Do you identify as intelligent?


Life as a non-genius: the lot, by definition, of almost all of us. There’s a Mozart in most professions, and the rest of us Salieris have to accept that, even celebrate the products of what nature doles out to the very few, the little miracles of body proportion and metabolism that make an Olympic athlete or the uncanny ability of a gifted politician to remember every name and conversation she’s had since age 20.

But within the normal range of functioning, we place a lot of importance on innate qualities like intelligence (whatever its definition) at the expense of other characteristics that are likely to make us effective students, workers and creators. College recruiters and employers look for the “best and the brightest” but the first word in that pair is often overlooked.

In introducing TED Global last year, host and curator Chris Anderson had the audience raise their hands if they’d been passed over for the gifted program in their schools. A large percentage of the audience raised their hands. Then, in classic TED self-congratulatory style he announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the gifted class!” This left me with a lot of questions. Is “gifted” not simply a special educational need, redundant as a descriptor in adults? Surely high achievement in the area of “ideas worth spreading,” TED’s motto, would be more a function of intellectual curiosity than of intelligence, per se, with which it is often conflated.

Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson, in an interview included in his latest Some Remarks, described his genre as “idea porn” and goes on to distinguish iconic sci-fi characters as those who attract their readers through obvious intelligence – think Data in Star Trek – speaking to the intelligence in the readers, or their high valuation of intelligence. But I wonder whether the sci fi has less to do with the measurable quality of quick thinking than with a sci-fi reader’s identity.  Revolving centrally around their self-perception as intelligent people, science fiction ghetto denizens sustain themselves on the idea that they are surrounded by cretinous hordes who misunderstand them.

Spectra along which humans discriminate – gender, age, sexual orientation, and race, among others – become cruxes of identity. However arbitrary as determiners of acceptance, they form some of the most central items on our list of self-descriptors. Most of us have a pretty strong sense of ourselves in relation to our intelligence. For some our personal narrative is that of an underdog who always had to work harder to understand things, perhaps dealt with a learning disability, but used tenacity and organization to overcome the disadvantage. For others, their sense of inferiority of mind – perhaps instilled by a damaging sibling relationship or hurtful teacher remarks – leads to learned helplessness and a perpetual victimhood.

A meritocracy is supposed to circumvent arbitrary discriminators in favour of hard work and achievement, but of course there are factors beyond our control that affect ones worth in this system as well – ill health, for example, or an interest in obscure, unmarketable fields.

Very occasionally, a job might actually require a level of “g” —  the raw cognitive processing speed that strongly correlates with all types of intelligence psychometrics. But usually the minimum bar for this is actually quite low, provided other skills sets are in place – self-discipline, say, or an ability to take direction.

Is it legitimate to discriminate based on intelligence if the job does not require it? I honestly haven’t made up my mind and would be interested to hear your thoughts.



Image: Wikimedia commons


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5 thoughts on “Do you identify as intelligent?

  1. I couldn’t agree more, and I find the entire system in the U.S. gets this completely wrong in so many ways. Yes, “gifted” is just a species of special ed, at-risk youth. And when I was a kid, there weren’t even any gifted programs. There was nothing for such kids – at all. Now, it seems to me, they’ve swung the other direction and started identifying as “gifted” any kid at all, which once again, fails to provide a safe place for those kids who really need it.

    And it is precisely this attitude – “well, welcome to the gifted class” – that makes this problem. People want to feel like they are smart, and lots of them seem to want to achieve that through their kids. People demand that well, if anyone around here is gifted, surely it’s little Muffy, my kid.

    Because you see, that’s the trouble. So, so many people don’t appreciate the Mozarts of the world, if you even encounter any. They are consumed with envy and a stubborn anger and will often do anything to prove to themselves that they are every bit as good. Indeed, often Salieris are in for that treatment, because after all, how dare they?

    There seems entirely too much demand that everybody be identified as high IQ, and a positive disdain in this country for intellectual curiosity (and intellectualism in general) that would actually make something of a high IQ. This is a very bad place to be smart, I think.

  2. In America, no one is willing to talk about their IQ, and due to the public school system, most people do not even know it. If your IQ is 80, Algebra is virtually impossible for you to understand. If your IQ is 140, you can easily take 5 AP courses in high school and get straight A’s. Due to America’s insistence on “equality”, two children sit side-by side in Physics class. One has no idea what is going on, and the other can do the work in her sleep. Our national high school drop out rate is 28% ( Not every child can do increasingly difficult academic work through four years of high school, and conversely a truly gifted student is bored to death until she enters AP courses. Of course there are myriad other factors that contribute to success in life, but no matter what anyone says, not everyone can be a rocket scientist. Until America embraces this reality, we are doomed to remain dismally low on the PISA rankings. See chart here: And a quote from that site: “The United States of America is the only OECD country where 25-34 year-olds are not better educated than 55-64 year-olds.” A sad state of affairs.

  3. I work as an administrator in an Australian University. My daily work life consists of a series of interactions with professors and PhD-qualified bureaucrats who, on any measure of g you’d like to take, blow me into the weeds. Being so dumb, comparatively, I should probably just give up. But on a daily basis, I find that g alone is not enough, and that even with my profound [comparative] disability I can still be a surprisingly effective advocate for research, for ideas, for efficiency, for management processes, and for excellence.
    Or, as Billy Connolly once said: ‘my wife is demonstrably cleverer than me; the only way I survive as her husband is by rat cunning’.

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