Do Smart People Really Have Unique Problems? – Brain Myths
The tortured genius: a popular trope in entertainment that can be traced quite far back in history.
We’ve all heard stories of an intellectual who suffered from some malady or mental health issue. Stories of artists who battled depression, geniuses with complex social issues and prodigies who suffer from addiction.
My favourite fictional genius, Sherlock Holmes, suffered from a drug addiction.
However, I have observed a growing trend, mainly in alternative media sources such as blogs or even YouTube channels. An article or video will be shared with a headline such as “13 Problems Only Smart People Have”, 5 Issues That Intellectuals Have To Deal With” or “Thoughts You’ve Only Had If You Have A High IQ”.
I take issue with these “listicles” for many reasons.
For one, they never seem to define what smart is and therefore they generate the assumption that if you have any of these “problems” – most of which are pretty common in society – it must just be because you’re too smart for the world.
I know this is sometimes the case because it is an attitude that I had for many years. I held a deep egotistical delusion that the reason why I found it difficult to be in social situations, to find a meaningful relationship and many other life issues was because I was simply too smart for the world.
In reality, I had a laundry list of problems which took me years to admit and years more to address.
Now, before I continue, I should point out that, for the most part, these are articles are published to simply generate clicks. Most authors are not going out of their way to publish content which could be harmful.
However, since I never see anyone talking about the issues surrounding this kind of content, I decided to address what I see as a myth that has become very popular over the last few years.
The Myth: Do smart people have problems that they are uniquely predisposed to?
Let’s first explore what these problems are before we pass any kind of final judgement.
I explored over a dozen articles whilst researching for this post. Over the course of time, I’ve probably read dozens more on the subject, trying to rationalise why I am the way that I am.
However, I created a list of these problems and then categorised them in the best way that I can. Eventually, I managed to narrow the list down to just 6 categories, each of which I will discuss.
These categories are:
- Over-thinking and analysis paralysis
- Social and relationship difficulties
- High expectations and related anxiety
- Actual problems
Smart People Problem#1 – Over-thinking and analysis paralysis
Smart people think too much and over-analyse situations, generally speaking. However, this problem is not unique to smart people. Everyone does this on occasion.
If you’ve ever made a pros and cons list of something, then you were probably overthinking. Sometimes a gut feeling or your instinct is the right decision and this has been shown to be the case on many occasions – have a read of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”.
Over-thinking and analysis paralysis are also terms which could be synonymous with the concept of “the yips”. This is when someone overthinks in a sporting situation and, as a result, loses their connection to the instinct which made them a winner in their sport.
The reason why competitors in any sport are constantly drilled on everything from foot placement to breathing is because thinking too much ruins athletic or sporting performance – generally speaking. When you can train your mind out of a situation, then everything should run automatically.
When you first learn to drive, you are consciously taking in everything, processing, analysing and acting.
A few years later you can quite often experience the phenomenon of having driven to your destination whilst engrossed in thought, conversation or music. Instinct and muscle memory took over.
However, if you were to have a traffic accident, you might find yourself over-thinking everything from gear changes to parallel parking. Trauma can often lead to analysis paralysis as you desperately try to look to the future to make sure that you never suffer in the same way again.
So, as you can see, this is not an issue which uniquely affects smart people.
From time to time, whether it is just a natural part of your life or if it is due to trauma or for any reason, you will over-think a situation and fall into analysis-paralysis. Maybe it will be when you want to talk to the beautiful girl at the bar, before asking your significant other to marry you or asking your boss for a raise, but we all suffer from it at some point.
It is hardly an issue which is unique to smart people, so let’s move on to the next problem.
Smart People Problem#2: Perfectionism
It is my belief that perfection can be found in symmetry – scientifically speaking, this is true. We all know someone who likes everything in their living area to be perfectly arranged with perhaps a mild to extreme affinity for symmetry. They have to have everything, just so. Some people call this OCD, a concept which shows a deep misunderstanding of the disorder.
OCD is more than a comical need for symmetry, yet how often do you hear someone say that they’re a little OCD because they make their bed in the morning? Being organised isn’t anywhere close to the mental distress which is caused by an obsessive compulsive disorder.
However, there is a close connection between OCD and genius according to many TV series and movies. Think of Adrian Monk (Monk) or Hercule Poirot (Murder On The Orient Express). These concepts are further demonstrated in our retrospective analysis of famous figures such as Nikola Tesla who was thought to have suffered from OCD.
There is a huge difference between perfectionism and OCD. Some perfectionists do suffer from OCD, this is just a statistical certainty.
However, even if we were to assume that they were one and the same, as they are so often misunderstood to be, then we see that there is no significant connection or correlation between OCD and high IQ. In fact, some studies suggest that the inverse is true and that those who suffer from OCD may actually have a slightly lower IQ than control groups.
So, we’ve shown that OCD does not necessarily mean that someone is smarter. What about perfectionism? After all, we’ve already demonstrated that it is a separate concept.
At our cores, I think all of us our perfectionists to one degree or another. As humans, we have a need for completion or closure. When things are incomplete, we feel a sense of ambiguity which can lead to anxiety. The closer something is to perfection, then the less need there is for closure and this can result in less anxiety.
Since we all feel this need for closure, then we are all perfectionist, to a certain degree. Therefore, this cannot be a trait which is unique to smart people either.
So far, its smart people problems – 0. Everyday issues – 2. What’s next?
Smart People Problem#3 – Social and relationship difficulties
I won’t spend much time on this one except for the purpose of some mockery.
The idea that the reason why someone has social or relationship issues is simply because they are too smart is so incredibly laughable that it actually borders on arrogance or even abject narcissism.
I know first hand how tempting it is to blame your social or relationship issues on the fact that you’re simply “too smart”. It’s an easy cop-out and far easier for the mind to accept than perhaps your interpersonal skills needing some work or that you’re just a poor communicator.
I now know that all of these things can be worked on and I now hold myself responsible for creating special relationships and friendships in my life.
Having trouble relating to the opposite sex is not an issue that is unique to smart people.
Almost everyone at some point in their lives and maybe even throughout will have trouble relating to the opposite sex. If you take a broader look at things, you’ll probably find you don’t understand your own sex either. This is because humans aren’t telepathic. We can never understand or relate to another person 100% because we can never know what is the essence at the centre of their being.
As for having social problems, about 12% of people suffer from social anxiety. That’s about five or six times the amount of geniuses there are in the world.
Gimme a break!
Smart People Problem#4 – High expectations and related anxiety
This is delightfully vague.
When you’re smart, people have high expectations of you and, because of this, you fear failure or looking stupid. This is the crux of the issue.
So, let’s talk about high expectations for a moment.
I grew up as the son of first generation immigrant parents. There is a stereotype that children of immigrant parents have extremely high expectations set upon them.
Whilst my parents never put massive amounts of pressure on me or my siblings, the expectation has always been that we do our best and achieve the highest possible standards of success that we can. I know very few children of first generation immigrants who have not had similar experiences, though with varying degrees of pressure – some higher than mine, some lower.
Because of their expectations that I always do my best, I consistently got good grades throughout school, college and university. In my education, in my work and in everything I do, I’ve always been expected to do my best and, with only a few exceptions, I always have.
I know the feeling of anxiety which is present when everyone expects you to do something amazing. I definitely know the pressure there can be to succeed in my particular demographic – children of first generation immigrants. However, I’m no genius and most of the second generation immigrants I know are not either.
If high expectations were a trait unique to those who have high expectations placed upon them, then we would likely see the domination of academia with second generation immigrants. However, this is not the case.
Moving on then, what’s next?
Smart People Problem#5 – Arrogance
Now, it should be noted that arrogance is not a term that was used in any of the articles. Instead, when I started categorising the main themes, a strong sense of arrogance started to emerge.
Some of the things I came across are:
- A sense of feeling “trapped by intelligence”
- Forgetting what it’s like to be a beginner
- Not knowing the value of hard work
- People getting annoyed when you correct them
- People thinking that you’re bragging
- Your mistakes become more noticeable
- Wanting to skip the basics
Arrogance seemed to be a better term for what this is rather than me simply saying that these are the traits of an asshole or a jerk.
Let’s go through these one by one.
Feeling trapped by your own intelligence simply means that you are probably not in a great environment. This goes back to people believing that they are simply too smart and that is why they have social or relationship problems.
If your incredible intellect makes you feel trapped, then you’re probably not using it in the right way. After all, if you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re almost always in the wrong room.
Forgetting what it’s like to be a beginner is very common among anyone who has become proficient in anything. Again, this can be seen as arrogance.
If you think you are so good that you can’t remember what it was like to be at the bottom, then you’re probably not at the top. This is the same as wanting to skip the basics. You’re almost never as good as you think you are. Luckily, you’re almost never as bad as you think you are either.
Not knowing the value of hard work. Contrary to popular beliefs, most historical geniuses worked day and night to get to where they got to. If you don’t believe me, then look into the life of Michael Faraday.
There were very few historical geniuses that were simply born with innate talent. Elon Musk took decades to get to where he is now, one of the most widely recognised geniuses alive. Trust me when I say he knows the value of hard work.
People getting annoyed when you correct them? Sometimes there are just more important things than being right. Take your ego out of it. Some people don’t know everything and that’s OK. I have damaged many relationships in my past because I always had to be right. Sometimes, its OK to just leave things alone.
If people think that you’re bragging, then you probably are. It’s easy to just say that other people are jealous or just “haters” and that may be so, but that’s hardly ever a one-way street. Watch what you say and try to flex a little emotional intelligence.
Your mistakes become more noticeable? I don’t believe that for one reason: for the most part, nobody really cares what other people do. I used to have constant anxiety attacks about my grades because I thought people would humiliate me if I got poor grades.
Do you know what really happened? Nothing. No one cared. They were probably too busy worrying that they were going to be judged by everyone else to judge me.
To say that these things are a result of superior intellect is one of the dumbest things anyone could say – ironically.
So, let’s have a look at the final category of problems.
Smart People Problem#6 – Actual Problems
I created this last category to show that there are some problems which are mostly unique to individuals with high IQ, although they could be applied to anyone who has achieved success in one area.
Seeing connections where others don’t, a tendency for boredom or a tendency towards distraction are prominent examples of this.
These are actual issues which one could argue are relatively unique to smart people, though the latter two issues can also be attributed to disorders such as ADHD. Interestingly, ADHD is positively correlated with higher IQ.
Seeing connections where others don’t does not just occur in Mensa candidates however. Having a high level of expertise often means developing a new lens through which to see the world. As the saying goes, when you are a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
Because I have been studying psychology for the last few years, eventually getting my degree in it, I view a lot of things through a lens of overlapping psychological theory. This doesn’t occur because I’m smarter than other people, it’s simply my lens of seeing the world based on my education.
We can also see this in highly religious people. They are often frustrated because nobody can see what they can see, that a higher power controls everything. They see these connections everywhere they go and cannot see how others do not.
So, what can we conclude from all of this?
We cannot make the assumption that such broad issues are due to a higher IQ. I think I’ve adequately shown that many of these issues are problems which almost everyone faces at some point in their lives.
My theory as to how these ideas develop is similar to the way that I used to act only a few years before. I had my problems and, when I saw that certain members of the group that I idolised suffered from similar issues to me, I assumed that it was because we both shared a common trait: intelligence.
It was an easy way for me to deal with my issues. It made me feel better.
In truth, I hold nothing against anyone for doing whatever they can to make themselves feel better – short of causing physical or mental damage to themselves or others. As I said earlier, I do believe that these posts are written purely to generate clicks and for entertainment. However, most of what they say is complete nonsense.
The only issue I can see and have seen in my experience which is unique to high IQ individuals is many of them seeing things through a high IQ lens.
Remember, to a hammer every problem looks like a nail.
Sometimes, the issues which I have written about here do apply to smart people. However, it is foolish to suggest that just because smart people suffer from something, even in greater proportions to the average person, it does not mean that it is their intellect that is the ultimate cause.
Thanks for reading all the way to the end of this article.
I hope that I have been informative and maybe even somewhat entertaining for you. These are the conversations that I enjoy having and, if you’ve read to the end of this, then you likely enjoy it too. So, let me know your thoughts in the comments below, whether you think I’m right or wrong.
The next brain myth I will be researching and writing about will be on the subject of brain training. Does it actually make you smarter or are you just getting better at the game? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Thanks again and I’ll see you soon.