Note: This may be less focused than most of my writing. This is in some ways fairly unprocessed thought. I like writing about things I’m still in the middle of processing—I’m as fascinated by the processes by which people come to conclusions as the conclusions themselves. But it means this post may bounce around a little more than most of them do.
I don’t remember thinking of myself as particularly smart in high school. Looking back, I suspect this was because I was young enough that I interpreted being told I was smart as normal everyday-life background noise. One of those elements of the world that you never really take the time to look at up close, so some primitive part of your brain assumes they’re a normal part of the world for everyone.
Sometime in college, I made the realization that I think I’m smarter than almost everyone I meet. For a while, I tried to pretend to myself that I didn’t think that. It’s difficult to describe how uncomfortable a thing it is for me to think. Sometimes it makes me feel arrogant, sometimes it makes me feel incredibly irrational. “After all”, I say to myself, “there are so many people in the world who think they’re smarter than everyone else who I think are dead wrong—what basis do I have to assume my ability to assess my own intelligence is any better than theirs?” At some point, though, I remember coming to the realization that even if I wasn’t admitting to myself that I thought I was smarter than most other people, I was making decisions as though it were true. I was, most of the time, making decisions as though my opinions on things were more reliable and accurate than other people’s. It isn’t exactly that I thought I was right all the time, because there were and are plenty of areas where I don’t consider my knowledge to be significant enough to draw conclusions. It was that I trusted my assessment of whether or not I had enough of a grasp on a topic to be right about it more than I trusted almost anyone else’s.
If I had to pick a particular area in which I’m unusually talented, in terms of valuable habits to have when thinking about things, I’d say it was this: knowing what I’m talking about. Not in the sense of, “Having a huge amount of knowledge about what I’m talking about.” I mean it in the sense of literally knowing what it is that I am talking about. Knowing whether the ideas I’m considering are coherent. Being able to determine, strictly, how (or if) they can be meaningfully defined. It’s the application of this skill that lead to my writing the There is No Such Thing as a Universal Human Right rant, for example. I can’t answer the question, “Is X a human right?” because when someone asks me that question, I have no idea what they’re talking about, and I feel reasonably confident that they don’t, either. It’s the application of this skill that’s making me uncomfortable even using the word “smart” in this post, because I’m not entirely sure I’m operating on a coherent definition of intelligence. Maybe it’s just good thinking habits? Maybe it’s some combination of good thinking habits and raw processing power? Maybe it’s something else?
I remember it was a bit of a revelation for me when I first read the following in Carl Sagan’s Wikipedia entry: “Isaac Asimov described Sagan as one of only two people he ever met whose intellect surpassed his own. The other, he claimed, was the computer scientist and artificial intelligence expert Marvin Minsky.”
I remember reading that and thinking, “Huh, maybe it’s okay to trust my assessment of my own intelligence, even when it’s speaking so incredibly highly of me.”
I’m not really sure this post is going any particular direction, other than to flesh out something that I struggle with internally on a regular basis and open it up to further analysis. Shining a light on it, I suppose.
Lately I’ve been realizing that I think a lot of my problems relating to people have to do with the fact that I find most people fairly boring in fairly short order. Some of this has to do with a lack of common interests, but more and more, I’m convinced that a significant part of it is that I just don’t find most people can keep up with my thought processes. It is a tiny, tiny minority of the people I’ve met who can keep up with me when I’m playing with objects on the very edge of my brain’s coherent-idea-space. When I’m burrowing into the conceptual unknown and trying to make shapes out of the mist.
It puts some serious limits on my ability to find satisfying long-term relationships as well. My standards for intelligence and conscientiousness (in the sense of caring deeply about the people around them, both as a population and as individuals) are very high when considering serious relationship potential, and it’s rare that I meet people who are up to scratch on both. I just can’t manage spending that much time around people who can’t keep up with me, or people who can, but don’t feel compelled to use that processing power to make the world better in whatever way they can.
That’s assuming I have any idea what I’m talking about and the problems I’ve identified are even what’s really going on. But then, that’s why you write about things like this in the first place. To get feedback, and to look back at them later and decide for yourself whether or not what you were saying made any sense.
Do you ever struggle with these kinds of things, reading audience?