It has been well documented that we gauge our own intelligence by the intelligence of our peer groups. You might well be under the impression that you are incredibly clever but that could simply be because those you associate with aren’t. You might well be the smartest person you know, the smartest person in the room, but that rather depends on who you know and who is the room. We can never truly know how smart we are because maybe we have never known a truly smart person.
How would we even recognise one? Not every smart person is as forthcoming as genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, Tony Stark. So how can we work out how clever the supposedly clever people we gauge our own cleverness by actually are? What does being clever even mean? Is being the least dim of a dim group the same thing as being the brightest of a bright group? Does it even matter? Should I get all my friends to sit an IQ test? Or is an IQ test just another peer group delusion? A test to find ‘smart’ people designed by people who think they are smarter than you? Is being clever even purely intellectual? Can you be an actual genius at art? Or plumbing? Or sport? Because my wife is killer at swingball, well better than me.
Which raises another question, how much better than everyone else does a truly smart person have to be in order to be truly smart? I am only too aware that the difference between being very good at something and being brilliant can seem agonisingly small. I was once really good at drawing freehand circles but my friend Graham Flood was uncanny, perfect circle after perfect circle. I began to suspect he was using a sly compass, checked every circle for a tell tale prick at its centre but no the only prick at the centre of his circles was Graham Flood. He was simply better than me dammit and made sure I knew it. Not sure how useful a skill it was though, I would be surprised if he’d made a career out of it but it does show that although in our heads the space between good and brilliant may be tiny in our hearts it is massive.
It’s certainly true that we all want to be clever or at least thought of as clever, that way a fulfilling and lucrative career lies. Some even like to think their job is the true measure of their intelligence. I’m sure all middle management do, I mean they must be clever considering they perpetuate an entire strata of arguably pointless occupation. Just imagine how smart the middle management at Apple think they are. I wonder if they know how many smart people you would need to build an iPhone? From scratch. One thing’s for sure there isn’t some single genius who could do it. You would need hundreds. Jony Ive wouldn’t have a clue, all he did was a quick sketch on the back of a envelope. ‘Make it look like that’, he told a legion of very but less clever people. And they did. As a group I wouldn’t know how to gauge their individual cleverness, being techies they might only be good at one thing. Like snipers. Perhaps they’d get pummelled by a posse of polymath plumbers in a pub quiz. Maybe to be truly smart you have to excel at everything. Personally I don’t think so.
When I was at school there was a boy who was the very devil at chess, he could thrash everyone in chess club, could play half a dozen of us at once and never lose. Anyone who got to know him thought he was a prodigy but not many bothered because away from chess club he couldn’t run in a straight line, kept each hand in its respective armpit during PE and always left his plimsolls undone because only his mum could tie his laces.
I knew a girl at college whose knowledge of history was astounding, any question we asked she would provide an immediate and effortless answer. She was confident, funny, modest and her prettiness was irrelevant, this was someone who genuinely seemed to know and have it all. We thought she was the smartest person ever, until she sat her history A level and got an E. Turns out she was crap at exams.
I had a neurologist, his name was Brian, which is an anagram of brain, how cool is that? That man paddled in my shallows, waded out into my depths, told me things about my mind that were hard to imagine. And yet. He had the bedside manner of a vending machine, the handwriting of a eight year old and though he could diagnose idiopathic, intracranial hypertension from a conversation, he couldn’t spell it.
These were all truly smart people with singular intelligence but outside of their fields of expertise they were much like everybody else, human. They were brilliant just not at everything, in my experience no one is. None of them would seem that clever though without the cleverness of other people. Individual brilliance may provide a light source but it requires the lenses of association and context to focus it. Perhaps we shouldn’t compare our supposed intellect to those outside of our social groups but accept that it is the intelligence of those closest to us that defines our own, for better or for worse. Perhaps being the least dim of a dim group really is the same as being the brightest of a bright group. In a world where nobody is truly smart everybody is.
Considering the incomplete brilliance of the partially dazzling company I keep I am perfectly happy to accept that I am not as clever as I think I am. But then again, no one is as clever as I think I am.