You’re an intelligent person, right? Thought so. Most of us are. We’re deliberately looking for writing that might enhance our understanding of ourselves. That’s a big deal.
I bet your friends are intelligent too. So much so that when you meet someone who doesn’t think critically, it’s a surprise. You’ll hang out with this awesome person for a while before you notice a disconnect that you don’t have with your other friends. And at some point it hits you: your friend just isn’t….smart.
You know what sucks more than that guilty boredom you have around your less cerebral friends? When you’re that person to someone else. Years ago my dad told me “you know, you’re going to meet people who are REALLY smart. I hope that’s not intimidating for you.” But it is intimidating.
To a pretty big group of us: self-defined intelligent, literary, at least moderately narcissistic – it’s a rude awakening to discover that we’re as common as a Starbucks around Penn Station. We’ll have to redefine ourselves to discover the unique things we can bring to the world.
Here’s some things you’ll experience being at the downward sloping end of the bell curve:
1. It’s All About What You Take In
People of average intelligence read Anna Karenina too. And they love it. They get as much out of great novels as you do. They just don’t see as much IN them.
Intelligence is about recognizing patterns. A great idea is great for layers of reasons: the layers thickening the smarter the person gets. I love reading the books my dad recommends to me. But I know I only understand about 30% of what’s in them. I’ll tell him what I thought about the book once I’m finished, and then he’ll tell me his impression of it, ask what I think, and I’ll wrack my brain to see if I agree or not.
Some people just see more than others. I was telling my friend about a website called My Beautiful Cervix. I told her how weird all the cervixes (cervices?) look. She texted back “I guess we haven’t evolved to appreciate the aesthetics of what’s on our insides.” I don’t make wide associations like that. Plus whenever we have a political discussion, she fucking creams me.
Spend as much time as possible with people who are smarter than you. You may never be on their level, but they can help you improve. They want to teach you things. We’re so lucky that human nature works in such a way that we gain happiness from sharing our knowledge with others.
2. You Know A Lot Of Things You Can’t Articulate
We want to talk to people who challenge us. But you can talk about concepts with your less smart friends if you bring them up first. You just have to get the ball rolling. There’s a good chance your friend will pitch in some good insights once the conversation gets going.
We all have vague, wordless knowledge of more than we can articulate. It’s just that the smarter you are, the more able you are to complete your thoughts by connecting other thoughts to them.
You can work on that. The more you read, the more of a knowledge base you’ll have. If you’re like me though, the more you learn the more you’ll get discouraged by the fact that there is so much that you don’t know.
3. You’ve Never Had An Original Thought In Your Head
Very few people have. Very few. Like one crumb off one wafer if the world were a Wacco factory the size of Saturn. We just rearrange details and use metaphor. If you can make one tiny improvement to an existing idea, you are a genius. All Mark Zuckerberg did was make the Friendster/MySpace format more accessible.
If you can even understand the more complex ideas out there then you’re doing pretty well. I think most smart people have that pesky urge to contribute something original though. We want to do something “great.” But we have to keep scale in perspective. And it helps to remember that
4. There Are Different Kinds of Intelligence
Even among eggheads. Ben Carson is a brilliant neurosurgeon, but he hasn’t had much luck articulating himself. Marx apparently wasn’t that great at using hard numbers to back up his theories. Nor was he great at anticipating the human rights catastrophes that would arise from systems like that. (Read Bertrand Russell’s Power for a great explanation of how human nature affects politics. I’m a philosophy dilettante mind you, but I’m pretty sure it’s top notch.)
Then you’ve got the guy who made millions on light-up gloves you can wear to a rave. Is that brilliant? Probably not. He just saw a hole in the market and went for it.
My point is that intelligence is more compartmentalized than we realize. That also means we can allow ourselves simpler criteria. I will never be the most nuanced thinker on a philosophy forum. But I’m pretty darn good at Dr. Mario. Not the best. But good. And I’m proud of that.
5. Intelligence Does Not Mean Wisdom
There’s an African proverb that says you have to be smart to know you’re not smart. That’s not true. You have to be wise.
Being wise means you’ve learned to use the intelligence you do have. Especially for self-awareness. There’s a zen component to it too. Not so much in accepting the status quo (although some people see that as wisdom) but in being decisive about what you want to accept and what you want to change. A wise person looks for the best in things. Or at least knows when to let things go.
I won’t say wisdom is better than brains. Wisdom doesn’t come up with new ideas. But it does make you more receptive to them. People who are arrogant-slash-defensive about their intellect tend not to be open to new ways of thinking. Because they’re terrified of somebody proving theirs wrong.
What I’m saying is that it’s okay to not be brilliant. Really. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t be sanctimonious either. You are an intelligent person for sure. You can get worlds of enjoyment just from learning about the things other intelligent people have said and done.
And you are original. You’re you. You are the best person on this planet at being you. I know that sounds like a platitude. And maybe it is. But technically you’ve done something original just by existing. And if you challenge yourself and keep an open mind, there’s a good chance that you can come up with your own little sliver of perspective. You can claim your own little corner of thought in the universe, colored and shaped in a way that no other person will ever be able to replicate.
I hope one day we’ll be mature enough to be proud of that.