I can say without exaggeration that I’m a pretty smart person. Not brilliant, but definitely a long-tail on that part of the bell curve dedicated to higher IQs. I used to think this mattered tremendously. The older I get, though, the less impressed I am by my own intelligence or by anyone else’s. What’s become clear to me is that what matters is a person’s functionality, not his smarts.
I’d actually started to figure this out during my Junior High and High School Years. One of my classmates was a girl named Trixie. When it came to native smarts, I could run rings around her. Except that, when it came to grades, I didn’t. Trixie had something I lacked — self-discipline. While I procrastinated wildly as to every project that came my way, Trixie buckled down and got to work. Her brains may not have been quite as up to snuff as mine, but her values outstripped me so much that brains became irrelevant. (She was also an extremely nice person, much nicer than I was, for what that’s worth.)
I shouldn’t have been so surprised by Trixie, because my own family history revealed the same pattern. My Uncle was a bona fide genius. The Jewish Gymnasium in Berlin, which was probably one of the best schools in early 20th Century Germany (which also means one of the best schools in the world) characterized him as one of the most brilliant students they’d ever had. He was also a Communist and a general malcontent. Not only did he not make anything with his life (which could be attributed to the dislocation of WWII), he was an active failure in his own life. He was going to show the world how great Communism was by failing. He may have been smart, but he was self-destructive.
My Mom describes him and his wife living in Denmark, in a squalid one-room apartment, which was all they could afford on his salary as a very low-level civil servant. Her most vivid memory is the fact that, when they had runny noses, they’d blow their noses into their hands, and then wipe the results on the wall. I shudder even to think of it. So much for genius….
Certainly we need our brilliant people, the Einsteins and Pasteurs and Bill Gates, but they are often people of limited functionality, some of whom are as self-destructive as they are constructive. It’s in the great middle that our strength lies — people who can balance functional intelligence, native good sense, and solid morals.
All of which explains why I’m totally unimpressed by a study purporting to show that liberals are smarter than conservatives. Even if it’s true, that’s not necessarily something to boast about.
UPDATE: When you get to 3:30 in this brilliant Andrew Klavan video, you’ll understand why it’s a perfect coda to this post: