17 March, 2007

Why Ordinary People Make Intelligent Kids Unhappy

‘Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.’ (Ernest Hemmingway) Thus starts an article by Bill Allin called ‘Why Intelligent People Tend To Be Unhappy’. The gist of the piece is that the social and emotional development of intelligent children is neglected or even hindered by a society that cares only about the achievement of wealth and sporting excellence. It is a confused and lightweight piece (although it has had a wide readership since it was published) but it reflects a strong feeling among intelligent people that they are undervalued, rejected and disliked by everyone else.

I know the feeling very well myself. I was singled out at school for insults and bullying by the other kids. One or two teachers liked me but the vast majority – even the ones that were not games or woodwork teachers – did not. At home, I was lucky that my mother was intelligent and liked me but very unlucky in my father, who was thick and did not. One of my aunts positively despised me and the rest of my parents’ siblings and their spouses were mostly just cool and distant. It’s a miracle that I didn’t grow up twisted as well as bitter. I put down my emotional survival to an incredible self-confidence. Being intelligent has always made me an outsider but I have somehow always had the good fortune to believe that the rejections were due to other people’s inadequacies, not my own.

Allin’s article (and its sequel) focuses on what society does to intelligent children and doesn’t really try to explain why they are treated so badly. For what it’s worth my own thoughts amount to this: intelligent people actually earn the dislike of their peers and carers in a variety of ways. Briefly:

  • Intelligent kids notice the bullshit. If you’re a clever child, you can’t help seeing the hypocrisy of your parents, and other adults. You can’t help seeing that the things they believe are often hollow or distorted. You can’t help spotting that they lie and that their self-justifications are frequently spurious. People don’t like being caught out and kids are too naïve not to mention their observations.
  • People hate to feel stupid and they hate even more being made to look stupid. A smart ten-year-old who can explain how a telephone works better than his or her teacher or parent makes everyone feel uncomfortable and resentful. A clever seven-year-old who wants a chemistry set and plays a decent game of chess is excluding most of their peers and carers from interacting with them and is clearly beyond the resources of most adults to teach. Bright kids don’t learn, until it is too late, not to show off their skills – they’re too busy seeking approval to realise they are engendering resentment.
  • Grown-ups like to feel superior. It annoys and frustrates people when the areas in which they naturally excel over children – size, strength, hand-eye coordination – are clearly boring to the bright child, who likes running about and kicking balls as much as anyone but who also has a million other more challenging things they want to get on with. It also scares adults when the other main areas in which they should excel – knowledge and wisdom – begin to look scant and feeble in comparison to those of the young intellect they are dealing with.
  • Intelligent children display moral deviance. The codes by which most people live are learnt by rote and are accepted unquestioningly but the intelligent child can’t do that. He or she is congenitally incapable of just accepting what people say. Everything is examined and compared, turned over and over in the bright child’s mind until it is understood, or revealed to be nonsense. Intelligent children will question moral precepts, they will doubt the existence of gods and the supremacy of heroes. They will argue with things which, to everyone around them, are undeniable truths. It makes such kids seem weird, creepy, not really one of us.

The net result is that the intelligent child alienates most of the adults and children they meet, offends and humiliates them in ways the child cannot yet begin to understand. Gradually, the child moves outside the circle of its family and neighbours, outside the confines of its culture. It is rejected and disliked but, often, the child becomes a willing participant in its own ostracisation as it seeks other exiles and out-groups to give it the acceptance it needs.

Without the protection and support of intelligent adults and peers, it is almost inevitable that intelligent children will have a rough ride in life and, yes, many will end up unhappy.


Ellen said...

Came across your blog while searching for some information - I grew up as the exact child you are discussing here...I always often disliked as a child because of my logical responses to adult BS. Lucky for me - most of my family got it...there were a few though who simply saw my comments as pure rebellion or acting out. Kudos on this blog article - it was refreshing to see someone who could appreciate my position.

Anonymous said...

You're spot on, its a nice analyse.

In my first year of school, people already insulted me, bullied me, even my teacher would ridiculize me in front of all the class. No one was ever there to help me. I spent years onto years growing up, not saying more than 1 sentence a day, always alone. I was in agony, the kind that builds up over the years.

I wish I could say I found a way to solve it all, but I haven't. I just ended up here, on internet. I'm still miserable. And probably one of these days I will kill myself off. There's no point in living if your life is pathetic. Or there's a slim chance I will find a way to fix it, to find something onto which I can hold onto.

I feel like my life was destined to be a piece of crap and that there's nothing I can do about it. No matter what I do, the outcome is always a negative experience. But I digress...

Rafael said...

I am feeling the same thing as the Anoynmous guy,even the killing myself part.

In Brazil,there's no share for the inteligent people,not even a little piece of "Hey that's nice".It's just suffering.

My society is corrupt in such a way,that for saying random stuff makes people laugh,and there is no reasoning behind that,that's bullshit.

graywave said...

Guys, thanks for the comments. I'm sorry to hear about how depressed you're feeling Anon and Rafael but, well, I guess that's sort of the point.

Even though being bright means you can't take advantage of the usual crutches society has to offer, there is hope. I came through and I'm now living a great life.

I plan to do a follow-up piece very soon on what to do about it if you're in the difficult position of being rejected because you're cleverer than your peers. So drop in again in a week or so, there might be something in it that will help.

Darshan Chande said...

I can very well relate with everything you have said here, buddy. It's really a miracle that we are not developed as "bad people". That way we have been worthy of the intelligence we happen to posses.

It was very refreshing thought - the rejections were due to other people’s inadequacies, not my own.. So true!!

Have to, by any chance, read this article?

Refreshing it is.. !

Best luck!

graywave said...

Darshan, Thank you. And thanks for the link to Derek's piece.

This post of mine is a bit old now and it has a problem, it focuses only on understanding the situation rather than suggesting any solutions. I recently wrote another post called, "Hope For Intelligent Kids Who Are Unhappy". Essentially, this elaborates the idea in the piece you referenced of "getting out of Rome".

I've been browsing your blog too and found lots that is interesting and that I agree with.

Naive Observer said...

Thank you for your insightful blog. I am currently working as an biologist and when I started to attend school, I thought, that first time in my life, I am gonna to live and work in society of people with equal qualities, with people who love reading, enjoy art, etc. But soon I realized that most of the student are just mediocre...they are kind & cool, but Terry Pratchett is the most profound book they ever read.
I really hope that some day I will find people who want to talk about something more than pub stories of "how many I did drink last night". Best wishes from Czech republic.

luchis117 said...


I am glad I read this.
I was never really bullied or anything as I always played football and was athletic, but I did begin reading at an early age, played chess, and liked puzzle solving. Born to Latin-American immigrants, I frequently find it difficult to connect with them. Ex: my mother is a devout Catholic and freaks out when I ask things like, "Why is it a requirement to go to church to go to heaven? So if a killer goes to church every Sunday he goes to heaven--but a Tibetan monk will go to hell after a life of peace."

Anyway, my comment is long because it's just so frustrating dealing with people who just don't get it. I can talk to others just fine--but when I try and break things down logically, people hate me.

Where would I be able to find people like this around me? Though I play sports and talk to others all the time, I still feel alone in not being able to express my thoughts freely without being looked at as crazy or ignored.

Anonymous said...

The moment I started to read this blog a part of me became almost at ease. It is nice to see that the problems I have dealing with other people are problems that other people experience. I don't care if it's due to me being above average in intelligence, it's just nice to know that I'm not alone. For most of my life, although I've had friends, I've always felt alone. I just never valued what other people valued. Reading this made me feel like I'm not some freak roaming around the world, but just a kid who most people just can't comprehend. It's heart warming to know that there are people out there like me. I've only met a few of them but I'm so grateful to know that I'm not alone. Thank you for posting this, thank you for being a hero for the non-average people( and not the kind of hero you see on tv, a real hero).

Anonymous said...

I'm a 12 year old kid, and I think I'm smart. Not Einstein, but relatively. (Lol) I may be naive, but I hate adults who always want to be superior. My dad is a math genius, and lucky for me he taught me to keep my mouth shut when I was young. I'm still the smart guy, and people mock me sometimes, but I've learned to reverse their comments into jokes. It hurts so bad! Yeah, I always doubted the existence of stuff like gods and the invincibility of heroes, and people tell me I'm weird and it is what it is. But smart people can't accept it. They crave logic, they live off of it. We can't accept being told that some thing just is with no proof. Back to adults. I only have experience with teachers and parents, so my view could not encompass everything it should, but I'll use my mom as an example. I'd like to say I'm a math whiz, but I don't want to be the annoying smart kid. My dad and I love to solve complex math stuff together and I study trigonometry
online, but whenever I try to talk to my mom about it, she ignores me, and she's good at math, so she would get it. The thing I hate about people is that everything is determined by age or size. A 7 year old could be a better chess player than me, but he could be more experienced and have a natural knack, while. In the example i suck. It's not that big of an accomplishment just because he's younger than me. He has all possible advantages. Or if me, the underdog,beat him, it's big accomplishment, because he was a good player. This is why parents don't let their kids talk about the nerdy stuff they love. They have to be better because their bigger and older. This means that the kid ends up thinking that calculus or trigonometry is bad, and avoid it the rest of their lives.

Anonymous said...

I want to help. I am currently growing up as the kid described above. My problems may not be as severe or I'm not as experienced as you, but I still want to offer what help I can. I was miserable for a while, not understanding why my peers didn't like me or I couldn't communicate with them. I finally stopped living for their opinion and acceptance once I knew things wouldn't get better. I started living for what made me happy, and made the choice, as hard as it is when one is depressed, to offend and annoy whoever I wanted. They can take to heart whatever I say in complete honesty, it they could ignore me. If they were the ones making me depressed, I stopped letting them. I made my own happiness my first priority. I am still myself, and there is nothing they can do to stop me from learning or being myself. I hoped this helped, because I value every life, and I personally would hate for another person like you to be gone because no one did anything.

Anonymous said...

I'm not usually one to 'leave a comment', however, given the incredibly relatable nature of the post, I felt inclined.

If anyone whom considers them-self in such a situation, for what it's worth, recovery is possible.

I may be only a teenager, and, admittedly, I've been quite lucky.

Don't lose hope. Anything is possible, it's people like us that define society, pick a goal, and smash the fuck out of it.

Thank you to the author of this article, a gratifying read for anyone in such a position :)

Anonymous said...

I started Econometrics grad school last year thinking I'd finally meet a smart girl. No such luck...

Anonymous said...

Absolutely. Thank you. My teachers always pick on me, trying to catch me making a mistake (and then publicising it in front of the class). All classmates root against me whenever we have a competition(unless they are on my team). And even my parents hated me for arguing with them about things that don't make sense. And there's always the snide comments that people whisper behind my back. I've always been nice to people and I get treated like crap in return. That's how I became the bitter, twisted, and alone. I feel like there is no happiness in the world. Just suffering and hatred thrown at you for having the apparent gift of intelligence.

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