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.”


If Amy is so smart, she would probably know Maslow and the Emotional Intelligence theory, especially after a PHD in psychology.
Contrary to what she wrote, all the studies show that none of the issues reported by Amy regarding smart people are true.


Obviously written by someone who never spent time being a smart kid.

I am familiar with the emotional intelligence theory, but I also realized that if you rate humans' emotional intelligence on a scale of 0-100, the average dog would score about 250.

Robert McGimpsey Jr

Thank You.......

David Tschanz

As a person with several degrees I can relate to the above comment. The real problems ARE an intellectual loneliness (which does improve over time simply because you find friends in the same boat) and social exclusion.

Another factor, unmentioned above, is the sheer frustration of getting it while other people don't - as if you're idling while they try to figure out the ignition switch. This also improves over time and I honestly think a big change in your life comes when you realize they're not getting it because they can't, not because they are trying to drive you nuts :)

I was fortunate that I didn't have a negative high school experience - I went to a Jesuit high school in CT where excellence was expected and intellectual arrogance not allowed to develop. Especially since Jesuit education implies everyone excels in something, its simply a matter of finding it.

too smart

Wait a minute. so expected excellence makes for "smart" people. I went to a private hs where I was expected to be mediocre, at or close the bottom of a class of 27 people. considering the fact that I had no formal American style education prior to the 6th grade, how I got though was luck and pluck. I would say, with the exception of math (where I knew more than most if not all of my classmates) and physics where I already made an original discovery by age 11-12 but did not grasp the fact. my intelligence increased with age/experience,/ hard work/ reading and writing and not with my formal education. People back when would tell jokes and I never grasped them. Now I am the one who makes the jokes and people (including me) laugh.


I think a lot of smart people use intelligence to explain away negative things that would more accurately be attributed to arrogance.


Or maybe you might just not get it because you haven't experienced it and aren't seeing that what looks to you like arrogance may, at times, be something else entirely that you are misjudging. Sometimes it really just "takes one to know one" after all.

David W.

While I understand Amy Young's perspective, she uses the term "bright" in a narrow, divisive context; as though there are no "bright" children who are capable of normal social interaction. It is easy to believe that when your child has trouble connecting with people it is because other kids can't keep up, but there are likely concept and connections those children make that your "bright" child wouldn't be able to. I am sure there are bright women who would love to be mothers, and it's perfectly obvious that there are plenty of "bright" kids who get a lot out of schoolwork.

Most people are "bright" in one way or another, and while our society/educational system could be better at making it easy for people to interact with each other, and giving more support to children who do not learn well in its current structure, I find her implied distinction between "bright" and average to be short-sighted.



I respectfully disagree with the view that the OP uses the term "bright" as too narrow and divisive. I identify with every word she wrote, and that's because I was a "bright" child who grew into a normal socially adjusted adult. I was very lucky to have a supportive school environment, and a sense of self-worth that was high enough to not allow the temporary social exclusion (especially during adolescence) to impact my life. I follow all the rules of normal social interaction, which allows me to easily interface with people of all intelligences and quite varied socio-economic groups.

But you don't want to ever be inside my head, because the levels of boredom and impatience I've had to overcome and still experience are enormous. Yes, we all find our own flocks - I was exceptionally lucky in that way - but it's hard work, made that much harder by the rules of our society, especially if you are female.


David W.

Hi Ani,

I didn't mean to say that these issues aren't very real to some people. Intellectual loneliness, social exclusion, boredom in school, etc. are all common and unfortunate barriers that people of "above average intellect" must encounter and hopefully overcome. However, our society views intelligence in a limited light, and in my experience many of the people who are deemed average in academia are not given the credit they deserve...conversely, people who experience the symptoms of intellectual superiority described above are quick to dismiss those who do not experience said issues. Most people are much "brighter" than we give them credit for and have not been given the appropriate resources, or simply don't work within the established system well enough to be recognized. There are plenty of ways not to fit into society, and I find it frustrating that the OP, with her PhD in Psychology, has no trouble conforming to the labels of "bright" and average.



Speaking to the "loneliness" of other people not understanding the same of the greatest skills is the ability to take complex subjects and make them accessible to the masses.

Sven P

While that is true, you can't reason about complex subjects in their simplified and toned down form.
In order to have interesting conversations about complex subjects (and in order to gain more understanding about them), you'd need to be able to reason about them in all their complexity.

Think about it this way: you can only make complex subjects accessible to the masses if you have a profound understanding of these subjects, otherwise you wouldn't know which parts can be simplified, which parts can be skipped over and which parts can be "translated" in analogies that are broadly understood by said masses.
That profound understanding is only possible when you can discuss the topics with people who understand the topics at least on the same level.


Being dumb is pretty lonely also.

Enter your name...

A few years back, I dealt with a school that only accepted young children in the top 5% of academic ability. It was interesting to notice the differences between children who started there at age 5 and those who transferred in at age 10 from the (pretty good) local public schools. You could watch a class for a day and pick them out once you'd been around for a while.

The main differences that have stuck with me were that the kids who had always been around bright kids (there or at a similar school) had more normal peer relationships and had a more nuanced understanding of their skills ("I'm one of the best at reading, but not at math or music"). The ones who had five years in a typical mixed-ability classroom were more likely to seek out adults during recess instead of peers and more likely to see academic achievement as an all-or-nothing issue ("I'm supposed to be the best at everything").


Enter your name...

I'll add this: In dealing with teens and college students who were equally bright, but who never escaped the mixed-ability classrooms, I'd say that the quickest screening question to identify them is this: "Do you like it when your teacher gives group assignments?"

Bright and motivated kids are usually disgusted by group projects, which leave them a choice between them doing (or re-doing) most of the work to protect their grades, or risking their grades so that the group's grade reflects the average contribution to the project.

Violent Violet

THIS... with the added bonus of being declared "bossy" if you see someone doing something inefficiently or wrong, and try to help them do it smarter.

Liz Busby

The severity of all these things--the social isolation, the school boredom, the lack of suitable marriage partners--depends on how far along you are on the IQ normal curve. 120 on the IQ scale (between 1 and 2 standard deviations) has often been claimed as "optimal intellect": high enough to give you an advantage over average IQ individuals, but not so high as to result in social isolation.

Many "bright" kids fall into the 120-130 range, where they can cruise along through life easily. It is the highly gifted, profoundly gifted, and genius level children who have the most trouble. School isn't just easy, it's mind-numbing; people aren't just a little slower, they don't even come close to understanding your interests. These are kids who begin spontaneously reading and doing arithmetic long before they can use a toilet--long before their parents think to even try to teach them. How can a child who reads novels in preschool not be profoundly bored and isolated when other kids are struggling to learn ABCs?



While I generally agree with your comment I would argue a few points. I didn't have any social troubles in primary school, middle school or high school. My IQ is 136. While kids didn't really understand my interests, it was very easy for me to understand a wide variety of theirs. I could almost become a quasi expert in what they liked. I think social awkwardness is a failure on the parents' part, not a school or society's. My mother always taught me that human interaction was one of the most important parts of life.

However, I struggled endlessly with busywork. Like you said, I became bored with the work very quickly. My grades in middle school and beyond were terrible. I always passed tests with flying colors and was placed in AP courses. I was in the Gifted and Talented Enrichment program and Future Problem Solvers but I just could not complete homework assignment after homework assignment.



I had the same problem with passing tests but just couldn't stop myself from ignoring homeowrk. However, now that I am a working adult and have been doing so for quite sometime, I feel that "homework" is a form of social conditioning and not an actual academic tool. Essentially, you're supposed to "get used to doing busy work" because for most people regardless of how financially successful they are, busy work induced by bureaucracy will always be forced upon EVERYONE, except those luck enough to be born into multi-generational wealth or those who fall into the entertainment business as an actor, pro athlete, etc.

I do agree, it is on the parents to make sure the kid has social skills, so as to survive the social jungles that we all, wage slave, peons must travel through in life without recourse: elementary school, junior high school, undergrad, grad school, first job, subsequent job, last job , nursing home.


Programmer at Arms

I have known many idiots who held doctorate degrees. I have known many truly bright people who never felt lonely.


I have a PhD in Psych too. However, I am always in awe at how smart everyone around me is.
Was I lonely in high school? Sure, but who wasn't? There were plenty of people in band and on chess team. They are still good friends.
I married the first-chair band geek and we are wonderfully happy together (18 years later).
We moved to a suburban community made of similar nerdy parents. We brag whose kids understand less about basketball and football while attending swim meets, recitals, and cub scout meetings. Our kids play well, are well-adjusted, and should be able to contribute to the world well.
We did not hold our kids back when entering school because we don't want them to be engaged, not bored. Yeah, it's a downside, but there are often outlets for learning that are better than sitting in a boring class. One just has to seek them out.
I'm yet to see a downside to having aesthetic understandings of as many domains as possible (and isn't that the goal of the goofy construct we call "intelligence?"). The world just keeps getting more interesting.


Ryan N

If you have never felt loneliness, persecution or frustration from being too smart, odds are you're just not THAT smart.

Using a blunt instrument like IQ just for brevity's sake, 130 IQ people are quite smart. 2 standard deviations smarter than average, by definition. These people tend to think of themselves as pretty smart, do very well in school, and usually are extremely effective at whatever their jobs and hobbies are. They have every reason to consider themselves very smart.

That said, they don't have a whole lot in common with the experiences of the 145+ IQ people. People in this group tend to view the world quite differently, and conversely, are viewed by the world quite different.

Caleb B

I was a smart kid that hated elementary. One day in third grade, my teacher gave us a word search. I refused to do it and proceeded to doodle on back. She asked me why I wasn't doing my work and I said, "because it is busy work. You just want us quite for 10 minutes." She told me I would get a zero if I didn't do the work and I said, "I'm not learning anything with this assignment. I don't care what grade I get on it."

Yeah, I didn't get along with the other kids either.


The world is getting more interesting, but accessing it is not free. It all cost money and that cost is increasing beyond wage increases

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting)

I was identified as "gifted" and now I'm going through the same thing with my child. "Giftedness" isn't a complete gift - there are ups and downs, and social isolation is definitely part of it. Of course, we know from Howard Gardner's work that there are many different intelligences. We also know that traditional schools only recognize a couple of them. So observations such as this may be specific to the traditional educational system (and I do agree with Amy's points). That said, I'm happy to feel that I've found my way after all, and I work hard with my child to help create a better path.

K Goodman

I can attest to this phenomenon. I have extremely bright (gifted) children (3 ages 16, 14 and 12) and they have had a very hard time with finding friends that are like them. Fortunately we live in Lee County Florida where we have school choice so they have had more opportunities than most. My 16 year old son has already completed about 40 hours of college and my 14 year old is on track for similar achievements since we have a Collegiate charter high school. My 12 year old is a straight A student and is bored with the busy work just like the older two.

One of the best things we did was get them involved with the Duke Tip program which offered them the opportunity to meet other kids like them. It opened a whole new world to them. I do think bright girls and women are frowned upon and discouraged frequently. Smart women are considered aggressive and pushed down often. Men with the same intellect and abilities are encouraged to achieve. We have a lot of work to do to improve the achievement of both sexes in this country and most of it has to do with attitude. We need to open doors for bright kids (and adults) rather then holding them back till everyone else catches up.



I'm of the opinion that if you're exceptionally smart, then social conventions won't be that hard to figure out, and you can solve the loneliness problem. The problem is that parents/teachers neglect social conventions to focus on maximizing academic knowledge. Keeping up the geek/nerd stereotype doesn't help either. For me, yes, high school created a lot of boring busy work, but I figured out early that to make the experience worthwhile I had to relate to students who couldn't recite lots of information that would be useless to the average high school student. Since I wasn't learning much new academically, I just paid attention to how people interacted with each other and learned that.

Enter your name...

I know some (extremely) bright people who have set out to learn human social interactions exactly like a xenoanthropologist might study Martian social interactions. The result was successful in the sense that they became adept at the "language"—hold head at this angle to indicate that you're listening, keep eye contact for this long to indicate interest, speak for this much of the conversation—but that's not the same thing as them enjoying these social interactions or receiving the emotional benefits that come from truly relating to someone and understanding their experiences.

(There are benefits to studying this: Not only can you "pass" for being average if you want, one of them became very, very good at sales work, and, if they had been burdened with fewer ethical constraints, they would have made fantastic con artists.)


So sad you think you notice things other people don't or that your thoughts go over their head. You really don't know how little you do know.

Once you realize every person is your superior in some way then your flock will have no end.


Despite my lack of a PhD I've often been called "bright", "smart", and "brilliant" by many *with* PhDs so I feel well qualified to agree with this article. I was horrified at the aspect of getting married because I felt it would negatively affect my autonomy. I wasn't concerned that my spouse would be abusive or controlling, no, I was concerned that I would develop a designation and that would be used in the place of my name.

Which is exactly what happened when I got married. There are now a slew of people who know nothing of me and care to know nothing of me outside of the fact that I'm married to their friend.

My fears have now migrated towards an aversion to motherhood. I've already got a man-child to care for, books to read, movies to see, plays to force my friends to go to... The second to last thing I'm going to do is add diapers and kid-friendly dinners to that list. The last thing I'm going to do is add more designations, that come with no increase in pay, to the end of my name.


Violent Violet

I never wanted to be defined by my husband (didn't change my name, which was practically unheard of 25 yrs ago) and we never wanted kids to cramp our lifestyle, either, so we were careful to not have any.

You're not alone! There are thousands of women who think like this!


Good thinking. I can't think of any good reason why anyone would want to have kids. It's a decision that's mostly motivated by social pressure, a misplaced sense of duty, or simply a delusional belief that it will bring happiness.


I've heard most of my life how smart I am. As a female, I've found brains and looks do not help me as much as one would think. In school, the teachers praised me for my smarts and that made me a pariah to classmates. Dates would enjoy my barbie exterior until they found out that I was more intelligent. Most companies value teamwork, which is my idea of hell. In my current job, my output is 3x higher than my teammates. As I'm still a temp after 11 months, this does not bode well. I'm a geek that would love to attend many a TED conference, if it wasn't for the fact that I still have to attempt to earn a living. Still looking for my flock.


You sound delightful under every aspect. Good luck.


I completely relate, but the author makes me think they actually aren't very intuitive or smart, appearing to utterly miss the obvious: Mother's little helper was written about pills like valium.