Why Geniuses Don’t Run the World

In a world where IQ does not equal power, being a genius can only get you so far.

"Society is aimed at the average. It does poorly when dealing with people that are smarter than the average or dumber, worse, than the average." —Eugene Volokh

Do you want to punch thirteen-year-old Eugene Volokh? That’s how I felt as I watched him wade around carefree in a pool, probably finishing a theory on surface tension and pool noodles. Here I sit, a failed entrepreneur three times over, possessing an above average IQ that is laughable by Mensa’s standards. And here is 1980s Eugene Volokh, a software company running, hamburger eating (good hamburger!) highly gifted boy living in California. So what is Eugene doing today? Eugene is a law professor at UCLA. Amazing how much of a let down that is, no? An IQ of 204 and that’s it? My uncle is a lawyer. My pot smoking, munchy chomping best friend is a lawyer. Eugene has done some wonderful things in law, but he is no super villain and has yet, to my limited knowledge, been the beneficiary of a genius scheme resulting in 204 IQ points of money, power, and fame.

In short, Eugene Volokh is a pretty regular guy yet we see him and his God given gift of genius as almost mythical. The other boy in the video, Desmond Atkins, is an executive at Sony. So what happens to these guys? Why is there not a super race of high IQ people running the world? According to a few reports that seem okay to trust, there are about 3,000 geniuses in America alone. All of the reports agree that genius has something to do with IQ, so let’s start there. 

Intelligence and Status

We can thank a French psychologist working in the early 1900s named Alfred Binet for inventing the first test that measured parts of what we now refer to as IQ, or intelligence quotient. Binet was asked by the French government to invent a test that would measure student performance for future placement. He soon found some students were naturally better at answering questions than others and devised a system to measure their natural abilities, thus inventing the Binet-Simon scale, the first of many iterations of the modern IQ test. In administering this test, the French government was fulfilling the basic human need to quantify and categorize. A division of people into parties and sects, races and religions, classes and strata, is a marker of civilization itself.

As early as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, men hunted, women stayed home. Soon, crops were cultivated and wealth was invented. Society soon followed and a human system was born. It is in our categorization that we understand each other. But it is also through this system that we limit expectations of ourselves and others. We see Eugene only as a ridiculously smart person. We don’t see him as a brat or a furry, an aesthete or a husband. We brand people and expect them to live up to said brand. It’s no coincidence we think this way. We see a few hundred advertisements every day. Products promising results, binary and irrefutable.

A logical and binary assumption would be that the smarter you are, the higher you rise. Money, fame, and power should all belong to the big-brained. They see the system, understand the system, and take advantage of the system for their personal, social, or philanthropic gain. Yet, we can clearly see that in politics, media, culture, and so many other aspects of society, brains often come last. Name three basketball players right now. Name three heart surgeons right now. It turns out that the president isn’t a genius and neither is Elon Musk. Very smart, yes. But not geniuses. 

Charismatic Authority

Max Weber’s charismatic authority is one way to understand why we don’t have the smartest people in top positions. Weber realized a long time ago that brains were rarely the reason a person would get elected into government or favored by society. He understood that we live in a visual and social world governed by external rules and expectations. Malcolm Gladwell points out in The Tipping Point that something like 80 percent of our government officials are over six feet tall and have hair on their heads. We trust what we see and we like seeing agreeable things—as long as it agrees with us, is shiny and trustworthy, we rarely care to look under the hood and see what's inside.

If we compare geniuses to beautiful people, we can see immediately this funky dichotomy at work. Beautiful people are expected to be stupider than their homelier counterparts. Why is this? Is it because God doesn’t give with both hands, as my mother used to say? Or is it because they don’t have to exercise their brains as much to get ahead in life? Geniuses generally lack social skills because they are so busy with their own minds that they do not develop or see the need to develop social skills. They hang out with adults, as Eugene does in the video clip, and are thrust upward through the education system faster than their peers, ultimately hanging them out to dry socially, hence their inability to convey their thoughts to others in a clear and concise manner. "If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough," said Einstein.

He understood not only that even the most complex algorithms and hypotheses could be made simple, but in order to express them, you had to do it simply. Otherwise, what was the use if only you understood? Einstein realized that without help, science could go nowhere. And there are too many geniuses out there who can’t distill their concepts down to a fifth grade level simply because they never need to. They become captives of their own genius, locked into a relationship with their brains. We see the opposite with beautiful people. Their interactions with other humans are not predicated on their intelligence but rather their looks. This leaves their brains in the lurch. Even my pitting beautiful people against geniuses seems like a natural set up, doesn’t it? It shouldn’t, by any logical reasoning. Geniuses can be beautiful and beautiful people can be geniuses—you don’t earn your IQ. But we rarely see the two come together and we don’t like it when one person has it all. 

Super Intelligence

Super intelligence is played out in film and television all the time. If we could squeeze just 5 percent more from our brain, we would be unstoppable. We might fry our brains in the process, but by that point we will use our mega-brain to figure out how to create a better antenna that won’t burst brains. Generally, though, a lesson is learned or someone gets killed before that happens. A lot of our conceptions about the brain are incorrect, one of the most popular being that we only use one third of our brains. In fact, we use all of our brains, just not all the time. As usual, this "fact" has been skewed from its original context, which was that generally one third of our brain is not active while we engage in daily activities. The sad part about this confusion is that we blame our brains for being lazy when in fact they are being clever. Like a smart energy grid, they turn down the parts that are less useful so they don’t require more energy, or food, from their host, us. This is brilliant, not stupid. If we ran at 100 percent capacity all the time, we would most likely be fatigued, hungry, and cranky.

Obviously there are geniuses out there who are powerful and successful. I have found list upon list of "Who Is A Real Genius.’ Some say Oprah and Banksy are geniuses. Others have names you and I have never heard of. But this is good. My concepts are generalizations and I have no doubt there are geniuses that put their brains to more public, monetary and social endeavors. Some people say Shawn Fanning, founder of Napster, is a genius. Others say Mark Zuckerberg is a genius. I think these guys are really, really smart, were born at the right time in the right place, and new how to make a consumer facing product that was simple and fun. In other words, they were social creatures, too. So stop worrying about how big your brain is. If you haven’t attended a Mensa convention lately but you did host a dinner party, you may be doing better than you think.

Powerful Brain Films

Pop culture is rife with examples of geniuses who don't fit the charismatic mold of "successful." The following films detail the experiences of geniuses who are far more brilliant than the average passerby would be able to tell.

Rain Man

Rain Man stars Dustin Hoffman as Raymond, an autistic savant whose father has left him $3 million in a trust. His younger brother, Charlie, wasn't aware of Raymond's existence, until he reads his estranged father's will. Charlie picks up Raymond for a cross-country journey that turns into a discovery process for both siblings.

Searching for Bobby Fischer

Searching for Bobby Fischer tells the tale of Josh Waitzkin, a seemingly typical American boy. However, Josh's journey changes course when he challenges his father at chess and wins. He begins competing in outdoor matches at Washington Square, where he makes friends with a hustler named Vinnie. His parents hire him a renowned coach, but Josh becomes tired of his system and of chess in general. He then throws a match, which leaves his prosepct of winning a championship in jeopardy.

Good Will Hunting

Good Will Hunting follows a 20-year-old South Boston laborer named Will Hunting. Hunting is an unrecognized genius who is seeing a therapist and studying advanced mathematics with a renowned professor, as part of a deferred prosecution agreement for assault of a police officer. His therapy sessions lead him to reevaluate his current relationships, confronting his past and looking into the future.

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Why Geniuses Don’t Run the World