Being smart is usually an incredible gift, but occasionally a difficult burden.

At the peak of my high school math competition “career”, I was ranked around 25th in the US among all high school students. Given that there were ~15 million high school students in the US, this put my math skills somewhere in the 1-in-a-100k to 1-in-a-million range. This felt — and still feels — pretty freakin’ awesome.

Being that good at something had several significant benefits. One benefit was that I had a ton of confidence in high school, and that confidence quickly extended far beyond math. I was nerdy, but unlike the stereotypical nerd, I was pretty sociable and even felt borderline popular. I also felt like I was capable of any academic feat, and basically assumed that my 1-in-100k status applied to most subjects. I ended up winning state and national awards in things like Science Bowls and marketing competitions, and also took more Advanced Placement tests than anyone else in the state during my 4 years in high school. Thinking back to those days is pretty amusing because I wasn’t that great at most of the things I was being recognized for, but it turns out that being good + being a good test-taker + being confident can take you pretty far in the academic world.

Anyway, the confidence was great, and doing well in various math competitions helped me get into some of the top universities, which resulted in me getting great jobs after college, and subsequently led to a very happy and successful career (so far).

Now for the negatives:

  1. I assumed intelligence and academics were all that mattered, and things like friendships, sports, etc. were nice, but not as important. A pretty bad assumption, in retrospect. As a meta-comment, I think people frequently tend to overvalue things they are good at and undervalue things they are average at.
  2. For a long time, I used to discount people who were less smart. That doesn’t surprise me given that rankings were so heavily emphasized during my school years, but I wish I hadn’t fallen into this trap. I ended up having fewer real friends than most of my classmates. I try not to regret things that have passed, but I also wish someone had slapped some sense into me when I was younger.
  3. I assumed that being in the top 0.001% in math meant that I was in the top 0.001% in overall intelligence. Not so. IQ tests showed that my overall intelligence was somewhere in the middle of the 99th percentile, and real life showed that I was far from exceptional in things like social skills and work ethic. It took a while for my ego to come down to earth and match up with reality. The fall was necessary but often unpleasant.
  4. The pressure to perform can be very high. When you have a reputation for being smart, many people assume you can solve any problem that comes up. If something is hard, everyone’s eyes turn to you as if you are the golden goose of bright ideas. If you struggle a little bit, you get teased with, “hey, I thought you were smart!” If you fail, people are surprised and say a lot with their silences. When you have a big ego, disappointing people is really painful. I remember making up excuses about not having time for various tasks so that I could maintain my reputation. Today, half of me writes this off as being a teenager who didn’t know how to act with integrity, while the other half cringes that I actually lied to people in order to avoid the risk of public failure.
  5. Meeting people and dating are often frustrating. The difference in IQs between me and someone who is a little above average is the same as the difference between someone average and a moron. (What can I say, Wikipedia is harsh:…) Well, it’s not exactly like that, but sometimes it feels like it. It can be hard for me to connect with people I meet and find good topics of conversation. On the flip side, to a person who is socially gifted, I’m probably the one who seems like a moron.
  6. While I’ve worked hard, most of my successes came from my innate intelligence. As a result, I got used to being naturally good at things. Recent studies have shown that people who believe intelligence is innate tend to give up much faster than people who believe it can be developed, and that was definitely true for me throughout most of my 20s. I’d try things once or twice, then stop if I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, which was often. There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance when you’re not good at something you expected to be great at, and the easiest way to resolve that dissonance is by quitting.
  7. I sometimes feel guilty about how much easier some things are for me than others and also about how I let them get to my head for so many years.

Overall, being smart brought many accolades and successes, but it also made me anxious, afraid of failure, and eager to quit at the first signs of hardship. I recently entered my 30s, and while now I have most of these issues under control, it took a good 10 years to do that — 10 years that I could have spent building stuff, trying more things, and not vacillating between being annoyingly cocky and being insecure. At 31, I’m finally working on things I wish I had worked on at 21.

Conclusion: being smart brings a lot of advantages in life, but it can also keep you from being well-rounded and warp your views of reality. If you know someone smart who views intelligence as the only important thing in life, please give them a whack on the head.


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