Dr. Allison had a Rough Thanksgiving (a Primer on Intelligence vs. Wisdom)

I caught up with Dr. Allison after Thanksgiving.  She’s softened a bit on her Anti-Rob stance since I recently posted her quote (I guess she’s more vain than I had originally thought).  She had an intriguing holiday, celebrating it with her ridiculously intelligent family.  Parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, grandparents, all possessing incredibly high levels of education in medicine, law, physics, history, engineering and computer science.  Allison is a very bright woman, but the other members of her family seem to have I.Q.’s that are north of 150. Therefore, Allison is massively intimidated when they come together as a group because they are capable of discussing, in great depth, a plenitude of topics.  Here is a truncated (seriously) list of the subjects the family covered over Thanksgiving Day, to which Allison simply observed in amazement:

-St Paul and his work to expand Christianity

-Alexander the Great

-Roman, Greek/Macedonian and Persian military strategies (including the use of phalanxes)

-The relation of Sanskrit to European languages

-Evolutionary discussion of the timeline of Homo Erectus, The Java man, Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals, the Bronze Age, the Stone Age

-Development of culture/community, burying the dead, cave paintings, creativity in early societies

-Importance of genetic diversity in propagating species

-Ice ages and glacial patterns

-History of Dubai (e.g., the lavish wealth and outrageous waste of money (including the tallest tower, indoor ski slopes, etc.))

-The Protestant Reformation and an extended discussion of the state of corruption of the church/Popes, political power, and the climate that led to Martin Luther creating the Ninety-Five Theses

-Role of confession in the Catholic church and discussion of the evolution of confession/penance over the past several hundred years

-Fanatical Islam, Sharia law, offenses that lead to stoning and execution, the importance of preserving family honor, differences in treatment of women in Muslim countries; prohibition of alcohol and intoxicants and the rationale and repercussions in the Muslim world; factors leading to suicide bombers/martydom

-The Taliban and their role in drug trade

-Inquisitions: conversion by sword, general discussion of how religions treat nonbelievers; persecution of Christians; how Armenia persecuted the Christians only later to convert to a Christian country

-Haitian history: detailed description of the later battles of the Haitian Revolution at the Citadel; Haiti’s debt to France to pay for their freedom and how Versailles was built using Haitian imports

-Napolean and the Louisiana Purchase

-The Big Bang Theories (are they obsolete?); the concept of a multi-universe, string theory, quantum mechanics

-Game theory

-French poetry

-Voodoo, possession, the power of suggestion as used in war as a means to help soldiers reduce their own fear and instill fear in others

-History of oil and its effect on Argentina and Trinidad

-PTSD and battle fatigue in WWI, the story of Patton slapping a soldier he called a coward for battle fatigue but in reality had malaria, WWII, Korean, Vietnam War, factors related to the increase in soldier suicides for our current wars

-Concept of the draft, compelled service in other countries, the doctor draft in the United States

-The importance of friendships for soldiers

-WWII and segregation of black soldiers, Truman’s decision to integrate the armed services, the treatment of blacks after returning from war

-Factors the British used when colonizing India (caste system), the linking of the Aryans to the top caste of the Brahmins as a way for the British to encourage the Brahmans to identify with them rather than the lower castes

-Beyonce’s and Destiny’s Child musical career, Christina Aguilera’s voice superiority,  Sammy Sosa’s skin lightening, Michael Jackson’s weirdness and use of Propofol, Lindsay Lohan and her crazy father

-The Swine Flu and why the elderly are less susceptible

 
Now what is wrong with this picture?  On the surface, nothing.  In fact, if you have even a cursory interest in just a small number of the topics covered you might consider this a fascinating way to spend your holiday.  But that is because you have not met these people.  There is no doubt they are highly intelligent.  But consider the following shortcomings that virtually all of them possess:

-They cannot easily identify, much less express, their emotional needs, causing them to have limited intimacy and high levels of dissatisfaction in their romantic relationships. 

-They hoard their millions of dollars, refusing to enjoy any of it.  They equate money with anxiety, something to be preserved solely “for a rainy day,” for a retirement that they may never see.  Thus, they live fairly meager existences despite great wealth and lose sleep when even small amounts are lost due to market fluctuations.

-They don’t exercise for the natural high and robust health, but rather as a way to simply avoid dying prematurely.  The same can be said for their eating habits, as they rarely, if ever, engage in an unhealthy meal just for the hell of it.  Their health concerns override any desire to enjoy food.

-They don’t spend significant time with friends because it detracts from their “intellectual pursuits.”  However, they can’t definitively say their hobby brings them happiness per se, just that it makes them smarter.

-They are obsessed with what other people think of them, specifically (and not surprisingly), how smart and “worldly” they are.  Their careers are more about social status and prestige than contribution and prosperity for all (also know as “Success vs. Significance”).

 
In short, they exist as esteemed members of our society.  But existing is not the same as living, and this is a problem that is far more widespread than any precocious college kid who is planning to go to B-School and make $350K can fathom.

This is not a rant against smart people (or rich people for that matter), far from it.  Some of the happiest people I know are smart and extremely well-off.  But these individuals are also wise, which is far different than intelligent.  These people have lives with balance and perspective.  They take care of themselves (physically, emotionally and financially) but recognize that tomorrow may never come.  They immerse themselves in our world and embrace it rather than remain distant and hyper-focused on others’ views of them.  They don’t live in fear or to obtain status.  These people are like those I met when I worked in the nursing home, which is probably the last place on Earth you would think to look for real happiness.

These concepts are important for anyone, but especially for younger readers.  Accumulating knowledge is never a bad thing, but only if it’s simply a part of your overall life plan.  Most of us will never be so far outside the gray like Allison’s family in terms of overall I.Q., but far too many people have her family’s hang-ups and neuroses that chop block our goal to be happy people.  Allison’s family is incredibly smart, but they’ve missed the boat on far too many non-intellectual factors of life.  Ergo, they are inherently miserable, even if 99% of the population will never know.  Is that what you want to be?

The moral of this story is simple: intelligence can bring you happiness, but wisdom will guarantee it.

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17 Responses to “Dr. Allison had a Rough Thanksgiving (a Primer on Intelligence vs. Wisdom)”

  1. JB says:

    A lot of people like to tell me that I’m wasting myself (I’m looking at you, Mom) because I don’t spend every waking moment studying something new, instead choosing to chill out, hang out, and play music or whatever. They seem to be under the impression that since I am abnormally intelligent, I shouldn’t even like fun or normal things (And doesn’t this insinuate that I’m not normal? Boo.)

    Suffice to say my IQ is somewhere between “ridiculous” and “those results have to have been faked”, but if I did what people expect of me with that — say, like this Dr. Allison’s family — I’d hate myself. Who wants self-hate? It’s unhealthy.

  2. Colleen says:

    My in-laws are exactly like this. Except for the high intelligence and being rich parts :P.

    Working in academia, I have seen some people who have a great work and life balance and seem content if not genuinely happy. But it seems to be rare. My boss is constantly buried under grant deadlines and administrative nonsense and routinely threatens to run away and join the circus. Another coworker seems much less stressed out, but has absolutely zero life outside of her job and her family. She recently mentioned that she attends about one social function a year.

    I spent my undergraduate years trying to keep my gpa as close to 4.0 as possible only to find out that a 3.90 is not viewed much differently than the 3.93 I ended up with. In fact it seems incredibly jerky of me to have cared about grades down to the hundreth of a percent. If working in the “real world” (as much as you can call academia “real”) has taught me anything, it’s that relationships with people contribute a lot more to happiness than a job or education ever will.

  3. PKB says:

    I agree with everything you said here and I’m probably what you consider a younger reader.

    Tell me if this a fair statement: intelligence is the measure of knowledge and wisdom is the measure of the application of knowledge. If that’s the case, wisdom is always more desirable and self satisfying than intelligence, right?

    Many people strive for intelligence especially at a young age but ultimately doesn’t everyone want to be thought of as and actually be a wise person? Moreover, wouldn’t you say that someone who is very intelligent will eventually get around to applying the knowledge he or she has accumulated (its human nature to do so) and therefor eventually become a wise person?

    I bet Dr. Allison’s family considers themselves wise. But if they are not, as you suggest, what’s holding them back? Why are they ignorant to their shortcomings and psychological issues you outlined?

  4. Joe says:

    It sounds like these folks’ “intellectual pursuits” and outlook on life have kept them from having any personal connection or relevant experience with the information they’re discussing. As great as reading is (and being a lawyer, I do a lot of reading) its no substitute for actually having experience with the subject matter. I can intelligently discuss many of the topics listed above, but I would have more to actually contribute to a discussion about law, weight training or american politics because that’s what I know about from personal experience, not from a book.

    Then again, my perspective is different than most. I hate the academic world. In my experience, a lot of the academic “geniuses” are people who spout off far fetched and often unworkable theories because, in their world, there are no consequences. I’m looking at you, sociologists.

  5. Rob Dobrenski says:

    @PKB: It’s a fair statement, but it’s not the sole way to look at it. “Knowledge” has to be broadly defined (e.g., emotional expression, common sense, etc.) and not be restricted to book knowledge or an accumulation of facts. And not everyone with intelligence will become wise. Intelligence manifests itself in so many different ways and no one will possess all of them. Maybe Dr. Allison’s parents were taught by their own parents many of these dysfunctional belief systems and they don’t have the ability or even the interest in changing them. Or perhaps they simply lack the “God-given” ability to see the difference between intelligence and wisdom. Perhaps both? The theories could go on forever…

  6. Emily says:

    The intellectuals are just another type of person, no better and no less than anyone else. I find it interesting and fun to be in their presence as long as they realize “intelligence” for what it is. Intelligence does have its value and use, and even the most common among us value it. But again, it doesn’t mean that the intelligent individual is anymore useful and valuable than the simplest individual.

    Wisdom will not guarantee happiness. If anything, wisdom makes one more compassionate and sensitive to life and others. In that, the wise is surely to see sadness. (Although, the wise will deal with their sadness differently. They will not despair.) Furthermore, I would argue that while some people are born with more wisdom than others, most glean their wisdom from unhappy and trying experiences.

  7. Anna says:

    The conversation topics seem similar to my family’s, but without any major wealth (though all except me are reasonably well off). Of course in my family that’s mostly because discussing politics, religion or sex is safer than complimenting someone on their outfit or asking them how they’ve been. Most of the family is crazy smart, unfortunately both adjectives can also be applied independently and remain mostly accurate.

    I would never call myself wise (and would be scared to have anyone else call me that), but at times when the holiday season looms and I see the same patterns happening the exact same way… I do stop to consider for just one moment how unfair it is that as the person in the family who’s diagnosis would dictate I have the least amount of empathy and ability to relate to others, I am the person who ends up in the middle. Not because I want to but because I can see everyone’s point of view, understand why they feel that way, not have anger towards them for feeling that way or let my frustration with their reactions show to such an extend as to cause further confrontation. But I also see why that approach has not really been working for the last 8 years. And I also realize there’s nothing I can really do other than care for myself and try to limit how much any of my siblings upset my elderly mother.

    And people wonder why I’m the only one of my parent’s children to be what others would call an underachieving slacker wasting her intelligence on trivial pursuits. I’m much happier after I gave up on trying to be as successful as my sisters, have more friends, and money… it is more than enough for my needs, more would not make me happier I think.

  8. JB says:

    @PKB

    As far as semantics go, I would argue that intelligence is the ability to apply knowledge effectively while wisdom is having the right knowledge to apply. Intellectuals have muddled it up and think knowledge is a measure of intelligence because they lack wisdom.

    Intellectuals also tend to be douchebags, but that’s just my take. Fight the intelligentsia!

  9. As one of those intellectual academics….I’ve seen what you described first hand. Unfortunately many high IQ people have a harder time with emotional IQ. As for wisdom…..very hard to come by.

  10. Alice says:

    This is such a good description of a family I know…

    Any tips on how to deal with having dinner with them?

  11. Lindsey says:

    This is funny, because it is the complete opposite of my family… I am the ONLY one who went to college, and as far as they are concerned, because of this I can now do whatever I want because I have a “college degree!”. They don’t know why in the world I could want or need a Ph.D, since I already went to college and the world is now my oyster. They look at me funny when I try and tell them what cool stuff we are doing in our department. So… I guess I wish I had a little more of Dr. Allison’s family 🙂

    That being said, I know that many of them WISH they could have gone to college, and that they would have had the brains for it, but we come from a crappy western Chicago suburb where we settled when my grandpa came from Lithuania, these things take time I suppose.

    Though, being in Psychology, there is something rather fun about being the one weirdo who likes school.

  12. I might be mistaken but this article sounds very parallel to the similar issue of common sense vs knowledge. I’ve seen so many people surpass me academically, and yet end up focusing their efforts on academia, while the rest of us are out on Friday night enjoying ourselves. Some of these “smart” kids are at the same college as myself, and seem to have taken the same route.

    From what I’ve seen, these are the students that study everything with equal vigor and two years later, have no Idea what they want to do with themselves. I don’t want to say I don’t study for all classes, but I follow my own personal interests with much more vigor than I do the classes that don’t interest me.

    I think this is how a lot of people find their passions. They go through the same motions as other people, but allow themselves to get caught up in the moment and swept away by a subject that legitimately interests them.

  13. Scott says:

    Rob,

    As someone diagnosed with anxiety, likely to be further diagnosed as OCD, I like your blog. You’re honest.

    Scott

  14. Justin M says:

    I actually laughed when I read this.

    Yes, it is possible to be smart (and wealthy) and unhappy or to lead an unpleasant life.

    The majority of the time though, it’s just an excuse that people employ in a desperate attempt to console themselves about their academic and intellectual failings:

    “He lack social skills.”

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. This is just a more sophisticated extension of that. Parents feel that I threaten their children’s place in society: they compensate for their offspring’s deficiencies by inventing my own. It may be true that everyone has faults, but it’s a childish individual who believes that everyone’s faults balance out their skills.

  15. Izkata says:

    As someone who feels like he should be in that family, but whose family comes nowhere near that intellectually, let me say: They are happy. It may not be obvious, but that’s because the back-and-forth tends to fly over the heads of those who don’t get what’s going on.

    It’s really pretty simple. They’ve replaced the part of the conversation pertaining to gossip or what’s on TV or going on with models/actors/singers with things that are interesting to them. What they know, and their views on the topic, tell you more about the person than regular gossip ever could.

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