Expectations of Genius

I stumbled across this story today in my ramblings around the Internet.

It bothers me how the media buys in to the stereotype of the “dumb blonde” and the idea that beautiful women cannot possibly be intelligent, too — I’ve talked about this before.  It’s hard to be judged as “stupid” before you’ve even opened your mouth, just because of how you look.  It’s hard to fight an uphill battle every day against the preconceived notion that if you’re pretty, you’ve had everything handed to you on a silver platter and have never had to work or to fight for what you have in your life.  It’s hard to stay positive when people attack you based on those assumptions, or avoid you entirely and refuse to get to know you.

But what actually struck me more, in reading this story, was the commentary surrounding how this girl is “wasting her potential”.  How she’s wasting valuable time, thought, and energy on a beauty routine that involves self-tanner and fake nails.  How she’s wasting her mind by watching trash TV shows.  How she’s wasting her thoughts and her potential on dreams of a future in performance.  The general disdain for beauty and so-called “superficial” pursuits is prevalent throughout the article, and even more so in the comments being left by readers.

This kind of pressure is commonly faced by those of us with higher-than-average intellects, and it can be absolutely crushing.  When everyone’s telling you how much you could do and pushing you to “live up to your full potential”, it feels as though the expectations placed upon you are almost impossible to live up to — as though nothing you do can ever possibly be good enough.  Any “wasted” time becomes a source of guilt, and whenever you can’t be in two places at once or do everything perfectly on the first try, you feel as though you’re letting everyone down and not doing as well as you “should” be.  And when you need to ask for help, you feel bad, as though you’re somehow failing by needing someone else to lend a hand or show you the way.  And it can feel incredibly unfair when you feel those expectations being put upon you, but not on anybody else:  I still feel a huge sense of injustice when my parents brush off my siblings’ lack of scholastic ability, when they spent so much time berating me for every “A minus” grade that I “could have done better” on, or when a well-meaning friend or relative criticizes my choice to pursue an arts career when I “could be” a doctor or a lawyer or a scientist or whatever other career they happen to think is more suitable.

This is a pressure that I’ve faced throughout my life, and I’m sure the girl in this story is feeling a huge wave of it right now.  And it’s completely unfair.

First of all, there’s the simple fact that just having a high IQ does not mean you’re good at every single subject.  You may be able to grasp unfamiliar concepts more quickly, remember things more readily, or assimilate information in a quick & easy fashion, but that doesn’t mean you’re good at everything you do.  I still have my subjects that I struggle in, and so does every other “genius” I’ve ever met.  I’ve needed extra help, from time to time, and it’s often frustratingly hard to get — it’s amazing how often people will say things like, “but you’re smart, why can’t you understand this?”, or dismiss your efforts as though you’re not even trying because “you’d get it if you just put your mind to it”.  But just being generally smart does not mean you’ve got a natural aptitude for everything.

And along with aptitude, there’s interest.  Different things catch different people’s attention, and we shouldn’t feel limited to only certain areas of study because those are traditionally seen as more “intellectual”.  So what if a smart person wants to apply their brains to an artistic field, or if they’d rather do a job that involves using their hands?  A person shouldn’t need to feel intellectually challenged by their work every single day (unless that’s what they themselves actually want).  And if a person decides to go into a field that’s not “intellectual”, they shouldn’t feel guilty because they “could” be doing something else.  I may be intelligent, but I wouldn’t be happy working in a lab — spending my life trying to cure cancer or blaze new legal trails would leave me feeling unhappy and unfulfilled, and ultimately I’d never have the sort of passion for the work that drives true innovation.

And then, of course, there’s the fact that IQ is only one measure of intelligence.  As we come to understand more and more about the way the human brain works, we’re beginning to place more important on things like the “emotional quotient” and on different learning styles and “types” of intelligence.  A person who has a relatively average IQ, but is very passionate about their subject, is likely to spend more time and energy working on it — and if they’re coming at it from a different angle or “learning style”, they may see things in it that a traditionally-intelligent, “booksmart”-type would not see.

There’s a high level of “burnout” among high-IQ individuals, and a lot of that is directly related to these pressures that we face.  We’re expected to be highly self-reliant and to need less teaching.  Our peers often rely on us to help them out when they are struggling with a topic (“hey, you’re smart, can you explain this?”), but who do the “smart kids” turn to when we’re in need of a little help?  If we choose to spend a few hours relaxing and playing a video game or watching TV, we face the criticism that we “should be” learning something instead, never mind that down-time and letting your brain shut off for a while is important for all people (“why aren’t you off curing cancer right now instead of watching that reality TV show?”).  And often our less-intellectual friends come to rely on us for things that aren’t even really our responsibility:  we’re the ones who are expected to remember every little detail, even if we’re not directly in charge (“well you should have known better”).  Sometimes the more you deliver, the more it seems people expect of you, until everything in life becomes a thankless struggle to keep up with the expectations that are being placed on you.

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2 Responses to “Expectations of Genius”

  1. There’s also the overachiever. You tell them to slow down, but they just can’t. Oye.

    Oh, and interest is a big deal. Bigger than brains, I’d think. The brain won’t do the work if it can’t see the point in it… yet it will push for the simple satisfaction of a completed sudoku.

  2. Wow. I need to print this out and tape it to the wall next to my monitor. Karen, you ALWAYS manage to find the angle on topics I often think/talk about that I never come to on my own, that I can’t argue with and that forces me to change the way I approach the topic for there onward. On one hand it annoys me, but much moreso I am glad for having learned and gained helpful additional perspective.

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