When I was young, I believed that intelligence was more important than anything else. I saw it as a trump card that allowed a person to come out on top every time in life. And I was arrogant enough to almost always believe I was the smartest person in the room.
Nobody ever quite told me that intelligence was more important than anything, but the subtle message I got was that a high IQ was a golden ticket for life. I was praised for being smart and clever, so I wanted to be seen as intelligent. It became my identity.
As an adult, I’ve done pretty well on IQ tests. Most of the ones I’ve taken put me between 155 and 165. That’s not enough to get me into any record books, but it’s nice.
I’ve always questioned myself, though. What if I weren’t as smart as people said I was? What if I were nothing but a fraud who took tests well? And what if I suddenly quit doing well on the tests? Would I still have the same value?
Over the past 10 or 15 years, I’ve realized something scary — at least for someone who came to identify with intelligence as much as I did. Being smart — having a high IQ — is fairly meaningless. It might make someone clever. It might mean a person can figure things out — and have quick insights about other things — that other people struggle with.
But high intelligence doesn’t make someone successful. It doesn’t make him a decent person. And it definitely doesn’t make him happy.
I put too much of my hope in smarts. For years, I didn’t put nearly enough faith into things such as hard work, persistence, love and empathy. And that’s one of the biggest reasons I haven’t done many of the great things I expected to accomplish in life.
I expected to be able to show up and be called great. I expected to be recognized for my genius and praised forever for my cleverness, insight and glib tongue.
I was mistaken.
I like being bright. I really do. I didn’t do anything to create it, of course, so it’s not something I can take pride it, any more than I can take pride in being blue-eyed or right-handed.
Being smarter or less intelligent is a bit like how tall you are. It’s a combination of genetics, environmental factors and luck. It might help me with certain games or puzzles. It might help me impress people sometimes. It might give me an advantage in figuring some things out before most people do, but it also comes with heavy disadvantages.
Believing you’re the smartest person in the room promotes arrogance. It promotes behavior that others see as condescending, even if you don’t mean it that way. Maybe worst of all, it makes you lazy, because you can do better than most others without ever trying.
So you stop trying.
There’s another downside. It’s very lonely, simply because it can contribute to making you feel very different — simply because you see things quickly that others don’t see very easily. Whether you’re objectively right about all of what you see or not isn’t the issue. You feel as though you have a kind of sight where others have blindness — and that makes you feel lonely among others. It’s sort of like seeing colors where other people see just monochrome. At least, that’s what it felt like to me.
I had to learn empathy as I got older. I had to try to learn not to be condescending. (I’m humiliated now when I look at some of the ways I treated people early in my adult life.) I had to learn that nobody cares what I scored on an IQ test. I had to learn that they only care what I can produce for them — what I can give them of value. Just showing up isn’t enough.
I used to be really impressed with high intelligence, but it seems almost trivial now. I still appreciate its possibilities, but I’m even more sensitive to its dangers. Most of all, though, I’m aware that it’s never enough.
I doubt I’ll ever take an IQ test again. There’s nothing wrong with them, as long as you understand that they’re a very, very narrow measure of something pretty nebulous and hard to define. But for me, the time is long past when I valued it so much for myself. I’m weary of my former worship of it. And there’s still a part of me that fears I’m a fraud — that I’m not as bright as everyone has always told me — and if that’s true, I don’t really want to know.
I still value smart people. I enjoy smart friends in the same way that an athletic person might enjoy having athletic friends. I hope to marry a very intelligent and curious woman. I hope to have very intelligent and curious children.
But I want my children to see intelligence as a basic, normal, accepted thing — which is worth nothing without their hard work and persistence. I want them to get their value not from being smart, but from the love, care and understanding they give to others.
High IQ is nice, but love, empathy, hard work and persistence will get you further in life — and they’ll make you a person much more worthy of being loved and appreciated by others.