The Problem With Very Smart People
Bill Long 9/11/11
Three Problems, In Fact
Most essays I have seen on difficulties and smart people have to do with the difficulties that extremely intelligent people face in the world. For example, some articles argue that very smart people are less happy than others because they were sort of identified and sequestered at a young age to be the "nerds"--and these folk are rarely the subject of endearing portraits. Another article argues that extremely smart people often tend to want to break the rules, or not want to follow procedures, and thus they end up being fired or mistreated despite their intelligence. I am not going down those paths in this article. Rather, my interest is to show how very smart people often create difficulties for themselves and others and how, because of these difficulties, they become less productive/creative and influential than they otherwise might be. My comments fall under three categories: (1) skipping steps; (2) failure at self-regulation; and (3) unwillingness/reluctance to accept correction.
The most prevalent characteristic of giftedness, according to this study, is that such a person learns rapidly. Indeed, 99.4% of gifted people were put in this category. While at first blush this trait seems to be a decided advantage, it actually ends up being a disadvantage unless its pitfalls are directly addressed. The major pitfall of learning rapidly is that you tend to skip too many essential steps in mastering, using and explaining learning. Because you tend to skip these intermediate steps, you don't really know things as well as you seem, and your foundations are not firmly set.
The problem arises when this characteristic is combined with another--99.4% of gifted people also have extensive vocabularies. Now we see the problem. The temptation of such gifted people is to use their facility in speaking to "cover" the many steps that are often skipped in the rapid-learning process. For example, I masquereded as one of these in college. I had memorized a lot of the New Testament, and I was taking NT Greek. I had no idea what a particular Greek text said but because I already "knew" it in English, I would easily "translate" it, pointing out strange or interesting grammatical features that were there because I knew the English of the passage. My knowledge was deep, in one area, and fast, and my eloquence was great, but it let me off the hook for learning Greek--and I didn't correct this for many years.
I saw this characteristic two days ago in a very eloquent lecture on a new exhibit in a local art gallery. The scholar giving the talk was eloquent, charming, charismatic and, apparently, thorough, until I went through the text of his work on which the speech was based, and I saw all kinds of leaps over intellectual and practical crevasses that he made. I can't say for sure that his confidence, fluentness and rapidity in learning left all these gaps, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did.
Intellectually-oriented people are passionate--passionate about learning, about putting the world together in new ways, about creating something perhaps never before witnessed. Their passion can easily get the better of them, and they never realize that there are multiple steps that need to be addressed and honored if one is to regulate oneself properly. This self-regulation has to do primarily with two areas: emotional intensity and sensory overload. Very smart people often become emotionally overwrought pretty easily because the issues they are studying are like the battles generals wage; to the very smart people, the issues are so prominent and compelling. Learning how to make your emotions enhance your intelligence and vocabulary, rather than detract from them, is crucial.
I have become aware of the importance of sensory issues ever since I began working in earnest with many children and (especially) adults on the autism spectrum. They vividly absorb colors all of us experience but most of us tend to ignore or downplay. What might just be a problematic or irksome bright light to us is a debilitating "sun" directly in the eyes for them. But my point is that the spectrum people are "right"--they feel sensory violation more than "neurotypical" people, and they normally try to address it, but very smart people tend to ignore the claims of the senses on them. Because of the importance of getting to the issue/idea/problem under consideration, care normally isn't given by extremely smart people to establishing the maximal sensual environment for them to flourish.
Attitudes Toward Correction
The Book of Proverbs said it most powerfully nearly 3000 years ago:
"Whoever corrects a scoffer wins abuse;
Whoever rebukes the wicked gets hurt.
A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you;
the wise, when rebuked, will love you.
Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still;
teach the righteous and they will gain in learning (Prov. 9:7-9)."
The extremely quick learner, who is also facile with words, often doesn't take very kindly to "correction" by others. My experience in academia was that people only felt free to roam in their own (fairly narrow) field of specialty, and they would not for a moment wander into someone else's field to criticize or do more than appreciatively observe. Normally, then, "correction" only comes from within the field--where issues are fraught with all kinds of other issues, such as status in the field, saving face, etc. Thus, it almost becomes impossible for very smart people to hear and respond to correction, especially if it comes from people outside of their field. In addition, when you add to this the fact that many people are in fields where either pulling down large grants or avoiding lawsuits is based on denying or covering over mistakes, you have very few accomplished professionals or brilliant people who are very "open" to correction.
Yet, there is nothing like correction to improve us. I am a better speller because I have missed so many words in spelling bees--and I never miss the same word twice! The Book of Proverbs is, I believe, profoundly true--that a wise person actually will welcome correction because it has the possbility of making him/her a much better thinker/writer/musician, etc. The ability not only to be "self-critical," but to welcome and absorb and learn from the criticism or correction of others, is extremely difficult for very smart people to do.
A very smart person is blessed indeed if, in this life, s/he can learn patiently to take all the steps that lead to knowledge, even as the brain at first wants you to leap ahead on the mountain like some young ram. This process is often painfully slow, like learning to write and recall, from memory, hundreds of Chinese characters that are quite foreign to us. But, disciplining the mind not to skip steps in learning makes one useful in a number of levels, for one then becomes immediately aware of what needs to be done in many instances in order to master a process.
A very smart person is blessed indeed if, in this life, s/he can learn to regulate his/her emotions and use the full array of sensory influences around him/her to aid in the thinking process rather than to tie oneself up.
Finally, a very smart person is blessed if s/he is not simply open to correction, often from unexpected sources, but welcomes this kind of correction. Sometimes the suggested correction will, itself, be unhelpful, and can be discarded, but often it can help the person shape the product into a more positive, powerful contribution.
Ultimately, in my judgment, in order to be supremely effective in this life, the truly smart person has to give up all pretensions and reliance on their smarts, and realize that unless the right opportunities come along, their smarts might well be buried beneath the rubble of an unsuccessful life. Once one "gives up," so to speak, one's claim to brilliance, it is given back to you. Now, however, you can own it with much more confidence and worthiness, and you can actually become useful for others and yourself.