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.

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?

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.