Have you ever heard of William James Sidis? Probably not, although once he was rather famous. A child prodigy, he is believed to have had the highest IQ ever known. He is as well known, though, for being a failure—an example of the notion that promise in youth does not always mean success in age. After graduating from Harvard at age 16, in the early years of the 20th century, he left a professorship at Rice University to take low-level clerical jobs. He never showed up in the news again, but for one arrest at a political rally, and a lawsuit against a magazine that carried a story on him.
He notably rates a mention by the psychiatrist character in the movie Good Will Hunting, as an example of what can happen to an especially bright kid who is not taken well in hand by a knowledgeable psychologist. He is, in sum, Exhibit A for the enduring conviction among the merely average in intelligent that the very intelligent need help from normal folks to find their way.
The idea, of course, is absurd on the face of it. I suspect it is something the rest of us have a psychic need to believe, for the sake of our own self esteem. It protects us from the unpleasant admission that we are not, in the end, ourselves the most intelligent being in the universe.
It may also involve a certain element of revenge: we want the chance to control those more intelligent than ourselves, so we can protect ourselves from their competition, and perhaps indeed do them some harm.
This myth is extremely damaging to the highly intelligent; it is also extremely damaging to the rest of us, in the end, as it limits what the extremely intelligent can do in terms, for example, of making a better world.
In fact, Sidis set out very consciously and explicitly to create for himself “the perfect life.” Being very intelligent, he had a much better idea of what this might entail than most of the rest of us. He realized, from early experience, that being famous was a great burden, and so he went out of his way, having become inadvertently famous, to court obscurity. For example, he sued magazines or newspapers that published stories on him, for invasion of privacy. Other very intelligent people, especially those who have found fame young, have learned the same lesson and attempted similar things: J.D. Salinger comes to mind.
In order to do this, of course, he had to stop doing anything particularly remarkable. At least under his own name. Hence his “failure” –what looks like failure to the less intelligent was, for him, his greatest success.
He realized that being rich was a useless distraction—a simple truth demonstrated often in studies--and so why would he seek wealth?
He realized too that jobs in academics are not very comfortable for the very intelligent—something Einstein too pointed out. Someone very intelligent, with original ideas, is necessarily threatening to other academics. He is in the lions’ den, with the very type of people, jealous of their own claims to intellect, who would most want to control and harm him. And so he left his professorship, and academics, altogether.
Far better to find a job involving simple math, where by natural intelligence you can complete your daily tasks to your employer's satisfaction, yet leave most of your time to think freely. It is a trick picked up by most bright kids at school: you spend most of your time waiting for the other kids to catch up to you on the assigned task, so you daydream on your own projects. What Einstein more politely called “thought experiments.”
So Sidis, the great “failure,” laboured in obscurity. We now know that, all the time, he was writing, and even publishing, but not under his own name. He left a trunkful of manuscripts.
Albert Einstein was not quite as bright. Nevertheless, by his own admission, he did his best work in the Swiss patent office—he was able to polish off the days official business within a couple of hours, and have the rest of his time free for his thought experiments. When he took an academic position—perhaps for the sake of his family obligations--his productive life was more or less over.
The life Sidis chose is very like the life of a monk. In the West, we think of this partly as a sacrifice. Buddhists are perhaps more frank. They claim it is simply the best available life in this world—the most serene, the most joyful. The perfect life.
The moral of the story is simply this: the rest of us must leave the very intelligent alone to live their own lives as they see fit. They know infinitely better than we what they want and need.
Indeed, if we have any common sense at all, we should be seeking to imitate them.
All of this is inspired by the tentative diagnosis of my son with ADHD—giftedness reinvented as an incurable disease.