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MARCH 19, 2009 6:28PM

World's Smartest Man is a Bouncer; Thoughts on Intelligence

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The Internet has made the book smart kid as obsolete at the turn of this century as the horse was at the end of the last. When all the world's knowledge is but a search away on one's iPhone, we smart kids you once asked to settle barroom debates or diagnose computer issues no longer serve a useful purpose. Why ask us when you can just as easily Ask Jeeves instead? While the automobile replaced the horse, the Google replaced us.

Oh, you still see us around from time to time. Parents trot us out every spring at spelling bees, the pony show of the smart kid circuit. Once we foals grow up, TV executives pit us against one another on Jeopardy—the Kentucky Derby of smart people. If we're lucky like Ken Jennings, we might even get a mention on Pardon the Interruption before we're sent off to stud service. While the horse gets to plug beautiful mares, we have to settle for Allstate and AT&T. After that, it's off to the glue factory for the horse and oblivion for us.

Let us take a look at this list of accomplishments from the high IQ set to prove my point:

William James Sidis

The granddaddy of all child prodigies, this eleven year old became the youngest student ever to don the crimson of Harvard in 1910. A professor at MIT promised Sidis would mature into one of the greatest mathematicians of his age. A scant 14 years later, a reporter discovered Sidis working an adding machine as a clerk for $23 a week. He published his thoughts once, not on math or science mind you, but on the decidedly pedestrian hobby of collecting streetcar transfers.

Ron Hoeflin

Let me put it to you this way. The man's rent is lower than his IQ. Hoeflin scrapes by in a Hell's Kitchen hovel producing newsletters for the high IQ crowd. He is currently finishing up a handwritten treatise that attempts to categorize all of the world's philosophies under one system. He has already surpassed the one million word mark. Good luck finding a publisher for that one.

Chris Langan

Think bouncers have rocks for brains? Think again. Langan, the world's smartest man, worked as a bouncer on Long Island for over 20 years and can bench press 500 pounds. Smart kids the world over should thank him for shattering the stereotype that we have more in common with Woody Allen than Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Chris Langan

Langan is currently working on a “Theory of Everything”, that as the name implies, explains, well, everything.  But before we get into his thoughts on everything, let's go over his thoughts on college:

"There I was, paying my money, taking classes from people who were obviously my intellectual inferiors. I figured, Hey, I need this like a moose needs a hat rack!"

Unfortunately his lack of a college degree means his ideas, no matter how worthwhile, will be discarded as the chicken scratches of the amateur. Apparently this moose does need a hat rack.

This article is for all you young know-it-alls out there who think you have the world all figured out like Mr. Langan. I know the type well.  I should. I used to be one of you. Just because your mother pats you on the head whenever you recite the presidents in order, don't let the compliments go to your head. Or those swirlies that will soon follow in junior high for that matter.

It's tough being a smart kid. Loved by parents and teachers, hated by our peers, our lives are a constant see-saw of emotions. Add in the fact that a veritable NASCAR field of thoughts is constantly racing through our brains and is it any wonder so few of us live up to our precocious hype?  Even a seemingly successful child prodigy like Bobby Fischer peaked at the age of 29 when he defeated Boris Spassky to become Chess Grand Champion.  He passed away at the age of 64, having played only one more competitive match while spending the last 16 years of his life as a fugitive.

What is the answer? Considering my own life looks like a pastiche of the three prodigies highlighted above, I am not the man to give it. But I will try anyway. 

Even if you are the smartest person in the room, swallow your sizable pride and listen from time to time anyway. Even intelligent people screw up every now and then. Did any cabinet have a higher collective IQ than Kennedy's selection of "The Best and the Brightest" to serve under him? And look where that got us: the Bay of Pigs debacle and Vietnam.

Suffer through your college courses,  no matter how stifling or boring they may seem.  Although that piece of sheepskin may seem worthless now, it matters to the powers that be. Without it, you'll wind up as just another drop-out who must publish his thoughts for free.

 

 

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Just as I post a blog (my first here) about the problem with narrative here you are with these great stories. And yes...the problems with being the smart kid are many and varied. I think one of the hardest things is learning how to settle down and focus on one thing with any depth. I know I felt very little if any, desire to do that when I was younger. Why bother when I could do relatively many things pretty well? The danger is in becoming a jack of all trades as the saying goes, and a master of none. What smart kids need, and really I'd say, all kids, is for us to stop rating and ranking them (it's cruelly divisive. Who thinks that kind of competition really makes the world a better place?) and to be taught with a balance of compassion tempered by wisdom.
Hillary wrote:

"Just as I post a blog (my first here) about the problem with narrative here you are with these great stories. "

I would highly recommend checking out "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell from your local library. It's a look at why people succeed and the causes of their success. He devotes a whole chapter to Chris Langan. Fascinating stuff.

I've considered writing a cracked mirror version of Gladwell's book: a Studs Terkel style oral history on people who fail to live up their potential but I feared it would be so depressing anyone who bought it would wind up asphyxiating themselves with their plastic Barnes & Noble bag by the end of the introduction. :)
How many self-important people have attempted "A Theory of Everything" - the very pursuit of that clues me in to the fact that the person deigning to even be thinking of such a thing is a legend in their own mind, but probably a real-world idiot.

That said, I assert that intelligence tests are more or less a sham, and generally are designed to identify people who are most like the imagined ideal of the creator of the test. Because what passes for intelligence in New York City would probably look pretty stupid in the Australian outback and vice versa.

The intellectual elites in western society who seem hell bent on measuring our intelligence tend to value numerical and analytical reasoning skills. Fine. I'm guessing that Mr. Genius bouncer might be a great chess player but probably doesn't know the best way to catch dung beetles, milk a goat, balance your chi or decorate your child's room.

Within the last few years a psychologist (can't remember his name) wrote a book having to do with various different kinds of intelligence (musical, numerical, interpersonal, asthetic, etc.) and he essentially made the point that there are various kinds of genius and I.Q. tests focus on numerical and analytical simply because of the bias of the test creators.
There's a thin line between Genius and Madness. (We tell that to the slow people to stop them picking on us.)
Read this during an hours-long airport delay and enjoyed it very much for both smart analysis and humor. Looking back as teacher and mom, it seems to me that the most successful, fulfilled people have enough intelligence to do a job they genuinely enjoy. The most important qualities seem to be good work ethic and a generous spirit.
I enjoyed this post and Gladwell's Outliers.

The thing I found really interesting about Glawell's book is how he starts it out with a discussion about this outlier quarry town in the U.S. where everyone is outrageously healthy despite all the same crappy food and lifestyle choices that other American towns make. Eventually researchers concluded that what made them healthy was that they had retained an old style Italian sense of community that accepted and integrated people whether or not they were failures of successes.

Then Gladwell goes on to write an entire book about success, and how maybe we can engineer our own society to create more success.

It left me scratching my head wondering why? If people want to be successful great. But why are so obsessed with these tests, and these recipes for success? That someone has a great memory and a high score in perceptual reasoning tells you nothing about his or her wisdom. Tells you nothing about the community around them. Tells you nothing about what, I believe, is really important to their humanity, their values.
As I get older-- and yes, dumber-- I'm not so enamored by "smarts" as I once was. My own or anyone else's. I'm still impressed with creativity, though.
This is excellent, Travis. I'm going to just say, "What Juliet said..." because I think she was reading my mind with her comment.
Intelligence has something to do with "success" but true intelligence can work against you if you try to enter the rat race with a bunch of average rats. The other rats might turn on you and destroy you. Being different can make you a target to destroy by "the others."

Many brilliant minds have been laid waste by a system that is clueless about how to nurture them, and encourage the flowering of their true potential. How many cures for cancer? Or global warming?
I have to agree with Fins2theleft's comment. I, being of average intelligence, or so they say, find intelligence to be subjective.

But what do I know?

Rated for brain stimulation and humor.
True intelligence cannot be measured. Ablonde -- you said everything that I wanted to say.
Having a stupid argument with my hubby right know about dessert. All in fun, but it's a battle of wits and the more intelligent arguing points. Not! So, does being a smart ass count? Great post!
Mozart died in 1791, meaning that by the time he was my age he'd been dead for 27 years. How smart is that? (Hat tip to the great Tom Lehrer.)

fins2theleft typed: "That said, I assert that intelligence tests are more or less a sham, and generally are designed to identify people who are most like the imagined ideal of the creator of the test."

I highly recommend Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man," which tells us that fins is close, but missed the cigar: The original "intelligence" test was developed by Alfred Binet, who was trying to figure out which students needed help learning, not which were the "smartest." By the time his test became the Stanford-Binet it was something else all together.

Gould also notes that rhe folks who started allegedly measuring alleged intelligence were busy proving that they were the most intelligent of them all. They were European men who, surprisingly, proved that European men were the crown of creation. One method was to pack the brain cavity of different skulls with bird shot on the (fallacious) premise that the largest cavity indicated the smartest person. However, the "researchers" tamped down the shot in the skulls of European men, thus fitting in more shot than in the skulls of women, Asians, Africans, etc.

Anyway, a wonderful, fun book.

Also, fins2theleft, I think the psychologist you're referring to is Daniel Goleman, who wrote Emotional Intelligence and then developed a franchise with Ecological Intelligence, Social Intelligence, The Creative Spirit and The Meditative Mind, among others.

And, following in the footsteps of Lisa, I will also say, "What Juliet said," which, so far, one can never go wrong saying.

My personal experience, as one who heard all through grade school that I had "such great potential," is that smarts ain't everything.

Also, as someone who has taught from nursery to graduate school, plus adult literacy, I have discovered that people learn in myriad ways. And I just discovered, looking up myriad that, in the original Greek, it means 10,000.

Cheers!
Mozart died in 1791, meaning that by the time he was my age he'd been dead for 27 years. How smart is that? (Hat tip to the great Tom Lehrer.)

fins2theleft typed: "I assert that intelligence tests are more or less a sham, and generally are designed to identify people who are most like the imagined ideal of the creator of the test."

I highly recommend Stephen Jay Gould's "The Mismeasure of Man," which tells us that fins is close, but missed the cigar: The original "intelligence" test was developed by Alfred Binet, who was trying to figure out which students needed help learning, not which were the "smartest." By the time his test became the Stanford-Binet it was something else all together.

Gould also notes that rhe folks who started allegedly measuring alleged intelligence were busy proving that they were the most intelligent of them all. They were European men who, surprisingly, proved that European men were the crown of creation. One method was to pack the brain cavity of different skulls with bird shot on the (fallacious) premise that the largest cavity indicated the smartest person. However, the "researchers" tamped down the shot in the skulls of European men, thus fitting in more shot than in the skulls of women, Asians, Africans, etc.

Anyway, a wonderful, fun book.

Also, fins2theleft, I think the psychologist you're referring to is Daniel Goleman, who wrote Emotional Intelligence and then developed a franchise with Ecological Intelligence, Social Intelligence, The Creative Spirit and The Meditative Mind, among others.

And, following in the footsteps of Lisa, I will also say, "What Juliet said," which, so far, one can never go wrong saying.

My personal experience, as one who heard all through grade school that I had "such great potential," is that smarts ain't everything.

Also, as someone who has taught from nursery to graduate school, plus adult literacy, I have discovered that people learn in myriad ways. And I just discovered, looking up myriad that, in the original Greek, it means 10,000.

Cheers!
You have Josh Watzkin, the kid from Searching for Bobby Fisher, who brought Kasparov to a draw as a kid, more interested in kick boxing now than chess, despite the fact that he could probably be a world champion if he stuck with chess. People do what they want, not just what they can. At least if they are smart enough to follow their heart.
I don't think college is that important. Henry Miller had little college and people are still interested in his thoughts. Quite a few other notables were basically self taught. Anyone can get a library card, and I doubt Socrates spent his time reading others thoughts.
I agree that intelligence needs to be nutured by curiosity and hard work and all the recent studies prove that. IQ CAN be raised, actually, which is interesting....
Maybe it just comes too easy to them. For those of us that have to study like a mad man to get A's, we don't take it for granted.
I haven't read Gladwell's book, so I'm basing this comment on Juliet's representation of it: "Eventually researchers concluded that what made them healthy was that they had retained an old style Italian sense of community that accepted and integrated people whether or not they were failures of [or] successes."

I'm struck by two things.

First, the dominant cultural value - the American Dream - within the US is material success. For this value to continue to dominate requires that there be a large gap between the materially rich and the non-materially rich, since otherwise, if everyone enjoys quite similar material wealth, it's not worth it to try real hard to get rich. Your gains are too little.

Thus, inequality and envy (and poor health) are part and parcel of the American Dream. The American Dream structurally and by its logic consigns most people to lives cut out of attaining the dream. This exclusion is, of course, the very opposite of the sense of community that promotes good health within that quarry town.

Second, this sense of community is what sociologist Emile Durkheim devoted his whole career to discussing - social solidarity, a sense of belonging. Suicides, as Durkheim pointed out, are usually precipitated by an insufficient sense of social solidarity. (They can also occur from too much - as in suicide bombings, for example.)

Criminologist John Braithwaite approaches this question from the perspective of crime reduction by advocating "reintegrative shaming" as opposed to "disintegrative shaming" (the latter is what we do in the US, the former is common in some societies such as aboriginal tribes). In reintegrative shaming you shame those who have committed crimes but then give them the opportunity to show remorse and make recompense. If they do so truly you then accept them back into the community without reservation.

The problem with social solidarity is that it can be a two-edged sword. What people do - and most people do this all the time - to be part of the community can also mean going along with very bad dominant social practices that you as an individual know are wrong but to be part of the group you don't object (such as accepting torture by the US today).

Prodigies such as you mention here can, of course, suffer from a lack of social integration because of their talent(s). It's also aggravated here by the anti-intellectualist strain within US culture.
You left out the most recent MENSA member in the news- James Von Brunn, AKA right wing loon who shot up the Holocaust Museum.
Nice Travis; maybe you haven't peaked. Don't write yourself off too quickly.

Why does David Sedaris' book, "Me Talk Pretty One Day" come to mind?
Smithery: "Me Talk Pretty" by Sedaris does remind me of my own life. I got a worthless college degree just like him then worked at a variety of odd jobs. Ira Glass, if you're reading this and need a new protege, I'm available. :)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sedaris

JimGalt: Henry Miller was born in 1891 however. I think today it is much more important. That said, a lot of professional writers out there don't actually have degrees in creative writing or journalism: the above mentioned Sedaris and A.J. Jacobs--author of "A Year of Living Biblically" come to mind. Sedaris has an art degree and Jacobs a philosophy degree. Even though their degrees are not technically in writing, I think some formal degree helps you get your foot in the door.
Bill Michtom: Thanks for the wonderfully engaging comment. I've read a lot of Gould but apparently I missed the "Mismeasure of Man". I loved his Gould's essay on why no one will hit .400 again. Great man and a sad loss for science.

Juliet: I'll add a third voice to the Bill Michtom and Lisa Kern choir: "What Juliet said." Outliers is a great book. Especially loved the 10,000 hours of practice theory.
Interesting, Travis! Thanks for the info.

I'll put in a good word for colleges though--they're somewhere to meet and talk with smart people. Not the only place, of course, and for many not the best place, but at least an obvious place. One of the difficulties, I think, of coming up with a Theory of Everything on your own, without bouncing ideas off other people, is that if you don't see a flaw yourself, for whatever reason, it's not going to be found.

Oh, and fins might also be talking about Howard Gardner, the first name that comes to my mind when I hear about multiple intelligences.
And Bill Gates is a college dropout.