Highly Intelligent People Aren’t Miserable

Some people just love to blame their problems on their superior intelligence. It’s the biggest humble brag out there, and a very convenient excuse for acting like a prick.

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

— Albert Einstein

Highly intelligent people aren’t miserable, but insecure ones are. We can probably assume that some highly intelligent people are insecure, and that’s the real root of their problems.

For a while, I bought into this shtick — that super smart people have to settle for misery. Then I climbed out of my head and started looking around. The smartest people didn’t suffer from social stigmas, and they didn’t make a big show of their intelligence.

They used their brains to help others, and themselves. They loved consuming and sharing knowledge. It made them happy.

I started taking notes.

There’s no single measure of intelligence

Let’s say you totally nailed the SAT or some other standardized test. Great, you have one form of intelligence mastered. That doesn’t mean everyone around you is an idiot, or just “average.”

The most sophisticated instruments now look at multiple forms of intelligence, from verbal to spatial reasoning.

You’re smarter than you think

A talented dancer has kinesthetic intelligence. She’s just never been told that. Odds are, you’re smart at something.

Nobody ever told you.

Turns out, most people are highly intelligent at something. You just have to figure out what. The problem is how our culture, and our school systems, still only reward test-taking smarts.

This problem mainly afflicts the U.S. A lot of European countries recognize that you can be smart in lots of ways.

Waitresses are highly intelligent

One of my favorite books of all time is The Mind at Work, by Mike Rose. Drawing on psychology and education theory, he conducts case studies on waitresses, plumbers, hair stylists, and carpenters.

His findings?

All of them are smart. They excel in different areas. They use different parts of their brains. They process information differently.

Their gift/curse is they’re never told they’re smart.

Solitary genius is a myth

Albert Einstein was only a genius in a couple of ways. His peers considered him an average physicist. But he excelled at connecting dots and explaining concepts in ways everyone could actually understand. He was pithy, and highly quotable by newspapers.

Perceived genius is just skill-stacking

Einstein was one of the first skill stackers. He was a self-learner who found a way around all the bullshit of formal education.

He learned about physics, and went from there.

When you come across someone that looks like a genius, it’s not that they’re #1 at one thing. They’re simply a polymath. They’re good at lots of things, and they stacked a skill set.

The world defines “genius” after the fact. Would you call Steve Jobs or Bill Gates a genius, or just someone very smart but also in the right place at the right time? Hard to say…

Intelligence doesn’t prelude happiness

One of my least favorite books is The Sorrows of Young Werther, a late 18th-century epistolary novel by Goethe. Over the course of about 200 pages, a bright young man in Germany obsesses over a cute girl he knows and then kills himself. Coulda happened yesterday…

Around the world, bright young people cling to romantic ideals about what their intelligence says about them:

They can’t get laid.

It’s hard to interact with people.

They think too much.

And so on.

The real problem is that they’re bottling themselves up. They’re conforming to stereotypes. They aren’t finding outlets for their knowledge.

They’re basing their identities on their intelligence. When you do that, you’re setting yourself up for misery.

Meanwhile, they’re condescending to everyone around them, and contributing nothing. Happiness comes from sharing your knowledge with the world, not hoarding it.

Solving problems makes us happy

Here’s a way to define intelligence: You apply your mind to a problem and solve it. That makes you smart.

Solving problems also makes you happy.

It’s how we’re wired — solving problems. We love it. We love it so much that we go out looking for them. A perfect world just wouldn’t make us happy. A perfect world is one without any problems to solve.

Maybe you do research. Maybe you engage in trial and error, or intuition. Maybe you’re a mechanic in a garage. Any which way but loose, you’re smart. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But “being smart” makes us miserable

One of my favorite short stories is by Flannery O’Connor, “The Enduring Chill,” about a young writer from NY who moves back in with his mom after falling victim to a mysterious illness.

He thinks he’s going to die, but turns out he has undulant fever, from drinking unpasteurized milk from his mom’s cows.

The whole time, he judges his mom’s simpleton ways. He considers himself highly intelligent, and drives away everyone in his life. But his problem isn’t his intelligence, it’s his ego.

Kinda dumb, for a smart guy…

Intelligence doesn’t exclude love

Lots of highly intelligent people maintain healthy relationships. It happens all the time. Some of them just deal with other pressures and disorders, and taking care of those makes a difference.

Highly intelligent people have a nasty habit of pushing away other highly intelligent ones, because they get wrapped up in their own heads. They think nobody else could be as smart as them.

Look around, smart people are everywhere.

We’re all going through our own crap, and sometimes we miss what’s right in front of us. You can’t expect someone to love you if you constantly erect walls because you think you’re the smartest.

How to be happy if you’re smart

If you’re reading this, you’re smart. You’re good at something. Maybe you’ve been told it’s worthless, by the wrong people. Or maybe you’ve been told you’re so smart you won’t be able to get along with “normal” people. Both these ideas are total fictions.

I’m smart at words. I always got As in English and Bs in math and chemistry, after lots of studying. Now it occurs to me that I studied the hell out of English, it just never felt like studying because I enjoyed it.

My English is your math is someone else’s dance class or football. You can’t ever get away from using your mind.

Whatever you’re smart at, it will feel like a burden at times. Others won’t understand what you see at first. That’s fine.

You’re not alone. You just think you are.

The curse of high intelligence is something we all feel because we’re all smart at something. Some of us might feel it more acutely, because we look the part. We slip into a predefined role about how you’re supposed to behave if you like books and calculators instead of footballs and pom-poms.

The best thing we can do is see how intelligent we all are, and start working together instead of planting ourselves pedestals. Don’t base your identity on your IQ. That’s the road to solipsism.

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