The Downsides of Being Smart

A podcast listener named Amy Young writes in with interesting comments about our recent “Can You Be Too Smart For Your Own Good?” episode:

As I hold a Ph.D., I too feel well qualified to speak on topics I know nothing about.  Actually, the Ph.D. is in psychology, I am somewhat qualified to speak about the topic; however, most of my info comes from having a very bright son and having to do a lot of research to try to figure out how to raise him.

One downfall of being particularly bright is that you are often lonely.  You see and think of stuff that most other people don’t see or understand, so it can be hard to feel a genuine connection with most others.  What is really exciting to you goes right over the heads of most others.  As you get older this gets to be easier to solve by finding your flock, but I think loneliness in the formative years always sticks to you.  

Another downfall is that exceptionally bright people have a high drop-out rate from school, particularly high school. It seems counterintuitive until you spend a day in our public school system.  Bright kids see school as not providing any useful information and find it creates a lot of boring busy work.  On that note, a really great topic for you to explore is the economic impact of the teacher’s union’s stronghold on the American public education system. 

Also, in terms of gender and smarts, a downfall of being bright is social exclusion, which can be devastating for most girls.  As for the low marriage rates among bright women, I think most bright women avoided marriage in the past as it often meant staying home to perfect souffles and iron underwear.  I would imagine that to be torturous for bright women and could possibly be the inspiration for the Rolling Stones’ song “Mother’s Little Helper.”

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  1. Emma says:

    I won’t try to pretend I’m a genius or anything, but I felt lonely a lot as a kid. Especially in high school. I remember it being so difficult interact with other people because I had a completely different set of interests. I would attempt to start a conversation on the implications of supersymmetry and everyone would return to their inane chitter-chatter about boys or parties or homework. It was hard for me to get out of the funk it left me in, but I did.

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  2. Phillip says:

    I’ve always been “different”. I was bullied a lot. Made a lot of enemies. I was left out most of the time. As an adult, nothing has really changed. People don’t like what I have to say. I’m not interested in parties or drinking or other stupid crap. I want to do things that are mentally stimulating. There’s been times in my life where I’ve played along to get along, but it never made me very happy. I would like to have friends, but it’s hard for me to respect anyone enough to be their friend. We seem to live in two different worlds. I think it’s arrogant to say you are a genius. Even I’ve questioned whether I am or not. It’s better to look at facts to arrive at a conclusion. I speak three languages, play four instruments (self-taught), I’ve scored in the top 2% of two different IQ tests. I finished in the top of my class in university. Do I feel lonely? It’s hard to say. Maybe frustrated. Frustrated that I can’t find anyone to relate with. Perhaps “isolated” is the best word. There’s a wall between me and everyone else. As Satre said, “Hell is other people.”

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  3. Papone says:

    Being smart is probably a weak diagnosis for this because I feel that most parents will by default will assume their child as being smart. I do not believe they are any large and conclusive studies that show that intelligence can cause kids to be lonely or left out; it is probably more likely that the kid is just shy. Another thing mentioned was the drop-out rate which may be plausible, but I still think she jumped the gun with that.

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  4. christine says:

    I still feel at 36 that some of the things I find cool are just “over people’s heads.” A genuine connection with another human being is truly hard for anyone, let alone a bright person. Perhaps what you said sheds a lot of light on why I do not enjoy a big university. I don’t feel a genuine connection with anyone there. I tend to hang out at Professor’s office hours. BEing smart is truly a blessing and a challenge.

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  5. Jay says:

    I can relate and not only when I was child, but as an adult as well…. I dropped out of high school. One day, I just grew so tired of the repetitive nightmare, so I left, took my GED, and was done with it. The lack of self-confidence from the whole experience was crippling to me, and still as. I didn’t find out what my true capabilities were until my shrink tested my IQ…it was 147…. If only I knew when I was younger. Now, I feel lost, alone, and old. My will power is gone…it takes everything I have just to wake up in the morning, and I still barely manage to do it.

    It is dreadful. I feel as of I have been cursed. I can’t enjoy anything because everything is so simple and predictable…I hate it and I crave to die….

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  6. Pandelis says:

    I wish I had the stamina to go through all the replies to this post, but I currently have not. So, I will post my opinion even if is probably covered by previous replies.
    Firstly, I have felt most of the thoughts and feelings that are described in the original post. I cannot describe myself, but the fact is I was in the top of my class even in classes I didn’t study. (I do not wish to discuss the different types of intelligence in this post). That created a natural border between my fellow-students that was pretty evident even in my teen years.
    Then, I realized that people I genuinely liked and wanted to hung around with were most of the cases very superficial persons, where there was not real conversation, unless you shared exactly the same interests as they were (usually limited to football or politics).
    My biggest surprise, however, was in adulthood: There is no such thing! People learn to behave according to the social norms (more or less), but the ‘instant mechanisms’ they use t decide whether they like a person or not – and the way they think, in general – stay exactly the same, they just use a more “social” way to express their (dis)preferences.

    I close this post with the line that, in my opinion always, summarizes the post:

    “”As you get older this gets to be easier to solve by finding your flock, but I think loneliness in the formative years always sticks to you””

    I will add: Especially if you can only depend on your friends for company and you just have limited things in common with your own family.

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