Friday, January 12, 2007

The Smartest Guy in the Room

If you’re reading this, odds are that you’ve spent at least some time in your life as the Smartest Guy in the Room. I’m going to hope that everyone at least temporarily lets me get away with the sexist aspects of that statement, though I’ll stipulate that there are plenty of times when the smartest guy in the room is a female. For that matter, I’ll state at the outset that the smartest guy in the room needn’t even be the most intelligent. The SGITR syndrome has a more to do with competition and aggression.

At Hickman Elementary and Donelson High School, Mark and I swapped back and forth for the top scores on standardized tests, achievement tests, PSATs, ACTs, and SATs. Mark went to Oberlin for a while, had a bit of a flameout, then attended and graduated from U. of Indiana, Bloomington in mathematics. Mark was shy and not nearly as aggressive as I am, but during his college years at least, he had the math version of SGITR, which shows up in casual statements like, “Oh, I can never remember that equation; if I need it, I’ll just re-derive it.”

In primary and secondary public education, the occasional Bronx High School of Science being the exception, it’s pretty easy to be the SGITR. My high school graduating class had about 200 students, so all Mark and I had to do was be in the top percentile. Larger schools will have a more in the top 1%, but still, everyone will know who’s who pretty quickly, and the pecking order sorts itself out.

If someone is really invested in being the SGITR, though, college can be a shock, especially if the school is science-and-engineering. If someone goes to MIT, RPI, CalTech, Cornell, or any of several dozen other schools, suddenly he’s confronted with an entire school full of 1 percentiles, each and every one of them with his own history of being the smartest guy in the room.
Some guys just go into shock, like the turkeys dropped from a plane; they just fold their wings and drop like stones, to flunk out of school in the first year or two. Others intensify their competition, sometimes sliding into stereotypes like cutting relevant articles out of library journals so their classmates can’t get them, or pestering their professors to squeeze out every last little decimal of their GPA.

I was lucky in a lot of ways. I was already a weird guy from a strange part of the country (there were exactly two of us from Tennessee in my class at RPI). Moreover, my skill set was markedly different from other RPI students. My math skills were about average (for a ‘Tute student), but my verbal skills were way above the norm, and I had some other things going, like my 3-D visualization is off the charts (if you ever need your trunk packed, I’m the guy to ask for help).

So I branched out. There were a ton of guys studying Math Analysis until 2 A.M., I went for operations research and statistics instead. I became a “publications nurd,” and wound up editing three student magazines during my undergraduate years. And so forth.
I also ditched the lingering traces of my southern accent, because people assume that someone who talks like that is stupid. I might have decided that I didn’t want to win the SGITR competition, but I didn’t want to lose it, either.

Still, I thought about what that competition entailed, and indeed, what all social competitions entailed. I mean, if you’ve got a hundred people and only one winner, what does that make the other 99? Losers? Those odds suck, even for the winner.

So the first thing to do was to put the whole thing in perspective. It’s easy to come up with a lot of things that are more important, at least in terms of the social competition, than being smart. Looks for example, or money. Sure, people will try to claim that smart people make money, but all you have to do is to look at the fate of all those mathematicians to see how silly that is.
But I was more interested in my own valuations, so I deliberately made a list of mental attributes that I thought were more important than raw intellect.

Honesty topped the list. Part of the reason for that is the recognition of how hard real honesty is, even to define. It’s not just a lack of dishonesty, or the inability to lie well (which I have pretty well down pat, but so what?). Real honesty takes considerable courage, because it first has to be turned on itself, stripping away rationalizations, lazy assumptions, comforting suppositions, and cherished theories. Cheap candor is easy; honesty is heavy lifting.

There comes empathy and compassion. I’d need an entire essay (probably more) to examine the nature of those currently popular political philosophies that try to rationalize what is basically a fear of compassion. Empathy and compassion, the ability to see and feel things from another’s point of view, are essential for any civilized view of the world, and it’s revealing that so much effort is being expended to avoid what is seen as “weakness” or “relativism.”

Curiosity isn’t the same as being smart, either, but without it, someone only learns if they think there is an advantage to it. That brings up the matter of depth and breadth of knowledge, another factor that isn’t the same as intellect, but is often mistaken for it.

Making my list at least gave me the intellectual reasons for abandoning the smartest guy in the room competition. I can’t say that I don’t still have the reflexes, of course. You don’t easily drop something that played a big part in your formative years. But I do notice when there is a smartest guy competition going on, and I sometimes manage to bow out honorably. It’s most difficult when someone is trying for an argument, of course.

I once spent an extended period of time consciously attempting to avoid arguments. Toward the end of the experiment, I remarked to a friend of mine, “You know, everyone calls me argumentative, but as nearly as I can tell, it’s everyone else who is trying to contradict every thing I say.”

She said, “Hey, I don’t try to contradict with everything you say.”

Then she cracked up, realizing what she had said. “Okay, proposition granted,” she said.

I am pretty lucky to have friends like that.


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Anonymous said...

That was brilliant and the irony is that the only comment you got from 7B humans was a spambot trying to sell you the art of good writing.

When faced with an imbecile, I just smile and nod. I know your suffering.

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