You Are Not A Genius


Let’s start with a very basic fact: If there is an average intelligence, somebody has to be below it. An average, or mean, is not the number that is most common (that’s the mode), or the number that is smack dab in the middle of all the numbers (that’s the median). No, the average is the value we get when all numbers are added and divided by the number of numbers. In this case, those numbers are I.Q. points.

Theoretically, if there was just one massive, industrial-strength moron on the planet, and everyone else were of an astronomically higher degree of intelligence, everyone (but that one) could be higher than the average I.Q. But that isn’t the case. Without any practical way of giving the whole planet an intelligence test, we can be fairly sure that the average and mode for I.Q. points is  damn near the same.

I don’t care how good you are at Minecraft (whatever that is), you my dear reader are, with high statistical likelihood, not a genius.

Einstein Genius Fake Quote

Uh, Fish Are Pretty Dumb, You Ninny

Have you seen this fish quote? It’s the quintessential quote for the internet age. First of all, it’s frequently attributed to Albert Einstein, but was never said by him (basically, if you have some banal sentiment to express, claim Einstein said it), secondly, it doesn’t really make any sense (expecting humans to have basic reasoning and problem solving abilities isn’t the same as expecting a fish to climb a tree), thirdly, if everyone is a genius, then being a genius is suddenly not special. Who cares?

And fourthly, fuck the guy who did say this. I get that we’re worried about self-esteem and people being made to feel bad about themselves, but telling everyone they’re special isn’t the solution, it’s the problem. While you’re assuring your kids that no matter what they do, they’re a success, reality is waiting in the wings to show them that you can’t buy lunch with a glowing sense of self-worth. People fail. That’s how they learn, and grow. Ever met an adult who was coddled their entire childhood and never made to work for anything? They’re the worst.

There is a kernel of truth in the idea that judging everybody on the same scale fails to truly appreciate a variety of skills. A musician shouldn’t be judged on his ability to do spreadsheets, nor would you reject a doctor if she wasn’t good at watercoloring. I’ve known intelligent businessmen who couldn’t write an intelligible literary essay to save their lives. We all have a limited amount of space in our brains (as I’ve noted before, the 10% idea is a myth), so we prudently save room for the knowledge and skill sets that most benefit our profession.

That’s what separates us (I include myself) from the geniuses. Geniuses have minds that are capable of functioning at a level beyond the grasp of us mere average schmoes. A genius isn’t just someone who is a talented guitarist or knows how to program a computer or write an enjoyable book. Those are all excellent skills to have, particularly if your line of work is guitarist, programmer or writer. But they don’t elevate you to the level of genius.

Well, What is a Genius?

After being so adamant that you are not a genius, I’m going to admit that defining a genius is kind of difficult. If we’re talking about I.Q. points, there doesn’t seem to be one consistent metric, though anything above 140-150 is generally considered genius or gifted. I’m not sure how common I.Q. testing is anymore, especially since the tests have often been accused of having a cultural bias. I’ve never taken a test (not a real one; I’ve done the online ones, but those aren’t legitimate gauges of anything), and I don’t know of many people who have. 100 is generally considered average, and most people fall somewhere around there, which is why I.Q. points are often represented with a bell curve.

But when we use the term genius in casual conversation, whether referring to Steve Jobs, Vince Gilligan, David Bowie or some other public figure, we’re not concerned with their intelligence quotient, we’re referring to their achievements. Which is why the term genius is hard to define, and why it’s becoming so overused. We should guard against conflating our personal admiration of someone with objective acclaim. Which is not to say that Jobs, Gilligan and Bowie aren’t geniuses, only that when we’re basing a judgment on a person’s output, it’s really only the historians who can make the call.

Indeed, the old adage is true: Genius is never truly appreciated in its own time. Except, that’s not a lament, it’s a recipe. Achievement can only truly be appreciated with perspective.

The World’s (Not) Full of Idiots

The flip side of the fact that not everyone is a genius is that not everyone is an idiot.* I hear it all the time, on average once a day: “The world is full of idiots!” I had a roommate who pretty much peppered that phrase into every discussion he had (though, when I called him out on it, he denied any memory of ever saying it). Read any political site or article and you’ll learn that Republicans are idiots, and so are Democrats. Liberals and conservatives, all idiots.

The Big Bang Theory vs Community copy

It’s not just politics, though. Fans of The Big Bang Theory are idiots, as is anyone who listens to Dave Matthews Band or reads Twilight. Basically, if someone does or enjoys something that you don’t, they’re an idiot.

There have been studies that show correlations between intelligence or success and musical and literary tastes, but no such study could ever hope to prove causation, and bias almost inevitably enters into such surveys. Comparing the fan base of The Big Bang Theory, which is the most highly watched sitcom on TV, with that of, say, Community, which is poorly rated but critically adored is a fool’s errand. As a huge fan of Community (and a person who has next to no interest in TBBT), I would love to believe  that my preference reflects some sort of mental superiority. In truth, it just speaks to my sense of humor.

You Are Not A Genius. Deal With It.

Be content with your average-ness. What choice do you have? You’re certainly not going to read books on new and difficult subjects to expose yourself to original ideas and educate yourself. Who’s got time for that? Accept that you will always be somewhere in the middle, with the vast majority of the population. At least you won’t be lonely.

And learn to deal with the mindblowing notion that people who hold different beliefs, have different tastes and enjoy different experiences aren’t lesser than you.

Or, you know, don’t. Idiot.

Paleontologist Snowman

*Just as there really are geniuses in this world, there are idiots, too. They’re just not as numerous as you think, and most of them are probably refusing to get their children vaccinated for fear of autism, so evolution might weed them out anyway.

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