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.

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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.