Letters From the Future: Part I

There were a number of people who asked for a version of my last article, Understanding Very, Very Smart People, written for a younger audience. As I sat down to write one, one of my first thoughts was if my younger self thought for a moment that he was being offered the “kids version” of an idea, he would likely ignore it completely. With that in mind, what follows is less a re-write and more a list of things that I wish I could tell my younger self.

Assumptions

I use the term covert assumptions a lot as a way to talk to people about the assumptions that they are not aware that they have made. Acknowledging and paying attention to these assumptions can fundamentally change the way that you live your life. Here are a few to start with:

• The covert assumption that there is a correct answer to something can be problematic. It is important to entertain the idea that some things may not have a correct answer.

• The assumption of logical thought in others can also be problematic. Related to this idea, it is worth mentioning that people do not make decisions logically. If they did, everyone would be doing the most logical thing all of the time.

• If someone is making you angry, let your first thoughts be how are they different from me, and what have I assumed about them. All you are really doing when you use this strategy is trying to find and become aware of the assumption that you have made.

There are also assumptions that some people might be making about you.

People may assume that you are okay when you aren’t. People may have a hard time knowing what you are feeling or how deeply you are feeling it. Please remember that they are not doing this on purpose. Hopefully, you find a few people who get you. For the people who don’t, it may be helpful to let them know how and what you are feeling from time to time.

• There will be times that people will assume that you are just being difficult/lazy/rebellious when you can’t do something. People equate intelligence with ability even though these are completely different things. When this happens, it may be a good time to remind them that there are some things that are easy for you and some things that are not; just like everyone else.

Understanding Others

• Nobody wakes up thinking: I’m going to be the biggest jerk I can be today! In general, people are doing the best that they can. If you want to understand people, start by thinking to yourself: how does the idea that this person is doing the best that they can make sense right now.

Nobody gets to choose how smart they are. Remember that.

• The Dunning Kruger effect is a real thing (although some would argue that the idea is flawed or specific to our culture). You assume that people are much more capable and competent than they are. One of the reasons that you think the world is unfair is that you are assuming that people are competent but withholding when the more simple and accurate explanation is that they are less competent than you think.

“The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Why You’re Dumber Than You Think” by MindfulThinks

Understanding Yourself

• Having the right answer and having to be right are not the same thing. Life gets a lot easier when you start valuing the answer over having to prove your correctness. Trust me on that one.

• Trying is a skill. Find something that you are truly terrible at, and do it a lot. Pay attention to the process of how you learn to do the thing. You are teaching yourself how to try, and the more you do this, the more doors will open to you. “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso. But you’re learning more than how to do the thing; you’re learning how to learn in a fundamentally different way than you are used to.

Living in a World Run by Adults

• While you are aware that you are a kid, you can’t remember ever feeling like a kid. That will not change. One of the biggest differences between being a kid and being an adult is realizing and really understanding how little control grownups have over things. Like, virtually none. It’s super weird.
Related idea/side note: adults who talk about how kids feel immortal/invincible probably don’t remember what it was like to be your age or are not articulating the idea well. It’s not that you feel invincible, it’s that adults have a more felt sense of mortality coupled with a physiologically different setting in their brains when it comes to risk assessment.

• I know school is dumb. You’re going to have to do it anyway. There is much to be learned, but the real value of the experience involves figuring things out like how to deal with people who aren’t very bright but get to tell you what to do. If you want to have a happy life, this is a skill that you need to figure out, and school is the perfect environment for that. Each time that someone less intelligent than you tells you to do something seemingly pointless is an opportunity to practice how to handle that situation in a way that requires less unpleasantness and aggravation.

• Just because someone is an expert or teacher does not mean that they understand their subject. I am going to say that again. Just because someone is an expert or teacher does not mean that they understand their subject. It is often the case that they have just memorized a lot of stuff about it, and expect you to do the same. This is a trap. Please, for pity’s sake, do not conflate expertise with actual understanding or utility. If you value understanding things (I am terrible at memorizing things, but if I understand something then it’s in my mind forever), look for explanations on youtube. As an adult, you might be surprised and delighted to find that watching the right video online may teach you enough in a matter of seconds to do the equations that you were unable to do five minutes ago.

“Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” by Baz Luhrmann

Questions or suggestions? Please leave a comment. Thanks for reading.

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Understanding Very, Very Smart People

Being smart is really hard.

There may be people with high IQs who have an easy time in life; relationships are simple, work and school are a breeze, and they long ago addressed the existentialist questions that some of us might carry with us until the very end. I wish them well, and what follows is not about them.

In my practice, I have been able to observe and experience how the world treats young adults with superior intelligence. At times it can be pretty heartbreaking, and these are a few things that I wish I could tell all gifted young adults (as well as the people in their lives).

You’re not allowed to talk about it.

This is the message that brilliant people receive from the world. Because much of the world sees intelligence as a good thing, talking about it seems braggadocios, which is incredibly problematic. People with high IQs are outliers, and outliers are often a more difficult fit in many respects because the world is not made for them. You are different enough for it to be potentially problematic, but you are not allowed to acknowledge how you are different because to do so would be self-aggrandizing. Be more like everyone else, but don’t you dare address how you are different. Bright people who have internalized this message may go far out of their way not to talk about a fundamental difference that often contributes to difficulties in a number of areas.

Learning how and when to acknowledge your own intelligence instead of sidestepping the subject can be incredibly important, and sometimes this means learning how to talk about it tactfully. One of my favorite quotes happens to be on tact: “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” -Winston S. Churchill [attributed but disputed]. Learning to talk about how you are different without turning people off may mean that your needs actually start getting met…

Trying is a skill.

If you’re so smart, why aren’t work and school easy all of the time? If you have had a lifetime of being able to intuit your way through school or work, it also means that you have a lifetime of not cultivating the skill of trying. Some gifted teens and adults get to high school, college, or sometimes the workplace, and all of a sudden a completely undeveloped skill set relating to trying is required of them, and nobody is telling them that that is what is going on.

So how do you learn how to try? I recommend finding something that is low-stakes (meaning that it is not going to affect your grades or your work life) and that does not come to you easily. For many, such activities may include learning a new language, mastering a musical instrument, martial arts, team sports, or visual arts. Now that you have found something to try at, commit a significant portion of your week to it. Cultivating a new skill takes time, and the skill of trying is no different.

People can’t tell how sensitive you are.

A common trait amongst the gifted is that the outward expression of emotional states can be more subtle than in the rest of the population. You can be feeling things very deeply without anyone knowing, and that can be a painful and isolating experience. I wish that I could tell every gifted person that people are not missing you intentionally, and you are not alone. This tendency is relatively common, but very rarely talked about.

One way to attack this potentially painful dynamic is to tell people what you are feeling. You might be surprised at how effective verbally disclosing your emotional state can be. Habitually saying things like “I know that I don’t always show it, but I’m super happy right now” can be a total game-changer in some cases.

Existential crises happen a lot earlier, bigger, and more often.

For many gifted people, looking at a lamppost is a different experience than it is for the rest of the world. They do not just see a lamppost. They see an imagined history of how the materials that comprise the post were sourced, manufactured, and installed. They see the way that the lamp is connected to a power grid like a cell in a greater organism of a city and how they fit into that system. Imagine then, for a moment, what it must be like for such a person to turn their attention to their existence and what it means to be human.

The world is ready for angsty teenagers. The brooding 15 –year-old is a cinematic trope for a reason. People are less prepared for 6-year-olds in the midst of an existential crisis befitting a 40-year-old. Not only does it not fit the script, but it may be contributing to depression for decades to come.

Finding meaning is important. I recommend reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Thoughtfully explore how you make meaning in the realms of interpersonal relationships, how you spend your time, and what you enjoy doing/feel called to do.

The rest of the world isn’t going to change.

Learning to do well with people or with organizations (school, work, etc.) that are a less than optimal fit can be amazingly important, and you may as well figure out how to do this sooner rather than later. This idea comes up a lot when I talk to people about they way they fit in (or don’t…) at work or school. While finding optimal fit can be very important, learning how to work well with people who are different from you can be important too. For many people whose minds make them statistical outliers, learning to do this early in life has the potential to save a lot of discomfort.

To this end, there have been times that I have literally told someone that the most important thing that they might learn in high school may involve finding a healthy way to deal with people who have more power than them, but less intelligence.

Stop trying to do things their way.

One of the most agonizing things that I get to witness is the conflation of means with ends. Well-intentioned bosses, teachers, family members, and friends are often generous with advice when you have difficulty. The unfortunate reality is that following their advice does not guarantee that you will be able to overcome the obstacle before you.

I am sorry to say that there does not seem to be a one-size-fits-all answer. I have noticed a trend, however, that many of the gifted people that I work with have an easier time when they are able to learn things as a system and not as a series of steps or isolated facts. In other words, understanding how things fit together as a system is often a more helpful goal than memorizing a list.

While this blog post may be of some help to those who know or who work with people with very high IQs, the real intended audience is adults who are too smart for their own good. While there is a seemingly inexhaustible list of topics that one could cover in such an article, I have intentionally picked the ones that I think have the most clinical utility and may receive less attention than they should.

Awareness changes relationship, and it is my hope that awareness of a few of the ideas presented here makes life easier for someone. It is unlikely that the world is going to change anytime soon, but changing the way that you relate to it may yield a more comfortable fit.

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to comment.
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