Does Genius Exist?

Does genius exist?

I would argue that it does, but not in the way our society imagines it. Our society holds the notion that people like Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, or Andrew Wiles are natural geniuses, born apart from the rest of the world. It would be dishonest to ignore the unusual natural capability that such people have. However, are they born-apart geniuses, or people of high achievement? Does the distinction matter?

No such thing as “a genius”

The notion of a person as “a genius”, somehow separate from humanity and proto-angelic because of her superior intellect, I find harmful. As a discrete zero/one variable, this thing called “genius” doesn’t exist.

In 1999, I attended the Math Olympiad Summer Program, or MO(s)P. I met people with much more natural talent than me. To call them “geniuses”, however, would mitigate the sheer amount of work that it took them to accomplish what they did. I asked an IMO Gold Medalist how much time he spent thinking about math. He said, “50 percent”. Remember that this was in high school. Did he have a lot of natural ability? Of course, but he also worked his ass off (although it may not have felt like “work” to him).

This binary notion of “genius” seems to be a justification for our society’s othering of highly intelligent people: mad scientists, failed prodigies, bitter adult geniuses seeking revenge against a society that never recognized them. Then, to make matters worse, we have the cultural blight that is venture-funded, private-sector technology (“Silicon Valley”) in which the supposed genius nerds have come around full circle and become the bullies. Silicon Valley is the worst PR for smart people since Nagasaki.

The standard Silicon Valley narrative is that the horrible men at the top of the VC-funded ecosystem are taking revenge for two or three decades of unpopularity. That’s mostly correct, but let me add a couple of notes. First of all, the nerds/jocks model of high school is largely incorrect. I went to high school. I remember it. Not all smart people were unpopular. (I was smack-average in the hierarchy; not prom king, but not picked on either. I wasn’t invited to all the parties, but people respected me.) Also, “jocks” never were the bad guys. Jocks worked as hard as nerds, and most of them were nice people. Bullies were the bad guys. Sure, a few bullying jocks existed, and so did bullying nerds, and so did bullying jockish nerds. Some of today’s tech barons were nerds and some were more fratty, some were unpopular and some were not, but most of all they’re bullying assholes and always have been. Forget the Hollywood narrative; most bullies were unpopular in high school. (Were there popular bullies? Sure, but all being equal, bullying hurts one’s popularity.) It doesn’t take popularity to be a jerk.

Today’s Silicon Valley barons aren’t nerds, though they’ve appropriated nerd culture. They certainly aren’t geniuses; I’m much closer to that than they are, and I wouldn’t put that label on myself, because I’m hesitant to believe that it exists. Mostly, they are bullies who pretend to be nerds because it pays. As for bullying, I suspect they’ve always had that inclination, but corporate capitalism gives them a power they lacked in adolescence.

Are there people in Silicon Valley who approach or even exceed the level of cognitive excellence that we’d call “genius”? Sure, but they’re never the ones at the top of the pecking order, making millions of dollars or getting news articles written about them. They’re research scientists and software engineers no one has ever heard of, and they can’t afford a house less than an hour and a half from work. So it goes.

Okay, okay…

Highly intelligent people get othered. We’re nerds who “must” have poor social skills, because we spend so much time reading and thinking; at the same time, we’re geniuses who never had to work for anything. Note the inconsistency: we lack social skills because we work too hard on other things, but we’re lazy bastards to whom everything came easy. It’s a bit hard to win, in a society so focused on corporate back-biting that any positive trait or distinction gets a person torn down.

My experience leads me to conclude that: (1) natural ability is a continuous variable, not a discrete, binary one we could call “genius” and use to set people apart, (2) that meaningful natural ability is so hard to test beyond 2.5-3.0 standard deviations (IQ 137-145) that it’s hardly worth the bother, (3) that natural cognitive abilities tend to diverge below the level we’d call “genius”, so a mathematical genius might be only average at music composition or the visual arts, (4) that cognitive originality is separate from what we consider “IQ”, and (5) that said cognitive originality requires hard work far more than it requires natural talent. How one can be original without the sheer work it takes to study the work of others, imitating what is competent while rejecting what is overused? No intellectual achievement comes naturally; experience matters and that takes hard work. I don’t write well because I was born with a silver semicolon; I write well because I’ve written millions of words, and some of that stuff, early-early on, was terrible.

I’m not going to lie. Does the average child, age seven, have a shot at winning the International Math Olympiad in ten years? No. It’s not fair to place that kind of expectation on him. Discrepancies of natural ability exist, and their importance grows as a technological society develops a use for the ability to grapple with abstraction. That’s clear. But, does a person require a have-it-or-not single variable we can call “genius” in order to reach the highest levels of achievement. My experience has led me to conclude that the answer is “no”.

It’s a harmful notion, too, because most of us can’t agree on what “a genius” is. In business, people of rather bland cognitive ability (with nonexistent diligence and originality) routinely take credit for their subordinates’ work and are hailed as “visionaries” or “geniuses”, while the hundreds of smarter people doing the actual work toil in obscurity.

Sure, some people have more natural ability than others. Some have more drive. Some work harder. Some people are luckier in terms of what experiences life gives them. Over decades, these result in drastic differences in (perceived and real) capability. All of that seems to be true, without much controversy. Yet the archetype of “a genius” has so much baggage that it might be wise to get rid of it.

So what is genius?

If I reject the notion of a person as “a genius”, I still prefer not to throw out the concept of genius, not as a binary personal variable but as a notion we might affix to high intellectual performance. There are people who can reach a state wherein their cognitive originality, conceptual clarity, and productive competence is far beyond the norm. When they achieve the right state of consciousness, they reach a level of insight and capability that seems inaccessible to everyone else, like stage magic.

Natural ability plays a role in this, but it’s not as big a factor as we tend to think. Less than 0.01 percent of people in our society are truly high-performing intellectuals, as I see it, and yet I doubt that 99.99th percentile natural ability (IQ 156) is required. (In practice, we can’t measure intelligence that high in adults– and childhood IQs are both inflated and not as meaningful, since adult capability is what we care about.) Perhaps 0.5 percent, or even 2 percent, of people have the requisite natural ability. Perhaps it’s more, because we still don’t understand what intelligence is or where it comes from. Did Shakespeare have a 190 IQ? Or was he a 125 IQ person with a knack for wordplay and storytelling? Does it even matter? Not really.

In childhood, one’s creativity is high but competence is low. In adulthood, rote industrial competence is high, but creativity tends to be low. Society beats it out of most people, forcing them to subordinate to a system run mostly by people of mediocre intellect. Workaday life crushes originality and excellence. So, we see that two ingredients for what we might call “genius” exist at separate times in life and, for most people, never the twain shall meet. Neither time is conducive to anything we’d consider meaningful genius: the child’s inexperienced creativity lacks the insight necessary to achieve originality; while the adult’s mechanical, risk-averse fairly-goodness, borne of the perfusive oppression of needing an income, clearly falls short.

Most gifted children seem like they might achieve creative excellence in adulthood; very few actually do. I’ve observed the careers of extremely intelligent (i.e., IQ 160+) people and the results are, at best, disappointing. About half go to graduate school; the other half go to Wall Street or Silicon Valley straight out of college. Either way, they expect to defeat the morons in business handily, retire within ten years, and dedicate the remainders of their lives to intellectual pursuits. It almost never works out that way. It’s not uncommon for highly intelligent people to be mobbed and bullied in their corporate jobs by resentful mediocrities, although even more common is for them to disappear into the bland, beige fog, and to lose every element of originality they once had. Most often, they disappear somewhere in the folds of middle management, and do what they can to hide what they once were.

When highly creative people enter the corporate world, they perceive (correctly) that they are singled out for unfair treatment because of their abilities. However, they tend to attribute this to envy and resentment, as it was with bullies in school. It’s not so; there are two problems with this argument. First, plenty of high-IQ people join in the bullying. While creatively and morally stunted, having acquiesced to mediocrity a long time ago, such people do not perceive themselves as inferior. Second, the upper tiers of intelligence and creativity do not bring the economic performance or social status that such people would envy. The corporate masters crush the brilliant not because they’re resentful, but because they’re afraid. To that point, they’re afraid that the irreverence (if not the talent) of such people could become infectious and undermine their authority. Natural intellectual talent may or may not be a necessary condition for creative excellence – that element can be debated – but without an indifference toward the sort of arbitrary authority that exists in the corporate world, it is so difficult to protect creativity that it might as well be considered impossible. The corporate regime cannot allow authority to be seen protecting, or even tolerating, the irreverence that human excellence requires. Therefore, the excellent must be crushed until they lose the desire to excel. But it is not envy that drives this; it is a calculated purge.

It’s important to recognize the notion of genius, not as a separate category of human, because such a thing never existed, but as a rare combination of traits we ought to encourage rather than crush. It’s not something that nature doles out in rare packets. Rather, it’s a combination of traits that can be encouraged or defeated by circumstances. Our society has reached a state in which the latter is the norm; thus, our squalid culture and stagnant economy should surprise no one.

The rare element: arrogant humility

What makes cognitive originality so rare?

I’ll confess it. I’m not that smart. If I had to guess my adulthood IQ, it’d be somewhere between 140 and 160. Statistically speaking, it’s nearly a guarantee that there’s someone smarter than me on a typical subway train in New York, or in a traffic jam on I-95, or serving coffee at Starbucks.

Yet, I am a misfit in human society. The corporate world, with its polite but militant brand of mediocrity, has tried to crush me; somehow, I’ve retained this diamantine cognitive integrity that holds negative economic value, flouting self-preservation for a reason even I don’t fully know. People like me become rarer with age; some of us just give in. At age 34, with my cultural and cognitive integrity intact, I’m an absurd, alien rarity for reasons that have little to do with natural ability. What makes me different from all the drones out there is not “IQ”; I know plenty of high-IQ who lack it, and it’s plausible that people can retain it with only average cognitive gifts.

If not natural intelligence, what is the set of traits one needs in order to preserve a child’s cognitive integrity, while gaining the competence and experience of adulthood? In two words, I’d call it arrogant humility. One needs the pugnacious assertiveness of a child, coupled with the quiet diligence of an adult who knows how much she doesn’t know.

To be better than other people, you have think that you’re better. You must set a higher standard for yourself than you’d set for anyone else. In addition, you have to fight all the people who want to bring you down to their level: the corporate vassals and barons who can’t stand to be outshined, society’s myriad talentless gatekeepers, and so on. That’s difficult. A person who does this seems aloof and will be disliked.

To be honest, I think that what we now call “mental illness” – many of these are physical illnesses with mental symptoms, but that’s a topic for another time – can be, in its milder forms, an asset. During a depression, the brain comes up with a certain brand of charismatically negative, but incorrect and damaging, though: you’re a loser and you’ll never amount to anything, so just be content to bump along the bottom. If you’re used to telling this sort of impulse to fuck right off, because your survival has literally depended on it for more than a decade, then you’re more likely to hold integrity when you enter the corporate world and hundreds of supposed social superiors are sending you the same sort of message (in more polite words). You recognize them as Team Depression and, just like the enemy within, full of nonsense.

To hold your cognitive integrity in a world that wants to break it, you’ve got to be a bit arrogant. You have to believe that you’re better than the mediocrity you see everywhere, especially in a time of organizational decay like this one. Maybe you are better; I am. I’m not afraid to say it, because I value honest perception more than politesse.

At the same time, believing in one’s superiority doesn’t make it so. It can lead to laziness and failure. The Dunning-Kruger results have been, in a bit of irony, misinterpreted by most people who cite them. (They indicate not that unskilled people invariably perceive themselves as superior; but that, when it comes to social skills in particular, there’s no correlation.) Still, there are domains in which people accurately estimate their level of capability, and others where they don’t. Nonetheless, if being arrogant were sufficient for genius, we’d see a lot more geniuses than we do. Most arrogant people lack insight into their own limitations and underestimate how hard they’ll still have to work, no matter how talented they are, if they want to achieve anything significant.

In my experience, the smartest people know what they are. They find workaday life oppressive, toxic, and boring. They mock the corporate world’s needless busyness and its bland replica of hypomania. At the same time, if they wish to sustain high cognitive performance and originality, they can’t get complacent. It’s not that they feel competitive pressure (we don’t compete; however, others compete with us) because they’re more resistant to social impulses than average people; it’s that they recognize how little they know, and how much is out there that they need to learn.

Cognitive excellence is an anomaly. I’ve often wondered why there seem to be severe differences in human intellectual capacity. It doesn’t seem that 140 IQ brains are larger or more consumptive than 100 IQ brains, so why didn’t we rapidly evolve to (and then fly right past) the IQ 140 level? Why did human intelligence stop at “high, but enough”, when it could have kept going? There are three possible answers. One is: the premise is wrong, and human intelligence continues to increase. It’s plausible, though I suspect the Flynn Effect overstates it. A second possibility is that the world in which we evolved had no use for intelligence beyond IQ 100. To be honest, I doubt that. Though I doubt the difference between IQ 140 and IQ 130 matters in the wild, I’d imagine that an IQ of 110 would provide an advantage over 100, even in the Stone Age. As with height, 99th-percentile intelligence might make one a freak; but in a species that evolved in tribal groups, 90th-percentile intelligence would make one the pre-eminent alpha. A third explanation, which I find most plausible, is that high intelligence correlates with undesirable genetic traits – in particular, mental illness.

IQ and mental illness don’t seem to correlate. Creativity (as far as it can be measured) and mental illness do, but there’s a question of which drives which, and how. Does mental illness provide a creative impulse, or are creative people so oppressed by an inferior society that they break down? I suspect that both are true in some degree.

Perhaps there is value, to a creative person, in mental illness. To be honest, I doubt that extreme states of consciousness such as frank mania or clinical depression serve much value, except perhaps when experienced once. (As a writer, I can write a panic attack scene. Not everyone can.) However, the constant need to reject one’s own thoughts in order to survive tends to imbue a certain humility that is otherwise rare in this world.

I’ve met people who perform at a cognitive level one would call genius. I’ve also met business executives. (The intersection between these two sets is almost empty.) What I’ve noticed in executives is their lack of introspection, a total absence of precision in their thinking; but, most of all, their inability to reject errant impulses. They’re not mentally ill. However, they’re prone to biased thinking, emotional reasoning, and hubristic nonsense. These afflict everyone, and especially children, and business executives seem to regress to the child’s level. They’re inexperienced at rejecting their own impulses (being neurotypical, they haven’t had to do so in order to survive) but they’re also surrounded by people who can’t tell them “No”. They revert to a juvenile state, though they lack the creativity they may have had as children. (They lost it while climbing the corporate ladder, and they won’t get it back.)

Corporate barons have the arrogance down pat, but they lack humility. Their capacity for original thought is, therefore, disappointing. Being an executive is like being stoned; you think you’re at the pinnacle of performance, but it’s a delusion. Clearly, arrogance alone does not lead to intellectual excellence. Unchecked by a broader acknowledgement of the world’s vastness, it pushes the other way.

How does one cultivate this paradoxical combination of arrogance and humility? To be honest, I’m not sure. Decided theists like Cantor or Tolkien might have a pat answer: humble before God, arrogant toward Mammon. Personally, I lean Buddhist and accept my lack of knowledge, though it is a hard thing to pray to. I don’t know, for sure, if there are gods or what happens after I die – and that’s, in fact, part of samsara. So long as I remain in samsara, I will have to experience death without truly knowing if anything’s on the other side of it. (I imagine that I have held many world religions, and none from time to time, in past lives.) Even if I could delude myself into believing that I understand the bulk of what’s important in this world – and, if I haven’t made this obvious, let me admit that I don’t – I’d have to contend with my complete lack of expertise on what, if anything, is to come.

When I examine the state of workaday society, I rightfully recognize myself as superior, and I cannot fully take part. Sometimes, I wish I could. Anti-mediocrity is a disability that has cost me millions. Still, I recognize it as built for something lesser than what I am, and I shall not condescend. However, when I look at a universe that existed for billions of years without me, or at the highest reaches of human potential, or even at the simple contentedness of a happy cat… I must be humble. I find myself not as an outsider, and neither inferior nor superior, but as a perpetual beginner.