02 January, 2010

Hope For Intelligent Kids Who Are Unhappy

Nearly three years ago, I wrote a post called "Why Ordinary People Make Intelligent Kids Unhappy". It was immediately, and still is, one of my most popular posts. It is clearly an issue that concerns many people. Yet, looking back, I see it is a post in desperate need of a follow-up. The original post merely analyses the problem and offers no solace, and certainly no solutions. Most likely, many of the people who read the post felt worse after reading it rather than better. That's OK, I suppose. The world isn't here to make us feel better. It's just a place we need to cope with, and understanding what is going on in the world can only help us cope better. However, there are some things I could say that might make some people feel better, and it's about time I said them.

So here they are:

1. There is hope. I was a bright child. I was rejected to greater and lesser degrees by my family, my schoolmates and my teachers. Being clever doesn't win you many friends. Sometimes none at all. I grew up in a working-class city in the North of England. The people around me were poor, ill-educated and, almost without exception, ignorant. Most of them were also very stupid. Yet I found a way through. I was certainly luckier than many - my mother was bright and supportive, and I got a free, university-level education. I left the place I grew up in and went in search of better places. Eventually I found them. It's a very big world and there are many, many niches in it. Keep looking and you may find yours. It helps the search if you move to a major city.

2. Other bright people can sustain you, even if you never meet them. I'm not just talking about the Internet, here, although it's an obvious place to look for like-minded people. I didn't have the Internet when I grew up, but I had books. Read widely and read good stuff (on- and off-line). You will find that many of the people who became great writers also went through what we did. One of the best moments in my reading life was when I discovered J.D. Sallinger. In his short stories in particular, I often got that heart-stopping moment of recognition when I realised that this man knew my pain. Maybe Sallinger will do it for you too. Most likely it will be someone else. Just one word of advice - especially about the Internet. While it is easy to find fellow sufferers, and wallowing in misery together can be a relief for a while, in the end, you will get more of a lift out of positive, strong people. However bright you are, you're only human and you have the same psychology as we all do. Don't get locked in a downward spiral of self-pity with someone else. You'd both be better off on your own.

3. Work can help. Clever people tend to be good at certain things. They make good scientists, engineers, writers, and so on. Even in less intellectually challenging jobs - as administrators, planners, managers, etc. - they tend to shine. They might not get the promotions, they might not get the big bucks - for that you also need social skills which cleverness does not guarantee - but they do their jobs so well that they earn the respect of their peers. Respect isn't love, it isn't necessarily acceptance, it isn't even kindness, but it's something and it is not to be sniffed at. Respect from others helps you respect yourself - and self-respect helps in many different ways.

4. Don't worry about the meaning of life. There is none. Bright people are their own worst enemy when it comes to seeing through the crap. Sooner or later, you will conclude that there is no god, there is no deep meaning to the Universe, you have no destiny, and, in fact, there is no point to anything at all. That's fine, but you shouldn't let it worry you.

'Purpose', 'meaning', 'point' and so on are ideas that people come up with , they are not things we find in nature. The 'purpose' of the rain might be to make the crops grow, but we all know that is just a semantic confusion. The physical word doesn't have purposes, only people do. In the long term - the next ten billion years, say - nothing about humanity matters at all, not least your own little wants and needs, your hopes and ambitions, your loves and hates. However, we don't live in the long term. We don't live ten billion years. We live tiny, proscribed little lives. We flicker into self-awareness and are gone in a moment.

Yet, to us, in that moment, our own feelings, desires, and purposes are everything to us. And that is important - by definition. We are the creatures who give meaning to the world. We are the ones who provide purpose to the Universe. We are the ones that imbue existence with value. While we live, while we think and feel, we bring this into reality. You and I create the meaning of the Universe, quite literally. It is ours.

So don't feel shy about the purpose of your life. If you want an iPod, if you love the boy or girl next-door, if you have a craving for a swim, or to work in outer space, each of these is, in a very real sense, the highest purpose in the world - because it's yours, right now, and that, literally, is what matters in this otherwise indifferent Universe.

5. Find out who you are and accept it. The biggest advantage of being clever isn't that you can make money, or design cool stuff, or argue everyone else under the table, it is this: you can understand yourself and the people around you. If you don't understand yourself, you will always be doing stupid things that don't make you happy. If you don't understand other people you cannot love them and you will always be doing stupid things that don't make them happy either. It took me a couple of decades of very hard work to get a deep and thorough understanding of myself and to accept who I am, warts and all. It was the most difficult intellectual challenge I have ever faced - the most difficult emotional challenge too - but it was worth it. Well worth it. It requires strict intellectual rigour. It requires ruthless, painful honesty. It may require you to throw out many myths about yourself and your world that you cherish and hide behind. Don't waste that glorious brain of yours. It's caused you a lot of pain and heartache, set you apart, driven people away. Now, for once, get some good out of it. Use it for something that will really benefit you and everyone around you.

6. Never forget what you are. You are a human being. You evolved from ape-like creatures, who evolved from other creatures. As clever as you are, you are still an animal. You have the physiology of an animal and, importantly, the psychology of an animal. The kind of animal you are has psychological needs for the company and intimacy of its fellow animals. You can't fight your own psychology so try not to. Being cut off from the society of people is what is making you feel bad. Going along with that and cutting yourself off even more will only make you feel worse. The smart thing to do is to understand your animal nature and to start organising your life so that its needs are satisfied. I'm not talking about sex and eating and sleep and all those other 'drives' - although they are important - I'm talking about social interactions, social approval, gossiping, sharing rituals, and finding friends. Right now, those things may seem a million miles away from where you are - but that's what all the points above are about, getting yourself into a societal niche where you fit, finding people who like having you around, ditching false notions that will add to your troubles, and becoming so comfortable inside your own skin that you can face the world on equal terms and get what you need from it.

It will always be the case that you are in a minority. Always. But you don't need six billion people to accept you. You can make a great life with just a handful of close friends and family who see the way you are as a desirable quality, not a freakish aberration.


Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you for writing this article. I'm a sixteen year old girl who has always found myself in the top 1% of students my age and has been consistently alienated by both my peers and my parents because of it. I burst into tears several times while I read this, particularly while reading the fourth bullet point. I've battled depression for years because I couldn't help analyzing the world around me, realizing how messed up it truly is.

My parents were very religious, and because of that always told me that I should turn to God for help. I couldn't do that because I never understood it. I've always felt that religion was something that people made up to explain things they couldn't understand, dodge responsibility for their actions, and to create some hope for their future in this strange little world. Plus, even if there was a God, I'm sure he wouldn't appreciate me sitting in his church, pretending to listen to a sermon while thinking about how I'd rather be anywhere else.

I've always been searching for something... alone. I never knew that there were other people that felt this way, too.

Anyway, I'm sorry for rambling. (I have a tendency to do that, haha.) The bottom line is that this article made me feel a lot better about myself. I'm going to college soon, and who knows? Maybe that will be the start of something good... :)

Thanks again.

graywave said...

Anon, I'm very glad you found this made you feel better.

I'm guessing you're American (your spelling, religious parents, use of the word 'college') and I have no experience of American universities to be able to offer any hints or tips there. All I can say, from my own 'college' experience, is that joining things can be surprisingly rewarding.

There are going to be lots of clubs and societies on offer. Join lots of them - anything that takes your fancy. Most will be a complete wash-out, but there may well be people among the members who will be worth knowing. Doing something a bit out of your usual ambit can lead to all kinds of interesting experiences, if nothing else.

I joined my university's poetry society (to meet literary-minded girls, I confess) but I ended up being the president of the thing and got to meet people like Phillip Larkin, Geoge MacBeth and Quentin Crisp. (The girls were pretty awful, however, but that too was a useful thing to learn.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this and the precursor, they were both very informative. For the past 10 years I've been trying to find my "place" through various aptitude tests and soul-searching and personal turmoil, and even half-failed attempts at following in my father and brother's footsteps. I'm not sure if I unconsciously think I will be a failure if I can't be as good as them at computer programming. Even thinking about it makes my brain hurt, which I'm not sure if it's just because of thinking about the wasted years trying to learn from "idiot" computer professors (who teach because they can't do... which is a bad problem) or if I just don't like that topic, or just because I'm lazy and it's "hard", or because at my tech support job, whenever I hear pieces of the development team's meetings I feel like the boredom will (figuratively) kill me. At this point I think it's moot because now it's just a combination of all.

My problem seems to be that I'm either a jack of all trades, master of none, or a dabbler, or just naturally quite smart and lazy, or a channel-changer, or whatever, in a world seemingly all about specialization. Plus, as you mentioned (I think, or someone else I read today) the difficulty that being very good at so many things brings to the decision of what to do with oneself.

I haven't figured it out yet myself, but I've decided to try something that I've never tried but always been interested in that might not necessarily have the best career outlook, but I'm hoping to enjoy it. To get past my channel-changing, I'm documenting my progress so that even though this will take a lot of time to become good at, I can look back periodically and realize that I'm making progress and thus shouldn't quit and start over.

I'm still hoping to find the "secret" to my difficulties. Maybe I'll eventually find out that I have a hormone deficiency or a unique learning disability or any other random factor that prevented me from attaining the great potential that I had (and hope that I still have), but unfortunately we just get to live once and at the end of the day it's only up to me to do something with my life. Regardless of how many good excuses I can find for not doing my best™, I still must find a way! The hardest thing seems to be that I have to decide what my dream is, before I can attain it.

graywave said...

Hi, Anonymous. Deciding your dream before you can follow it really is one of the hardest things. It means really understanding yourself and your needs and your abilities. That, of course, can take years, possibly decades.

I'd also challenge the idea that everyone even has a dream - or needs one. I know someone who has no dreams at all. They don't waste any time agonising over it, they don't distort their life and everyone else's around them by pursuing imrobable futures, they just live their life, day by day, and enjoy it for what it is. And why not? Who says we need dreams? Advertising agencies?

On programming and aptitude tests, you might like a story of mine. When I left university (I studied psychology) I was very disillusioned with academia. In fact, I wanted nothing more to do with it. So I decided I'd have a go at programming. I'd actually been earning a lot of money during my studies, doing freelance programming jobs for some big-name corporations. I applied to a few top consultancies and two of them wanted me to take a programming aptitude test. On one of the tests I got 97% - apparently better than anyone else had ever done. On the other, I didn't score high enough to pass. I had no aptitude for it, it seems. Who should I believe?

I eventually took a job with a big software house in their R&D division and worked in AI and HCI research for the next 13 years.

What this taught me was that aptitude tests are a joke (which, as a psychologist, I already knew) and that people who rely on them to make decisions are doomed to make bad ones. Human abilities are so subtle and complex, human motivation so delicate, that it's almost impossible to judge your own aptitudes, let alone anyone else's.

As for motivation - or lack of it - I find that stems from a blend of interest and need. Need can only take you so far, of course. When it comes down to it, if you're not interested enough, you're not motivated.

Anonymous said...

Dead on analysis. I found it unfortunate that it took you decades to accept who you are. I personally am a 19 year old male, and ive been able to accept all aspects of myself very successfully, even though im utterly antisocial in nature. I enjoy consciousness. And hedonism. and knowledge. pleasures and beauty, books and drugs. even some specific people.

I think writing in a journal is very valuable for highly intelligent people. To anyone reading this, i encourage you to simply get a pen and a notebook and just start writing down some of your thoughts. it is very realxing if you learn to uninhibit yourself as you write. i imagine if you dont want to keep what you write, it keeps confidentiality intact even more if you were to burn or throw away whatever you write. i, however, like to keep it. i have hundreds of pages of journal writings in several massive folders, organized by date, and they are among my most valued possessions, because i created them. creating just feels good. creation, be it art, writing, planning, imagining, designing, it all is just good for self expression. It just feels existentially good. I encourage you to make regular creation a part of your life in some way. Also, start running, because that makes you feel so good too. Running makes you joyful. Even/especially the highly intelligent.

graywave said...

I'm glad to hear you've got it all worked out at 19, Anonymous. And while I say that tongue in cheek, because it seems unlikely, I also acknowledge that it is possible, and I hope you're right.

I've tried many times to keep a journal - especially when I was young - but I've never stuck at it. On the other hand, I have always been a writer, of fiction and of non-fiction. I've also spent much of my working life as a scientist, and as a designer. All of this is creative work and has always been extremely rewarding. Many of the intelligent people I know are also creative (but that's possibly a sample bias, because I know lots of writers and artists) but some of them are not, and happiness certainly does not seem to correlate with creativity.

As for running, that's not my cup of tea either. It doesn't make me joyous, it makes me tired - and I hate that. I've often wondered what the "endorphin rush" that runners report must feel like, but have never experienced it. Then, of course, some people are just not able to run, for all kinds of reasons. If running is a primary route to happiness (as you implied), it would be extremely sad for the disabled, or the elderly, for example, so I'm kind of hoping you're wrong about that one.

King Of All Sustainability said...

Thanks Graham! I am smart person who over the last year has been so depressed he's felt like committing suicide. I suppose I could go into the particulars of my situation but ultimately those are of secondary importance, right?

I still feel downright horrible and that perhaps the last 28 years of my life were a lie.

But maybe I can find "a great life with just a handful of close friends and family who see the way [I am] as a desirable quality, not a freakish aberration."

I feel so alone now, but I hope things will get better.

King Of All Sustainability said...

Thanks Graham! I am smart person who over the last year has been so depressed he's felt like committing suicide. I suppose I could go into the particulars of my situation but ultimately those are of secondary importance, right?

I still feel downright horrible and that perhaps the last 28 years of my life were a lie.

But maybe I can find "a great life with just a handful of close friends and family who see the way [I am] as a desirable quality, not a freakish aberration."

I feel so alone now, but I hope things will get better.

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