Genius, construction marketing and saving the world

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William James Sidis

William James Sidis — perhaps the most intelligent person recorded

Today’s posting will seem far away from this blog’s primary topic. Bear with me. I’m delving into a world few inhabit, at the extreme upper edge of human intelligence. This topic’s relevance occurs because of my recent discovery of a network of true geniuses (the Prometheus Society) and personal connections with two of this group’s super-intelligent members, one of whom recently attended our business annual meeting as a special guest.

The other linkage dates back to the day on Good Friday in 1980 when, in a flash of insight in Tjolotjo, Rhodesia turning Zimbabwe, I “figured it out” (or got religion, or whatever). The discovery related to my sudden awareness that if I could somehow break through my fears, find my way to Africa (twice) from a sheltered home in Vancouver, Canada and then l could live for 18 months as a journalist through the end of a major civil war, well, I must have some sort of intelligence. Intelligent people can adapt and change and survive. We have choices and options that transcend the obvious. Maybe we can make the world just a little bit better.

More than three decades later, those early visions have been achieved.  I live with a reasonable degree of economic security, with a wonderful wife and teenage son, and pursue an intellectual-business vocation that provides a fair bit of satisfaction.

I’m not sure how intelligent I really am. Online tests suggest I’m normal to slightly above-normal, not genius material — and certainly not Prometheus Society levels, where individuals are in the top 99.997 per cent or “one in 30,000″ in the population. Then again, there is education and  life experience, which suggests I must have some real brains.

Anyways, I continue to be fascinated by the super-intelligent, perhaps because, however things work, I might not be there but somehow can open just a little window into the super-genius’ world. This fascination correlates with my real-world reconnection with a genius network, and the challenging question: Why aren’t these brilliant people achieving much more with their lives? (I mean, when you are smart enough that you could fill a stadium and still likely be the most intelligent person in the room, why are you living in a rent controlled apartment and taking the bus; or if you are smart enough to be brainier than everyone else in a city of one million, why is your public persona primarily writing local restaurant reviews?  And why can’t a group of more than 150 of these super-geniuses work together to solve some really major world problems, like global warming, economic depression, or even serious medical issues.) This is not meant out of disrespect — I’m just curious about potential, presumably lost.

This fascinating paper by Grady Towers provides some answers. Super geniuses are so far above the rest of the world’s population intellectually that they have real difficulty connecting, relating, and meeting with peers, especially when they are children. They are too smart to communicate with mere mortals like us. So they withdraw or adapt in manners, which deny their potential. They are “outsiders” — much like I was as a child, picked on, lonely, confused about myself, and uncertain where I would end up in life.

There appear to be three sorts of childhoods and three sorts of adult social adaptations made by the gifted. The first of these may be called the committed strategy. These individuals were born into upper middle class families, with gifted and well educated parents, and often with gifted siblings. They sometimes even had famous relatives. They attended prestigious colleges, became doctors, lawyers, professors, or joined some other prestigious occupation, and have friends with similar histories. They are the optimally adjusted. They are also the ones most likely to disbelieve that the exceptionally gifted can have serious adjustment problems.

The second kind of social adaptation may be called the marginal strategy. These individuals were typically born into a lower socio-economic class, without gifted parents, gifted siblings, or gifted friends. Often they did not go to college at all, but instead went right to work immediately after high school, or even before. And although they may superficially appear to have made a good adjustment to their work and friends, neither work nor friends can completely engage their attention. They hunger for more intellectual challenge and more real companionship than their social environment can supply. So they resort to leading a double life. They compartmentalize their life into a public sphere and a private sphere. In public they go through the motions of fulfilling their social roles, whatever they are, but in private they pursue goals of their own. They are often omnivorous readers, and sometimes unusually expert amateurs in specialized subjects. The double life strategy might even be called the genius ploy, as many geniuses in history have worked at menial tasks in order to free themselves for more important work. Socrates, you will remember was a stone mason, Spinoza was a lens grinder, and even Jesus was a carpenter. The exceptionally gifted adult who works as a parking lot attendant while creating new mathematics has adopted an honored way of life and deserves respect for his courage, not criticism for failing to live up to his abilities. Those conformists who adopt the committed strategy may be pillars of their community and make the world go around, but historically, those with truly original minds have more often adopted the double life tactic. They are ones among the gifted who are most likely to make the world go forward.

And finally there are the dropouts. These sometimes bizarre individuals were often born into families in which one or more of the parents were not only exceptionally gifted, but exceptionally maladjusted themselves. This is the worst possible social environment that a gifted child can be thrust into. His parents, often driven by egocentric ambitions of their own, may use him to gratify their own needs for accomplishment. He is, to all intents and purposes, not a living human being to them, but a performing animal, or even an experiment. That is what happened to Sidis, and may be the explanation for all those gifted who “burn out” as he did. (Readers familiar with the Terman study will recognize the committed strategy and the marginal strategy as roughly similar to the adjustment patterns of Terman’s A and C groups.)

If the exceptionally gifted adult with an IQ of 150, or 160, or 170 has problems in adapting to his world, what must it have been like for William James Sidis, whose IQ was 250 or more?

Aldous Huxley once wrote:

Perhaps men of genius are the only true men. In all the history of the race there have been only a few thousand real men. And the rest of us–what are we? Teachable animals. Without the help of the real man, we should have found out almost nothing at all. Almost all the ideas with which we are familiar could never have occurred to minds like ours. Plant the seeds there and they will grow; but our minds could never spontaneously have generated them [4, p. 2242].

And so we see that the explanation for the Sidis tragedy is simple. Sidis was a feral child; a true man born into a world filled with animals–a world filled with us.

Some of those reading this paper may find the portrait painted here to be completely incredible. Their own experiences were nothing at all like those described, nor were those of most of their gifted friends. But the point of this article is not that there’s some special hazard in having an exceptional IQ: There’s not. The point is that the danger lies in having an exceptional IQ in an environment completely lacking in intellectual peers. It’s the isolation that does the damage, not the IQ itself.

It is the belief of this author that the super high IQ societies were created primarily by those who have adopted the marginal strategy, and by rights ought to be aimed at fulfilling the needs of this subdivision of the exceptionally gifted. It’s obvious from reading the journals that those who have followed the committed strategy rarely participate in society affairs, rarely write for the various journals, and indeed have little need to belong to such a group. They have far more productive outlets for their talents. It’s the exceptionally gifted adult who feels stifled that stands most in need of a high IQ society. The tragedy is that none of the super high IQ societies created thus far have been able to meet those needs, and the reason for this is simple. None of these groups is willing to acknowledge or come to terms with the fact that much of their membership belong to the psychological walking wounded. This alone is enough to explain the constant schisms that develop, the frequent vendettas, and the mediocre level of their publications. But those are not immutable facts; they can be changed. And the first step in doing so is to see ourselves as we are.

Perhaps I’m fortunate that I was smart enough to experience some of the world, but not too smart — so when I figured things out, I could get on with life.

The best solution for genius achievement right now seems to be to encourage a degree of early-on segregation so that geniuses can develop their social skills and enjoy some sort of normalcy in childhood by being with their peers in environments where they can stimulate and challenge each other, and learn socializing skills at super-intelligent levels. The practical fact, however, is this sort of socialization is virtually impossible to achieve. Maybe online networks could help — but real play involves tactile and human interaction, hard to do purely on the computer screen, even with video links.

Here, I leave you with a paradox. Brilliant people, those who could truly advance human civilization with creativity, innovation, intellectual accomplishment, are so smart that they cannot function effectively as humans, and therefore end their lives lonely, in menial jobs, or sometimes insane, in part, because they are too smart. Maybe these insights will help you put your own problems and business challenges into a different perspective.

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