Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Ignorance of Genius

"You are so smart!"

"I think you are really bright..."

"You should be proud that you are so intelligent."

Um... Thank you?

May I make a confession? I don't deserve the credit for being smart. Ok, I know I'm intelligent or whatever... But I really don't deserve a compliment simply for being smart.

Tell me you really make me laugh or you are really insightful or I really enjoy your company. Tell me you appreciate my talent. (Wherever you may see it, and whatever talent it might be.) I even like your writing is intelligent and you are so smart to put that in a way that I could relate to. Yep, I like those, too.

The "You are smart!" compliment is nice to hear from time to time, especially from someone whom I think is pretty intelligent, too. In truth, it's always a gracious compliment, and sincerely appreciated. But as nice as it is to hear, can I really take credit for something over which I had no control?

We don't hold people accountable when they are lacking in cognitive functioning (well, we aren't supposed to), so why should we give credit for above-average intelligence? It has been said that a person is born with a certain IQ that only varies a few points over the course of their lifetime. Interestingly enough, that's not completely true... You can systematically increase the effectiveness of your brainpower over time and with effort, thereby increasing your capacity to process information (and IQ score by a small percentage of points). But really, the potential was already there. There was still a potential range that can't really be controlled. Consider that a person who is born with a fairly serious impairment in cognitive function (let's say scoring an 80 on a clinically-administered IQ test), isn't likely to ever score a reliable 140 on the same IQ test.

So why do we bestow the compliment "you are smart", as if the person had worked to earn it?

I received one of the nicest compliments I think I have ever received in my life the other day....

"I Googled you and there were pages and pages that came up.
Some were duplicates, but there was so much there that you had written.
I spent hours just reading what you wrote, and I have learned so much.
I am learning so much."

Of course, I'm paraphrasing here. I left out you are the most amazing writer I have ever met and the other part that went I have never learned as much from anyone as I have from you and then there was I think you are without question the most...

Oh wait. No, none that last part was out loud. But I think I thought I heard them thinking it. (I'm pretty sure...)

The point I'm making here is that not once did I hear "You are so smart", although I know that the opinion was there, and that's great. What was more important? For starters, that a person I already knew stopped to think I want to learn more about Lorin, about what she likes, dislikes and has to say. What else impressed me? That a person actually spent what turned out to be many hours over a period of consecutive days to read my words. Not words to anyone in particular, just... Everything. But the thing which was the most moving to me was that this really intelligent, educated person said they had learned something from me. Me. And was still learning. From stupid little ridiculous me. (Yeah, I said stupid.)

Sure, anyone can be smart... But when someone tells you they have learned something worthwhile from you?

Now that's a compliment.

I think when people talk about another person being "smart", I think the compliment is really an acknowledgment that there is the potential for something good resulting from someone's intellect. That makes more sense, right?

If someone uses their smarts to find a cure for cancer, that's a good thing. It's the cure which is lauded. A genius theorizes on how the laws of the enormity of the universe can finally coexist with the minutiae of quantum physics, and that gets, um, a little attention. Another good thing. A brilliant teacher spends forty years educating countless kids, many of whom go on to make a societal impact. Not too shabby... This is all great stuff, but how much control did they really have of the brain power they were blessed with? It's what they did with it that made the difference.

They took their potential, combined it with their natural talent and did something good.

Here's a little secret that most "geniuses" aren't going to tell you:

(Now, listen closely, because I'm only going to say it once.)

Tests, including IQ tests and achievement tests, are unfairly biased towards "traditional intelligences", which, probably not coincidentally, the people who created the tests were likely strong in.

Now, don't blog out on me.

Yeah, those tests are bogus. They are ridiculous, they measure the wrong crap, they are not realistic measures of ability or success... When it comes to measuring how "smart" a person is, basically IQ tests are crap. Actually, I hear that there comes a point where once you hit a certain score, your odds of "success" do not continue to increase. I could go into the reasons why, but I will spare you. So, who really cares about a number? (And this ain't sour grapes talking...) If you look online, apparently a lot of people. And yet, an IQ score is pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. But that's just my opinion. (If it's worth anything.)

Hang on... Did I already send in my Mensa dues? Oops... [delete, delete, delete...]

I haven't done research on this and I'm not a scholar. What I do know is that the IQ test is unfairly simple for some people. Some.

And that's because blah blah blah blah blah blah blah and that's how I know that. (I just spared you about 3.7 minutes of boredom. You can thank me later.)

I have a kid who is amazing. AMAZING. (Well, two amazing kids, but I'm talking about one at the moment.) He is popular, smart, creative, intuitive, and hysterically funny. He wrote skits for a school variety show and loves to make "movies", complete with scripting and direction. And yet, if he was matched up with my other son in a game of "let's solve the math problem" I don' know that I would buy a ticket.

(Not that there wouldn't be a show, it just wouldn't be fun to watch.)

Now, the jokster is smart. Really smart. The boy gets the "You are so smart!" compliment all the time. ...And I get the "He is so smart!" compliment, too. As for math? Well, he qualified for Advanced Placement math. Like I said, he's "really smart". But with my other kid? It would have been an unfair match. My other amazing son easily comprehended the concept of square roots and exponents in kindergarten and was doing algebraic equations in first grade. He was nine when he came to me and announced, "Mom, I finally understand calculus." Oh, after reading about it for an hour at the bookstore? Oh, ok... The funny thing is after that hour he could explain it to me in depth. He really did understand the concept. That boy goes on about math the way I go on about... Well, the way I go on. So as brilliant as both boys are in math, is it still a fair comparison?

Now ask me about the math whiz's refined social abilities. (On second thought...)

So, I ask you... Who is the genius? The answer is: Both.

Here is the list of what are generally considered as the Multiple Intelligences, a theory which was developed in the early to mid-eighties.

Linguistic intelligence ("word smart"):
Logical-mathematical intelligence ("number/reasoning smart")
Spatial intelligence ("picture smart")
Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence ("body smart")
Musical intelligence ("music smart")
Interpersonal intelligence ("people smart")
Intrapersonal intelligence ("self smart")
Naturalist intelligence ("nature smart")

Now, this explains a lot, when you think about it. It explains why a person with seemingly "average intelligence" can have brilliant success. That IQ test I mentioned? It focuses on the top two. But what about the rest?

What about the people who are brilliant with plants? Among other things like you know... Curing diseases and feeding people, little stuff like that, plants are a wonderful renewable source of energy. (Those plants... Love them.)

(Have I mentioned that my younger son has said he wants to be a botanist in the field of medical research? Yeah, like I said, two amazing kids...)

What about people who know how to negotiate? Can get along with just about anyone? What about those people who are so diplomatic that they are sought out in times of crisis? Those with "people smarts" are the ones who are quickly promoted and get to go to the best parties. Those people have value, you know... Geniuses.

Can you imagine what your life would be like without music? I don't watch TV so without music my life would be, uh, quiet. (Mostly.) Music evokes emotion, and emotion is good. (Despite what you may have learned in your childhood.)

Math, literary and spatial geniuses... All important fields. The spatial geniuses theorize in ways that no one else can, the math geniuses prove them right, and the literary geniuses put it all on paper.

Unfortunately, there are so many people out there who "feel dumb." My son, the one who is popular and intuitive and creative? I sort of think he used to feel dumb about math around his brother. But remember what I said about his qualification for advanced placement math? His belief system about his intellect had nothing to with reality. I kept him out of AP math, so somehow he didn't realize he had qualified like his buddies did. What he didn't know was that he qualified for every AP class for the grade. I left him in some, but I had to draw the line somewhere so he could have a life that existed outside of schoolwork. (I'll let him thank me when he's 40.)

Just because a person believes something, doesn't make it so.

(Well, and the truth is that it doesn't mean it's not so, either.... Only that belief does not create a contrasting reality.)

Ok, a lot can be said for the power of positive thinking, law of attraction, all of that. Hey. If you know the first thing about me, it's probably that I appreciate a good theory, and the philosophy that universal energy is something which transfers between objects in order to... Well, there I go. Ok, determination through belief can accomplish a lot. But that's not what I'm talking about here...

How many people have not realized their full potential because they thought they weren't smart enough? How many people dropped out of college because they thought low grades meant stupidity, instead of boredom? How many people think that a lack of financial success in their current profession is an indication that there couldn't be financial success in a more preferred occupation? I have a pretty prolific online presence and get contacted fairly frequently. For those who know me on a personal level, my online stuff adds another dimension to what they think they know about me. But to those who don't know me... I hear comments where assumptions are made about this or that, and I think, oh boy. I just don't have the heart to say 'hey... I really ain't that great'. (Well, and I'm not that ''bad'', either, let's just get that clear...!) The belief that I am my personna is... Well, it's faulty.

But how many people put all their faith in one basket, trying to force a round peg into a square hole, instead of finding the shortest path from point A to point B? Regardless of beliefs, societal/cultural "rules", shoulds, and ought-tos, decide what you really enjoy, and go do it. (Whatever your "it" is.) You genius, you...

My creative genius has come to terms with the fact that he and his brother are different. People are stronger in areas and not as strong in others. I'm glad to see that he is comfortable in his own skin, happy with the intelligences he has. I'm proud of who he is, was and is becoming. Both of my boys. Like little lights.

So, if I go back and consider the original compliment "You are so smart!" how seriously can I take that? If there are eight "intelligences", where do I stack up? Hey, I'm pretty smart, I hear... I'll measure up, I'm sure.

Nature. I like nature. Love it, in fact....But I might not be so kind to it? I was asked once, maybe you should just get silk plants..? Some people think it's cool that around my house I have plants growing out of pretty bottles and jars. I see it as practical. Hey, they never need watering. Problem solved. (But please don't ask me about the grass in my yard.)

I do think I am "self-smart", but no one gets me anyway, so I won't bother explaining that one. Now, people smart? Well, I don't get most other people so maybe I couldn't explain that one if I tried. (Ok, cross another one off the list.)

Music. I have played a few instruments in my life. Oh, list them in order? Um, ok... Violin, piano, flute, drums, guitar... No, I'm not musically talented... I haven't found one yet that I can play with any level of skill. Probably has a little something to do with not being able to read music. (Oh yeah, see how smart I am now...?)

Body smart? Um... Well I guess my weaknesses and strengths might be a washout on that one.

Spatial, number/reasoning... Yeah, I'm good on those.

Word smart? Um... I don't want to talk about it.


  1. Hi Lorin,
    Great post. Thank you for talking about your sons, and for letting them be different from you and from each other!

    There is a Universal Law of Dharma, and it sounds as if your sons, so far, are in touch with who they are!

    You can read about it at

    Thanks again,

  2. Very enlightening post. Thank you.

    I, too, cringe at being told, "You're smart." A voice in my head will follow that statement with:

    "So why can't I succeed in things everyone else seems to be doing with ease?"


    "Are you implying that you thought I was dumb before?"


    "I'll just politely smile because I'm having a non-verbal episode right now."

    Multiple intelligences make sense. May your children blossom from this understanding.


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