seriously.

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?

This is something I’ve wanted to get off my chest for a long time, but it’s not acceptable in our culture. I’ve chosen to do it anonymously because this is really an attempt to vent for myself, and to give people like me some hope that they aren’t really alone, but it is not an attempt to make myself look good. It is impossible for me to “toot my own horn,” and I have no incentive to lie or exaggerate as long as no one knows who is writing.

So, The Plight of the Lonely Genius

I am a smart guy. From a universal perspective I am a grain of sand stuck to a grain of sand on an infinitesimal cosmic sand bar (which is in an infinite ocean of whatever, and you get the picture), but… relative to other people, I’m 4.8 standard deviations from the norm, according to the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. But that’s crap. That test measures spatial/logical intelligence with some token trivial knowledge thrown in to skew it a bit, I guess — it was invented in 1939. Spatial/Logical intelligence is actually one of my weaker points. Even if the score is right on, instead of deflated, that’s a lot of standard deviations… that means that there aren’t that many people in the world who are as smart as I am:

IQ Distribution taken from Encarta

That chart above shows the distribution of IQs in the population. 100 is the median, and the percentages above the colors represent the proportion of the population that falls within that standard deviation, and the white vertical lines mark the standard deviations. At the very far right of the image, you’ll see that 0.1% of the population falls within four standard deviations of the median. My IQ falls almost one more standard deviation off to the right; that’s around 0.00131% of people.

Let me paint a picture. Roughly speaking, college graduates in the western world have IQ 115 or above (the top 25% of the population). People who attempt college tend to have IQ 100 or above (top 50% of the population). Although IQ doesn’t really work like this, here’s an analogy. A person below IQ 30, I believe, is not measurable: 30 is the limit for profound, non-functional retardation. At IQ 70, a person is mildly retarded: able to function, but unable to grasp abstract concepts.

To me, a person of average intelligence — let’s say dead on IQ 100– seems profoundly retarded. When I meet a person like that I can tell immediately from the person’s body language and general presence that he is of about average intelligence. He is unable to even understand my normal speech pattern. A relatively intelligent person, say IQ 140, seems mildly retarded to me. At least able to function in a conversation, able to grasp my speech without effort. I can carry on a normal, casual conversation with a person like that. That kind of interaction makes up the majority of the interaction in my life. However, when I try to talk about something that is interesting or challenging to me with a person like that, I leave them immediately. They glaze over, and if they attempt to carry on the conversation despite their clear confusion, they say things that make it clear that they don’t really grasp what I’m trying to say.

I know answers to questions that people don’t understand. The questions I mean. That’s a real pisser. To ask someone a question that they don’t even have the foundation of knowledge or understanding to put in context in such a way that they could begin thinking about an answer. That’s 99% of people, easily. Of the 1% that remain, 99% can’t answer the questions I pose. I want to talk about the questions that I don’t have answers for — those questions are for that .01% of people who can deal with questions like that.

It’s extremely frustrating. I don’t walk around looking down at people, but when I want to be engaged I can’t be most of the time. I want to sit down with a group of people and have a challenging conversation. That’s a big part of the attraction to my wife — she’s extremely intelligent and well-rounded. It’s hard for me to find really close friends because most people are transparent to me, like children.

This is also why I like graphic design so much. It’s a never-ending series of open-ended problems. I can’t simply “beat the curve,” or complete the field, then move on. I like that, and I have tons of room for improvement that I can’t see readily filling. But it doesn’t fill the void of having good friends — I’m a really social person, who doesn’t have a close group of friends that I connect with on a lot of levels.

That, in a nutshell, is the plight of the lonely genius. So here comes the backlash; I’ll try to address that preemptively.

You are basing most of your rant on IQ score. That says a lot about you.

Fair enough, but you might be surprised to know that I’m totally with you on that. People stuck on themselves because they have a high IQ, as though that means anything at all, drive me nuts — but this situation is a good example of my overarching point. My first inclination when talking about this is to dive into the rich, beautiful complexity of the human mind, and multiple intelligences, and the effect of motivation on natural aptitude, and the whole spectrum of topics addressing intelligence, then explore which of my needs aren’t being met with regard to my social life, but my brain is conditioned now to throw all that stuff out, because time and again I’ll start down that path, and the person or people I’m talking to will look me, confused, and after a pause say “So… your IQ is high?” It kills me.

So instead of saying what I really mean, I reduce my thoughts to dumbass arithmetic comparing intelligence quotients using a simple, unweighted number line. After all, there is at least a correlation between IQ and intelligence. So it’s totally my fault for discussing the topic in a ham-fisted, cut and dry kind of way, and I don’t blame you at all for thinking I’m a douche. There’s a reason I do it though, and it’s simply that about 99.9% of people don’t want to engage their brains.

And don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate people, and I don’t get angry with them. I love people a lot — more than just enjoying their company, I have an abiding compassion for people that really guides me in my life. I love learning, and I am not ashamed to say I don’t know jack about a lot of things — drawing is a great example. I’m only okay at it: I’m part of a sort of artist collective, and 90% of the people there blow me away, and I love that, because it provides room to grow. Most of the time that’s great. What I’m trying to say is that there comes a time when I want to be challenged in areas where I am strong, and it’s frustrating when I can’t find people who can provide that challenge.

Anyway, this is a vent meant to make people like me feel a little better, not an attempt at scientific accuracy, so I’m allowed to piss and moan in broad, unsubstantiated strokes about vague generalities, and no one can think I’m a dick for more than like 30 seconds.

Maybe you should work on your social skills. Not everyone is going to accommodate your conversation, sometimes you have to accommodate theirs.

Okay, another fair point, but this post really is just a bitch fest. I don’t have trouble relating to people at all, and I socialize quite a lot. And don’t think I’m equivocating here! Resist the natural urge to assume I’m trying to backpedal in an effort to make myself look better. I promise that’s not the case: if I wanted to be socially acceptable, I wouldn’t have started this blog. At the very beginning I said this isn’t socially acceptable, but it needs to be said, and I’m doing it anonymously to avoid the complication of saving face. I sort of committed myself to honesty for the duration by the way I introduced the topic.

I’m annoyed that you are talking down about so many people, maybe they don’t give a shit about what you have to say, get over it.

First, I understand your point completely, but it doesn’t apply to what I’m saying. I don’t accost random people with gobs of jargon. I think under normal circumstances a person might think I’m a nice, perhaps well-spoken person. I don’t break out the hard stuff until I’m in a conversation with a person who seems to be reasonably intelligent, and who shows an interest in the subject, or brings it up himself.

For example, one area that interests me is the potential for computing to affect the future of society in profound ways. I don’t talk about that until a computer geek starts talking about it to me. I find that after a few seconds of conversation, I’m saying things that the person isn’t really understanding. So, knowing that the person is interested in the subject, I rephrase in engaging and vivid language, trying to illustrate my point. Often the person grasps what I’m saying at least partially at that point, but has nothing to offer to the development of the conversation after that… so before I’ve even gotten my basic ideas on the subject out, this person has reached the capacity of their intelligence or education thus far, and although I’ve had a conversation about something I’m interested in, I have not been challenged at all.

To compensate, a lot of my friends are professors: they are older, and very well educated, and so they have a larger store of information and knowledge, but even those people have trouble following me then challenging me, because at some point one has to use the knowledge and experience he has to push his understanding further, through critical thinking. It’s that thinking that often lacks. My wife can challenge me in a lot of areas, but I know exactly one person who can challenge me in my favorite, highest aptitude area. Under current thinking it’s called “Existential Intelligence,” (Gardner) and it’s essentially “big question” intelligence. The guy I’m talking about has 2 PhDs, and he’s a great (weird) guy — the problem is that people like him are always busy. It takes a hyper focus on difficult problems and situations to engage a brain like his, so his time fills up, and we only get to sit and talk maybe once a month.

Isn’t it pompous to call yourself a “genius”?

This isn’t about being pompous — I struck down the social convention of staying quiet about one’s abilities when I opened this blog. Here, under the veil of anonymity, I can say what is and is not the case regardless of social convention. It is the case that I have exceptional abilities. That’s called being bright. To be a genius, it’s generally understood that a person can make quantum leaps in their thinking, instead of evolutionary steps.

For example, a bright artist can take an idea like a spoon, and say “what if this spoon was really huge, and it was sitting in a cityscape?” Spoon, to Really Large Spoon is an evolutionary step. An artistic genius can leap from the idea of a spoon to something totally original and unique, and execute it in a way that hit the core of the audience in a profound way.

I recognize that quantum thinking in myself, so I feel comfortable calling myself a genius for the purposes of this blog. In the end, I think genius is defined by accomplishments to some degree, so it’s not entirely fitting yet, but it gets the idea across.

What have you accomplished that would make you a genius?

Not enough, certainly, but I am young still. I am not one of those kids who was in college at seven years old, although I did skip several grades. Despite being very young, I have had at least two careers, one in graphic design, and my current one as an enterprise software engineer.

I tend to keep my age to myself because people ask difficult questions when they start to do the math. How exactly do I have x years of experience in this field if I’m only y years old? The fact of this blog should tell the reader that it’s not easy to say: “Well, you see, I’m a genius, and I learned the majority of your field over the course of a couple weekends when I was 9 years old. I did business through the internet with the help of my parents, so the quality of my work could speak for itself until I was old enough to have face time with clients. That’s why you’re twice as old as I am, but I am your boss.”

As for why I’m not in some think tank somewhere, it’s outside the scope of this post to explain my whole life. I’ll start with this though: there’s no way to “skip” undergrad college. I find undergrad studies to be mind numbing, but I must drag myself through it because I do hold hope that there is a graduate hard sciences program in the Ivy League somewhere that will challenge me. I’ve been going to college for nearly 5 years, attended 4 different universities during that time, and I’ve maintained a very high GPA throughout. I don’t think I’ve benefited much from it, except for the occasional bright spark in a professor from time to time, but I stay because I can’t get into a grad program without the four-year degree.

In the end, I realize that this blog will leave a sour taste in some peoples’ mouth for any of several reasons, but I hope that it helps its intended audience anyway. Lonely Geniuses, don’t give up, there are others out there.