The intolerance of genius
One of the reasons, today, that we have such mediocre progress on important issues, is the unwillingness to put up with geniuses who don’t have “soft skills”, aka. who don’t play well with others. (Obligatory note, this isn’t a post about me.) There is this odd belief that 10 very smart people can do what one genius can. They can’t. There are thresholds of ability (not intelligence, ability) and if you’re below them, you just can’t do the things that people at that level can do. Period.
Related, but not the same: in terms of intelligence, there are levels at which you can learn everything, but not anything (ie. you can’t be a real polymath) and without that knowledge, in one person, not spread out through a team, many connections cannot be made and when they can, the process is vastly slower. (Aka. no, you can’t look it up.)
True genius, and I’ve known a few, is alienating. Geniuses perceive the world in a different way than other people do, and as a result they have trouble interacting with other people. One acquaintance told me that it takes him six months to tool down from high level work to the point where he can talk to bright normals and have them understand him. Genius is also about obsession, about living with a subject till you breath it, till it’s obvious to you. Even on a pure IQ level (and again, genius is not always about IQ) once you move more than 2 standard deviations in either direction, communication becomes very hard.
In the old days, geniuses were tolerated, even coddled. If it was necessary for GE to hire a secretary to act as interface between a genius and the rest of the world, that was done. Geniuses were surrounded with other geniuses, their eccentricities tolerated, and allowed to run. Today it’s “if you don’t play well with others, even if you can do things they can’t, you’re out.”
This is the symptom of a society that doesn’t really care about progress. We live in a courtier’s society, where ability is secondary to social skills, where who you know and who you blow (as the cynical saying at one of my ex-employers ran) is far more important than how good a job you do, because your job isn’t to actually solve problems or get things done, it’s to manage your superiors and get along with your peers.
One might say “it has ever been thus”, but this is only partially true. The brilliant mavericks were far more tolerated in the war era and cold war period, because they were needed. The possibility of losing a war, or of there even being a war which was an actual risk to the western powers, kept us honest.
Now those people are sidelined. Socially skilled mediocrities fail to the top, our society shudders from crisis to crisis, out actual scientific and technological process has slowed to a crawl, and deployment of what technological progress we do have is slow and uneven and often happens faster in other nations.
Genius, actual genius, is uncomfortable. They do things for reasons they often can’t explain to people who aren’t geniuses. They’re obsessive, and they’re often alienated from other people who simply can’t or won’t understand what they’re doing and why. If you want to benefit from society’s geniuses, you have to tolerate much of this.
I will add that not only do we not tolerate geniuses any more, we largely don’t even cultivate genius. The people who go to the “best” colleges in the US these days are not geniuses, not in any creative sense. They are exactly chosen to be conformists who have done exactly what they were supposed to do for their entire lives. They are courtiers in training, the senior servants to the oligarchy. Again, in the old days (we’re talking all of 25 years ago), while those people made up most of the Ivy League, broad exceptions were carved out for the truly brilliant, whether intellectually, artistically, or otherwise. Some of those exceptions still exist, or slip through, but they are the exception now.
And this, this is another reason why the future does not happen, and when it does happen, it mostly does not happen in the US any more.