Understanding Very, Very Smart People
This article was originally posted on my old website in 2017, and has subsequently been republished with my permission on Medium, and on a number of clinical and educational websites.
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 the 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.