Another in the series of essays from five years ago. These were fun to write since it's fun to ponder exactly what it means to be smart, tough, cool, etc:
Tolstoy once said that while everybody seems to feel that he needs more money, at the same time everybody seems to feel that he has a sufficiency of brains. But the fact is, it’s hard for us to judge our own intelligence. After all, we all tend to place more faith in our own sense of judgment than in anyone else’s. Thus, most people in the top half and bottom quartile of human intelligence are dumb enough to think themselves the smartest people they know. Most are, by definition, seriously deluded.
The common currency of intelligence is usually IQ tests and the SATs. Both numbers are dear to the heart of the upper middle class, emblems of their self-worth second only to their net worth. They may loom even larger than our alma maters, because many factors other than intelligence feed into college admissions. (Your grades are more a function of how much of a grind you were, and your athletic ability is a measure of your body rather than your mind.)
One’s IQ is generally not kept as deep and dark a secret as one’s net worth, but many are reluctant to reveal it. If it’s low, people are apt to write you off. If it’s very high, the question becomes why you haven’t been more successful.
But what exactly is intelligence, this quality theoretically measured by IQ tests? Is it the ability to solve problems, as measured by the standardized tests? Is it spatial sense? To what extent is it mathematical ability, to what extent verbal dexterity?
How much does intelligence consist of memory? Very intelligent people tend to have very good memories, and any sense of judgment must be based on empirical observation, which is impossible without a good memory. But memory alone does not make a genius, otherwise certain autistic people (formerly called idiot savants) would have to be considered geniuses.
Is intelligence creativity? This quality is not measured by the standardized tests, but when you think of genius, the usual suspects such as Einstein, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Tesla, Edison, Newton, Darwin, Shakespeare, Franklin, Jefferson, etc. were all extremely creative. People don’t become famous just because they had good memories or scored high on IQ tests. They have to produce something original and worthwhile to be celebrated.
One form of creativity is humor. Humor is basically just juxtaposing two things together that aren’t normally associated. The class clown is rarely the class valedictorian, but it is not coincidence that the word “wit” refers to both intelligence and a ready sense of humor.
Another aspect of intelligence, as expressed in everyday life, is analytical ability. Smart people tend to ask the question “why” more often. They are interested in cause and effect.
Another form of intelligence not measured on the tests is sensitivity to others. A great deal has been made of the difference between “emotional IQ” and regular IQ, and some people who don’t score high on the latter seem to have found solace in the idea that they have high emotional IQs. In fact, many of these people are simply keyed into their own emotional needs. But the ability to read others and accurately anticipate their actions is probably closely tied in to the more traditionally measured forms of intelligence.
To what extent is intelligence quickness of thought? Standardized tests are performed under time constraints for a reason. And some people are obviously quicker on their feet than others. The French have a term, “l’esprit de l’escalier,” which, literally translated, means “the spirit of the stairs.” It refers to how we often think of a clever response when it’s too late to make it, i.e., on the stairs on the way out rather than at the dinner table. Do those of us who suffer from that have a lesser intelligence? Maybe. To put it another way, when you hear someone say “I’m not dumb, I’m just slow,” does it make you think, no, you really are dumb?
Is how far we think into the past or future a measure of intelligence? Some people think that living in the past or future is a sign that one does not live life to the fullest, i.e., seize the moment. But people who let their imaginations – or memories – wander tend to be more, well, imaginative. A more direct measure of intelligence might be how many moves we think ahead in a chess match. Some people think two or three moves ahead; others think four or five. In general, the further apart cause and effect, the more intelligence it takes to recognize the connection.
While we’re on the subject of imagination, another test of intelligence might be how easily bored we are. There is an expression, “Only boring people get bored.” This might be more tellingly phrased, “Only dumb people get bored.” (Or, to put it more positively, “The more easily you can amuse yourself, the smarter you probably are.”)
Sherlock Holmes once famously said that most people look but don’t see. Think for a moment about how intelligence evolved in the first place. A group of cavemen looked up at the night sky; but only a few were able to see that they could guide themselves by the North Star. Or a group of cavemen looked at tracks on the ground, but only a few could accurately interpret their meaning: what type of animal made them, how many of them there were, where they were headed, and how long since they passed this way. Obviously the more discerning cavemen had a better chance for survival. Eventually these more discerning cavemen and cavewomen reproduced with each other and eventually bred Arthur Conan Doyle.
A different way to regard intelligence is to think of the character traits we associate with extremely smart people.
Curiosity seems to be a trait of the highly intelligent. Most brainy people seem to have varied interests, which are chosen not for any reason other than that they piqued their curiosity. They are simply interested in whatever they find interesting, be that physics or history or baseball.
Highly intelligent people don’t fear appearing foolish. Most people are far more concerned with what is considered safe and respectable to think than with the truth. Intelligent people are generally willing to open-mindedly consider all the possibilities and then base their opinions on the available evidence, rather go with the conventional wisdom. (They are able to do this because they are not insecure about their intelligence.)
They are flexible. They will change their minds if new evidence appears which contradicts their opinions. They never try to fit the world into some rigid ideology defined by a political platform, or religion.
They recognize patterns, similarities, common denominators, and recurrent themes running through different fields. They can make analogies and draw parallels. They make sense of what they see.
They can grasp new concepts quickly.
They can explain new ideas to the uninitiated in easily understandable ways. They do not try to obfuscate matters with esoteric language designed to impress and confuse.
They tend to enjoy puzzles.
No matter how good you are at all of the above, no matter what your IQ has been tested at, your wisdom can be limited by bad character. (For purposes of this article, wisdom will be considered a form of intelligence, even if it is not, strictly speaking, exactly what is measured by IQ tests.) Wisdom is developed over the years by seeing both sides of every issue. A narcissistic personality, no matter what his IQ, will tend to see only his own viewpoint, and will therefore never develop the balance and common sense that comes from understanding both sides of an argument. (As La Rochefoucald said, “Everyone complains about his memory but no one complains about his judgment.”)
A narcissistic personality also has a hard time accepting blame. If you don’t learn from your mistakes, you never learn. Wise people will readily admit fault, and will figure out a way to avoid the pitfall next time around.
Wise people tend to be more self-aware than others. They can be self-deprecating when that is called for, and. they can laugh at themselves, and are aware of their own weaknesses.
One trait which goes along with a non-narcissistic personality is the ability to appreciate other people, for whatever attributes they possess. All of the extremely intelligent people I’ve known have been outspoken in their admiration for others’ accomplishments and abilities.
Truly intelligent people tend to be calm. I can’t recall meeting a hysteric with an IQ above 130. If I have, his hysteria certainly functioned as an effective disguise. (The same goes for temperamental types.)
A trait which goes hand in hand with calmness is not minding being alone. Reading, observing, and writing are all essentially solitary activities. Restlessness is the enemy of thought.
Intelligent people rarely get “offended.” To claim offense in the middle of a discussion is in fact tacit admission that one has lost the argument, so one must claim hurt feelings in order to bring open and honest discussion to an end.
Another thing I’ve noticed about the extremely intelligent people I’ve known is their lack of pretension and affectation. Almost none were interested in the trappings of academic success, such as multiple degrees, or Phi Beta Kappa keys. None had ever bothered to join MENSA. (The Scarecrow couldn’t have been that smart, or he wouldn’t have been so happy with the diploma the Wizard of Oz presented him with.)
They will not pretend knowledge they don’t have, but will rather ask pointed, logical questions until they do understand.
It’s hard to say who the smartest guy I’ve ever met is. Different people are smart in different ways. I went to Harvard and worked at Goldman Sachs, so I’ve run into a fair number with likely resumes. I think the smartest guy I’ve ever met is Jon Leaf. Before I ever met him I read about him, in an article in October 22, 2004 issue of The New York Observer, “Slouched Playwright Jon Leaf Writes in Verse, Prowls by Night.” The gist of the article was that Jon, a likeable, self-deprecating, intelligent young man, was a prolific but as yet unproduced playwright who had enjoyed little worldly success. Leaf had confided a lot of what most New Yorkers would consider extremely embarrassing information to the author, George Gurley:
“He has never been to the Hamptons. He takes dates to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and gets there early so he can purchase two passes for 50 cents. On the way home from a date, Mr. Leaf has the cab drop his date off, then, after taking the cab a more few blocks, he gets out and rides the subway. He gets his New York Times from recycling bins. Home is Flatbush, where he lives with his 88-year-old grandmother, Bessie.
“‘I lead a very dull life,’ Mr. Leaf will tell you. ‘I’m a 33-year-old man who lives in New York and I’ve never been unfaithful to a woman. I don’t know how many people can say that. I think that’s a small, small number. That’s how dull my life is….’
“My hair looks stupid, my nose is too large, my lips are too large – they go on and on. My voice is too nasal and a shade too high. My hands, the palms. You know, an aristocratic hand should have long, tapered fingers and a small palm. You see, I have this huge palm and these fat stubby fingers. They’re grotesque.”
The article also mentioned that Leaf’s IQ had been tested at 211 as a 5-year old. A number like that not only leaps off the page at you, it grabs you by the throat. I asked my brother, who was friends with him, what he was like. My brother replied that he was very charming, and that he enjoyed networking. I asked if his intelligence was immediately discernable. My brother replied that it was always there lurking in the background, but he didn’t show it off aggressively.
The natural reaction to hearing such a score is dubiousness: can he really be that smart? I looked forward to meeting him, partly, as I realized later, because I wanted to be able to dismiss him as a guy who wasn’t really all that much smarter than the rest of us, who just happened to get lucky on a single test.
It also occurred to me that I would have to guard against being overly impressed just because I had heard what his IQ was. It is possible to perceive someone as brighter than they are just because they are illuminated in a certain hallowed light (like the one provided by a score of 211). The movie “Being There” was based on this premise: a moron, played by Peter Sellers, was thought to be a genius by all sorts of people who read much deeper meanings into his simple statements than were actually intended. (A British accent can have a similar effect: it certainly doesn’t make anyone smarter, but it can somehow make someone sound smarter.)
I brought an IQ test along to our first meeting (as President Reagan said, “Trust, but verify”). Jon was willing to take the test until I explained that it was just a joke; he then explained that it is much easier to get a high score when you’re very young. (“I’d probably get a 130 or 140 if I took it now.”)
One of the first things that you notice when you meet Leaf is his nervous blink. (Another candidate for this article had a similar tic, so it made me wonder if there was a correlation.) If he stood a little straighter, he might look like a Jewish Hercules (he once leg pressed 1000 pounds). The nose and lips that he described as too large in the New York Observer in fact give him a full-blooded, sensual look, which, combined with his bear-like physique, should present an aura of power. But it is all negated by the hunched posture and frequent blink.
The voice that he describes as too high is a standard tenor. He has a casual but animated way of talking that makes one think about what he is talking about rather than the pitch of his voice anyway. His head is of average size (there is a .3 positive correlation between brain size and IQ, but there have been plenty of documented geniuses with normal-sized brains).
Realizing that someone is extraordinarily bright is by definition a gradual process. Nobody introduces himself and says something right off which makes you think, wow, is he smart. This point is never made by one knockout punch, but rather by a combination. I witnessed such a flurry when we stopped off at Barnes and Noble on the way to dinner while waiting for some others to buy some books.
No matter what section we were in, there would be at least one book Leaf had read and had some cogent opinion about. At one point we stood next to a shelf full of history books. Jon raved about one, then stated that the author’s other book (not on display) was even better. There were three or four other history books on the display that he was familiar with, and he knew fairly detailed information about all of them. One had been told from too much of a Marxist point of view; another had misused sources. (This article is not a brief for overly opinionated people: his views were always informed and well-balanced.)
We then wandered by a display of books on Shakespeare. Leaf had read three of them. Next we happened to stand near a group of sports books. I finally saw a book I recognized, by sportswriter John Feinstein, and pointed it out. Jon looked at it and said, “I’ve heard his book ‘Season on the Brink’ about Bobby Knight was really a great book.” (“Season on the Brink” is generally considered one of Feinstein’s best.)
As we passed by the science fiction section on the way out I praised the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov. Jon replied, “What I was really impressed by was Asimov’s introductory text to the Bible. You know, it takes a special kind of expert to make a subject like that accessible to everyone, and Asimov did a superb job. His book on Shakespeare was also excellent. He also had an introductory text to mathematics which is supposed to be just as good.”
Finally, by the cash register, there was a cookbook by a fairly well-known chef. Jon told us where his restaurants in Manhattan were located, and mentioned that one of them had shut down recently.
It is impossible to have an experience like that without feeling both uneducated and sheepish about one’s own memory. It should be mentioned that Jon majored in history at Yale, and he has been involved with the theater for several years, so one would expect him to be well-informed about those two fields. But our casual stroll through the bookstore was not a fluke event which happened to make him look more well-informed than he is. Leaf’s friends sometimes play a game they call “Stump Jon.” The idea is to find some intellectual arena, or even just a solitary fact, that Jon is unfamiliar with. Usually they lose.
Leaf is not unaware of his freakishness in this regard. As a 24-year-old fresh out of Yale, he tried to make a go of the game shows in Los Angeles. He won at “The Challengers” (a “Jeopardy” clone) twice, but lost the third time because he lost his concentration, as he had been warned he might.
When I met Leaf, he was writing a textbook about the history of twentieth century theater for Ivan R. Dee Publishing. At dinner that night, I asked about that, and the subject drifted from plays to movies. No matter what the movie mentioned, Jon had an interesting behind-the-scenes story about what had happened during filming. From there the subject turned to actors, and gossip. Jon seemed to know a lot about various actors, including which were gay, and seemed to relish the discussion. (It’s generally the 110-130 IQs who feel obliged to feign disinterest in such gossip; 211’s don’t feel the need to prove they are “above” anything.) The difference with Leaf is that he is as interested in almost everything as much as most people are in which movie stars are gay. (This is partly why he scored 5’s on three of his AP’s in high school: European History, American History, and Biology.)
Whenever I mentioned a concept in psychology, I would find to my embarrassment that Jon’s knowledge was not only broader but deeper than mine. He was familiar with and had thought critically about most of the major theorists.
I happen to have an interest in sociopathy and broached that topic later on. No matter whom I mentioned, Jon knew about him and had some fact to add that I was unfamiliar with. When I mentioned Sammy Gravano, Jon said, “Did you know that he actually studied to be a hairdresser when he was young?” When I mentioned Art Schlichter, Jon mentioned that Schlichter had once had a fairly popular radio talk show, but he had lost that job because he had continually tried to borrow money from people who called in. When I mentioned Chainsaw Al Dunlap, Jon asked, “Did you know that two years before Dunlap’s downfall, Gretchen Morgenson of the NY Times had predicted that Dunlap would falsify the revenues of Sunbeam in exactly the way in which he did?” It is impressive enough that Leaf would remember one of Morgenson’s columns, but even more so that he would make the connection two years later at the time Dunlap was convicted.
Once when I mentioned a NY Times reporter named Tim Werner, Jon corrected me, saying his name was Weiner. On two occasions I’ve mentioned a movie and its director, only to have him correct me about the director; both times he was right. Getting to know Jon has had one unexpected result: it’s made me feel foolish for ever having had the temerity to try out for Jeopardy. (As a tough guy once said, there’s always someone who can beat you up – and another guy who can beat that guy up; the embarrassing thing about Leaf, though, is the ease with which he beats you up.)
This pattern has continued to this day. I have never been able to bring up a subject that Leaf is completely unfamiliar with. One time he even told me something about my own mother I was unaware of (my brother had evidently mentioned it to him once).
One of the things one realizes about Leaf after a while is that he never, ever introduces a subject by snapping his fingers, looking at the ceiling, and saying, “That reminds me of – oh, what’s his name? I’m drawing a blank – you know who I’m talking about, the guy who was, I think he was Carter’s Secretary of State.” Instead Leaf just mentions the person by name and makes his point. The supercomputer is well-oiled.
The popular image of extreme brain trusters is that they are nerds whose comprehension of higher mathematics or physics somehow precludes the ability to carry on a normal conversation, let alone any possibility of charm. But Leaf is unfailingly polite, pays attention to the social niceties, and is generous with compliments. (I’ve heard him compliment others on their voice, profile, physique, writing, and generosity.) Leaf has a ready wit, and his harshest insults are usually aimed at himself. Engaging in such self-laceration is on one level a form of self-defense, to keep anyone else from such an attack, but at another it is very disarming. Leaf is invited to parties practically every night, and attends most, sometimes two or three a night.
Leaf is modest, and it is not the kind of false modesty which simultaneously gives off an air of self-satisfaction. When I told him that he was going to be the subject of this article, he immediately said that he knew several people, including a particle physicist, who were smarter than him. He added, “I can’t draw. I have no musical ability. And I know people whose number crunching abilities far outshine mine. Really, you’ve chosen the wrong person.” The closest I’ve ever heard him come to boasting was one time when he said that he thought that something he had written was quite funny in places.
Leaf occasionally refers to things he’s said or thought as “idiotic.” (I've noticed over time that generally only smart people tell you they’re stupid, and only dumb people tell you they’re smart.)
Another cliché about the supersmart is that they are high strung. But Leaf never comes close to losing his temper, in fact is just the opposite – he seems to regard everything with a detached and amused air. His mild tone of voice underscores this mindset. Even when he told the story of a sociopath who had defrauded him, he related it without the slightest trace of rancor, as if it were a funny joke he had heard secondhand.
Many people assume that brainiacs must somehow be “weird.” But Jon’s only concession to “weirdness” is his nervous blink. (There is an entire population of would-be creative types who affect eccentricities in hopes of appearing smart, but that illusion generally only lasts as long as it takes to get to know them.)
Yet another cliché is that the superbright can’t relate to the average-IQed. But Leaf seems to enjoy people – otherwise his social calendar wouldn’t remain full. (If he insisted on only hanging out with other 211 IQs, he’d be one lonely fellow.) I have yet to hear him complain of boredom, no matter the company or situation; there inevitably seems to be something of interest to be gleaned from them all.
Leaf is also generous with his time: he once copy-edited a friend’s entire book-length manuscript, just as a favor. More recently, he did the same for me. He took a dusty old manuscript that had been moldering on a bookshelf, read the entire thing, made some helpful suggestions, gave me some advice about how to market myself, and gave it to his agent -- then he thanked me for the opportunity to read it.
Whiz kids are not necessarily creative (otherwise Ken Jennings would be William Shakespeare), but Leaf has been able to amalgamate the information he retains and put it into different form. He has written articles on Stoppard, Bergman, and the Nobel Prize, as well as several book reviews, for the Weekly Standard. He has written an article on education for The National Review. He has contributed unsigned opera reviews to The New Yorker. He has also written nine plays. One, “The Germans in Paris,” was recently produced. (It is about an imaginary meeting between Karl Marx, Richard Wagner, and Heinrich Heine in Paris in 1832. None of the three ever met, but all three were there at approximately the same time.) The play featured a gallant Heine, a self-centered Marx, and a hysterically egotistical Wagner. There was also an affecting love story between Heine and his mistress. The play got good reviews.
But the other eight plays languish in a desk drawer, though he still hopes to see them produced. And his special interest, verse drama, has an extremely limited audience. Friends have suggested he pursue a more commercial line of writing. (Even his produced play would have undoubtedly attracted wider notice had it been about an imaginary meeting between Paris Hilton, Jessica Simpson, and Eminem.) But Leaf is partial to verse drama and period pieces; after all, we don’t choose our passions, they choose us. And it is the lot of all artists to suffer frustration, especially early on.
Leaf has now completed the text on twentieth century theater, and producers have expressed interest in another play of his, [“Pushkin”]. In the meantime he works as an instructor helping high school students in the Bronx pass the Regents exam. (Having someone with a tested IQ of 211 teach subpar high school students seems a little like using a bazooka to go squirrel hunting.)
Leaf does regret not having taken an early opportunity to write for television. At the time he felt that if he did that, the level of his writing would suffer, and he would no longer be able to create verse drama the same way. He said that he knew this sounded silly, but it was just the way he felt at the time. (This sounds suspiciously like an affectation, but affectations are not really such when acknowledged.)
Leaf frequently bemoans his lack of material success, and is painfully aware that money rules in Manhattan. He has said on more than one occasion that he is too old to be single, given his relative poverty (poverty being more socially acceptable in your twenties than in your thirties.) It is an unfortunate fact of life that an obnoxious, dumb rich man will enjoy more romantic success in New York, and most other places, than a charming, smart, poor man. (Leaf’s love life, however, is not nearly as barren as he claimed in the Observer.)
Leaf does have an interest in business. He suggested to me in the fall of ’04 that the dollar would have to fall further (it subsequently did). He seems to know all about the various personalities that dominate, or have dominated the financial scene in recent decades. He has opinions about which money center banks are currently better investments. When I told him about a fellow who was now trying to inflate a penny stock company in New Jersey, he immediately responded, “Oh -- he’s trying to be the new Robert Brennan.” (Brennan is the former penny stock king of First Jersey Securities, currently in jail.)
When I suggested to Leaf that he go to work for a hedge fund, he shrugged the suggestion off. One would think he would be able to obtain such a job just based on the strength of his IQ, but money is not his god.
On Wall Street, one meets all sorts of people of very ordinary intelligence who have done extraordinarily well for themselves, due to their extreme ambition, and, often, lack of honesty. People with higher IQs, less greed, and good character tend to be much better company. Jon is an extreme of this type. He does not lack ambition, but the directions his ambitions have led him in have thus far not resulted in wealth. There is something almost touchingly old-fashioned about this. There was a time when a certain kind of young man loved art for its own sake; but that type seems much rarer these days.
Arthur Jensen, the famous -- and controversial -- professor of educational psychology at UC Berkeley, posited that intelligence can be measured by brain waves, and that this overall brainpower should be referred to as the “g factor,” which stands for “general ability. Jensen says the old ways of measuring intelligence, dividing it up into spatial sense and mathematical ability and verbal ability, and then creating an artificial curve to grade them on, are misleading. Rather it is simply a function of how much horsepower you have, and you can apply that horsepower in any direction you choose. Leaf seems to be pretty good evidence that Jensen is correct.
It has been said that it’s only possible for us to judge other peoples’ intelligence up to the limits of our own; beyond our own IQ levels, we are unqualified to judge. This may be so, but we can still have some sense of the gap. I do know that I have never felt so lacking in horsepower as when conversing with Jon.
Update: Haven't seen much of Jon in the past few years but I do hear of him occasionally through my brother, who often has a story to tell about how he was at a party with Jon and Jon turned out to be just ridiculously well informed he is about some topic which my brother had no idea he knew about. Jon's book "The Politically Incorrect Guide to The Sixties" is coming out on August 10th.