Not Gifted

Obviously, it was the right decision for Bezos but it’s not a great suggestion for everybody else. I’m a lot less gifted than many of the people I went to school with. I’m actually not gifted at all. My IQ is very run-of-the-mill. Everything takes me a very long time. In languages in particular, I’m just not naturally endowed. What other people pick up with ease, I have to plough through with endless flashcards and months of rote memorization. I have a terrible memory. Sometimes, I struggle for months to articulate an idea, and people go, “erm, that’s obvious.” Well, obvious to you maybe but I had to take a lot of time to figure it out.

In the only language class I ever took in Spanish, I was one of the slowest people to get things. Watching others just effortlessly get it made it clear that I was not made for it. But of those 46 people who took the class with me, who made a career for themselves in Hispanic Studies? Who publishes the work that a new generation of students is assigned to read? Only me.

The longer I live, the more obvious it becomes to me that natural gifts aren’t that important in intellectual pursuits. It’s all about the dogged perseverance of the not-so-brilliant.

Stalin, for example, was despised as a pedestrian, plodding mind by the brilliant revolutionaries like Trotsky or Bukharin. But who ended up winning and killed them all? Not that Stalin is a huge role model but

Forget being gifted and work on your psychological health. That’s a real gift that will carry you everywhere you need to go.

12 thoughts on “Not Gifted

  1. Totally agree with you.
    After 30 years’ teaching I have lost count of the many super brilliant students who haven’t made much of themselves, while others, less gifted and much less brilliant have gone on to success in myriad fields simply because they believed in themselves.
    Intellectual or artistic accomplishments are forms of raw talent, which is inborn, not an acquired trait. Success requires elbow grease, constancy and determination.

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  2. I read somewhere that intelligence was the possibility to achieve a certain cognitive outcome, while the intelligentum was the quantum of intelligence actually achieved. Effort and time spent learning increases the intelligentum, obviously.

    With this understanding in mind it is easier to talk about everything, since it can be a bit confusing talking about people with a different intelligence who not only achieve a different intelligentum but who also require different levels of effort or time spent to make intelligentum go up.

    Perhaps, Clarissa, you should have a think about yourself with the above in mind, since it seems to me that you weren’t talking about your intelligence or even your intelligentum at all, but rather, the ease or difficulty by which your intelligentum increased.

    Just because someone is a quick study doesn’t mean that they end up being too smart, you know. In the same wise, someone whose intelligentum rises more slowly or with more effort could still end up a genius.

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  3. 100%. I was always that smart kid who didn’t bother to turn in homework and got mediocre grades. No ambition at all, and was never interested in making some kind of career in academia. It’s too neurotic, and I’m really bad at handling stress. I write fantastic term papers, though… sometimes I feel like I should have made a career out of that! I hear ghostwriting college papers pays pretty well 😉

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  4. I agree. There is this quality that I call mental toughness — which is probably a combination of psychological health and perseverance — that is key to achieving anything. The ability to not fall apart after setbacks but be able to bounce back relatively quickly and relatively unscathed (at least at one’s core), and just keep going, is paramount to achieving anything at a high level. Raw talent certainly doesn’t hurt, but many talented people are terrible at getting anything done. My last few years on literary Twitter has crystalized that beyond any doubt — so many writers way more talented than me, so many of them plagued with bouts of depression, executive dysfunction, difficulties with staying on top of work obligations or bills, let alone being deliberate about creative output.

    In my case, I also think that mental flexibility helps (having the ability to realize when something really isn’t working and one has to cut losses and invest energy elsewhere, without being shaken to one’s core, or finding a suitable secondary focus when the primary one is unreachable for objective reasons); this may seem like it’s antithetical to perseverance, but I think it’s more along the lines of being clear-eyed and pragmatic. Another useful trait is having decent (at least for STEM demographics, lol) people skills, which helped me maximize the opportunities that did present themselves. I know people who are smarter than me but are way more susceptible to bouts of despair over minor setbacks, or are too dependent on immediate recognition by peers (get despondent when it’s not forthcoming), or just come across as creepy and off-putting even though they are perfectly sweet and harmless, or have real difficulty communicating with people and getting their brilliant ideas across.

    Overall, I feel like being good enough along several important axes is more conducive to success than being extremely high along only one (talent) but relatively low on others.

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  5. My mama noticed that in college. She had a less intelligent friend in the same major, and she said it totally didn’t matter in the long run. He just worked harder and it paid off. If anything, his experience with knowing how to work hard in academic pursuits helped him.

    Meanwhile, while I don’t know that I’m “brilliant” I’ve usually been smarter than my classmates. But I dropped out of college partially because of anxiety and I work in retail. What good has intelligence done me?

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    1. I went to a small high school where I was one of the top two kids in the class. That dude and I got voted “smartest” and hauled out to pose together for a yearbook picture a couple of years running– I boycotted regular yearbook photos, so this is the only way I made it into the book at all. Neither of us was ever really in the running for valedictorian– we were radically outperformed by a completely wonderful classmate: bright (not a genius, but smart enough), hardworking, quietly cheerful, humble, unfailingly kind to everyone, driven, had a solid plan for her post high-school future (she wanted to be a NICU nurse), and we all adored her so it was impossible to be jealous. She had clearly earned it.

      Our first unofficial class reunion, one year after graduation, was her funeral. Probably 90% of our old high school classmates and teachers were there– they begged borrowed and put their jewelry in hock to make the trip from all over the country (extremely high rate of college attendance at that school), along with a sizable delegation of her freshman college classmates. Her old church-camp fellow-counselors carpooled from about five states away to be pallbearers.

      Whatever she had going for her, intelligence was the least significant part of it. I still kind of hope that when I grow up, I can be a little bit more like her.

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  6. This whole thread is a bunch of gifted people arguing that it totally doesn’t matter. 😀

    “What good has intelligence done me?”

    You’re articulate, can understand the world better and in a more nuanced way, and can derive pleasure from things a vast majority of people would struggle to even follow. The only crap with being gifted is that social expectations tend to rise to match, and since we’re social creatures, that’s a deeply sucky feeling if you have happen to fall behind. Beyond that, though, being gifted is, well, a gift.

    I’ve quit studying physics in a serious capacity for much of the same reason that Bezos did, though much earlier in my life (and we even work in the same industry now!). I got top grades and wasn’t really struggling with the subject, it was more… a visceral experience of seeing people who were using the equations to better understand the world around them, and I was using them to complete exercises in a book. I moved to philosophy and political science and despite doing negative career progression since, never really regretted the choice because it always feels deeply captivating in a way that physics never did.

    I’m not sure “quit your field if you’re bad at it” is good advice, but then I’m also pretty sure “always keep your nose to the grindstone” does much better in the general sense.

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    1. It sounds like for you, that was just the better fit. It’s better to feel motivated and fulfilled. This is why I left the physics major. I worked insanely hard at it, but it just wasn’t enjoyable to me anymore and my brain couldn’t just apply theory to real life. I learned so, so much, and I still love physics, it just wasn’t something I could realistically see myself doing for the rest of my life.

      The lab work I do now, on the other hand, I can definitely see myself doing long-term. And I’m so much happier with it.

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    2. I stand by it. I enjoy my intelligent person hobbies, but if I wasn’t intelligent I’d enjoy different hobbies. And from what I’ve seen intelligent people don’t necessarily understand the world better.

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