The Greatest Tragedy

“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” ~Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein was not as intelligent as history has portrayed him to be. For the same reason, there isn’t as much stupidity in the average person as the internet would indicate. And the stupidity that does exist is tacitly assented to. It is erroneously believed that stupidity is inherent and immutable. So there are stupid people, but not stupid brains.

If we are to interpret Einstein’s quote on his own intelligence as one of humility, then we need not confront the implications of what he is saying. We can tell ourselves, “Albert really is a freakishly smart human, a true mental aberration above and beyond anything we’re capable of emulating.” And we can go back to our coffee and scones.

But when his comment is viewed earnestly, it raises counter-intuitive questions about what intelligence really is. Could intellect really simply be the product of a tenacious focus? If so, then why aren’t more people as intellectually developed?

What is the difference between a dumb person and a smart person? Smart people solve complex math problems with great accuracy. They speak and write eloquently. They are fluent in multiple languages, and play several instruments. Perhaps they grasp scientific concepts more readily. On the other hand dumb people do not do well in school. They take blue collar work. Their language is crude, their sense of humor base. They make poor financial decisions. Perhaps they abide by a lifestyle of easy cultural consumption.

But every one of these metrics, and any other one for that matter, can be strengthened through training. Intelligence is a vaguely defined concept. Its metrics have no immutability, so neither does it. Mathematical faculty, linguistic mastery, musical ability, emotional resilience, rationality, financial savvy; however you define intelligence, it can be augmented.

If intelligence can be strengthened, then why isn’t everyone smart? For one, it’s because it can atrophy. But predominately, it’s because people learn early on that they are ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’ or somewhere in between.

The author is not suggesting that everyone has the same potential intellect, or that we’re all born equal. He is merely asserting that the true difference between the intellectual elite and the average person is much slimmer than is commonly believed, and that the greatest factor that limits people’s intellectual potential is their own self-belief.

Consider the institution that rigorously grades impressionable youth on their intelligence; academia. A student who struggles in primary school learns from an early age that the subjects taught in school are difficult, and that he or she does poorly in them. Oppositely, a student that does well learns the lesson that problems can be solved, and new concepts can be mastered. Grades serve as defining attributes to an impressionable psyche where ‘A’ means smart and ‘F’ means dumb.

Exacerbating the problem is the fact that students are forced to study for seven to eight hours a day or more, focusing on subjects that continually increase in difficulty regardless of whether mastery of prior concepts has been attained. The failure to grasp a few fundamental assignments can propagate through years of academic enrollment.

I’m touching on the ills of an antiquated education system, but the important point is that these ills can wreak havoc on the tender psyches of youth while in school. Young people learn that the pursuit of knowledge is a skill that some have and others must be coerced into. And it’s that coercion that crushes the tenacity to learn in a young mind. That is where the great divide between the smart and the dumb is created.

By the time struggling students reach adolescence they’ve been weighed and measured. Their personal beliefs about their level of intelligence have been cemented, and so has their aversion to any or all subjects being taught. Habits formed in childhood are deeply entrenched and won’t be dislodged without deliberate intervention.

Those that do well in school have their own set of trials. Whatever part of their precocious natures that isn’t determined by genetics is certainly determined by their home environment. Maybe their parents encourage reading instead of watching television. Maybe they offer musical instruments to their children. Maybe they are better sheltered from fundamentalist consumerism that would train their minds to be passive instead of engaged.

When these kids enter school, their thoughts and behaviors are motivated more by intellectual pursuits than recreational ones. While this leads to success in earning high marks, it also leads to a dissonance between their character and that of their peers. Precociousness is an isolating condition. If depression has a greater prevalence in intelligent people, then it is the result of the relative social isolation they experience throughout their lives. Fortunately, most form tight cliques with those who have similar minds.

What does this mean for non-parents and non-students?

It means that despite how longstanding your beliefs about your own intellectual potential are, they can be overcome. You can subvert ritualized thinking. You can usurp your identity. You can change your stripes. Forsake your belittling notions of inherent weaknesses, mental, and physical too for that matter.

The author isn’t advocating the delusion that you’re as smart as Einstein or as talented as Pavarotti. He’s advocating the belief that through training you can approach them.

How? Find something you’re weak at and strengthen it daily. Start with something small. Reveal to yourself your own dormant capability, and teach yourself that any quality can be improved through training just like any talent or skill can be. Then master something greater.

The only reason we’re not all neuro-surgeon rockstars fluent in every language and saintly in all personal qualities is because we lack the immortality necessary to foster every one of those abilities.

The greatest tragedy is not that we can’t do anything we want, it’s that we don’t have the time to do everything we want.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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