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.

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.

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.