This is my kooky theory: On the balance, everyone is pretty much average in terms of smarts, and it’s all a function of skill acquisition and the ability to interrogate ourselves about our own level of knowledge. Then it comes down to motivation and satisfaction. There is no such thing as genius and there’s no such thing as smarts. There’s really no meaning to those terms. I might even go so far as to say that I despise those concepts and our collective fascination with them.
There are a select few people, like Srinivasa Ramanujan or Aristotle who were called to their intellectual pursuits by something bordering on the miraculous. People who, by all accounts just seem to be cognitive accidents of human evolution. But to a certain extent I feel like “anyone” can be a DaVinci or a Feynman. These were people who were incredibly good at the process of analysis and synthesis. They were people who looked at what was around them and built with what was available. “Anyone” can do that. “Anyone” who has had the right set of life circumstances, luck, and/or resources, and who has learned the importance of knowing what they don’t know has access to real, useful, important knowledge.
In my own life, I was always told I was smart. I was always told that I bordered on, or was, a genius. The environment I was in was not one where everyone got told that, and I couldn’t discount that. I suffered incredibly for it. “Smart” people get lazy. When you understand things with relatively little effort, you take the process of understanding for granted. You never really acquire a taste for the pleasure of finding things out. You certainly never learn to deal with failure. For me, it was only when I started to obsess about the things that I didn’t understand or know, that I started to really have insights. I think to a certain extent, it’s like that for everyone.
The direct consequence of this is Impostor Syndrome. You are so focused on what you don’t know, and on your lack of certainty, and on what you have yet to figure out, that you feel like you don’t know anything. That’s because it’s useful. It creates a drive within us to learn and develop new ideas. The side effect is that you feel inept at times. I started the Fuck Today thread because I was feeling like a crushed squirrel because of what I didn’t know for a class. The reality is that when I look at my grades for the class, I could skip my final exam and get a solid B. I’m going to get an A in that class. In talking to classmates since, I realize that I have a far better grasp on the material than most, and that in my efforts to master the material I had learned things that I was never going to learn otherwise until grad school. Not knowing things was healthier than being confident in my knowledge.
Am I smart? I hope not. God, I hope I’m dumb enough to get there.