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[This post was once published in the now-superseded ezine ‘Dynamic Living’ under the title: ‘Learning to live with ‘Stupidity’]

We’ve all said it, often with additional expletives: “How could they be so stupid?!” “They” are often in authority – the government, the boss, the school board – but they can also be peers or subordinates. It seems that friends, spouses, children, and employees are all capable of behavior that strikes us, uncharitably, as ‘stupid’.

For gifted individuals, as for all those who are unafraid to see that the emperor is indeed naked, living in a ‘stupid’ world is particularly painful. Many things that could improve life are so obvious and yet so overlooked. This article takes a look at the reality behind ‘stupidity’ and what we can do to reduce its impact on ourselves.

‘Mediocrity Rules’: Get used to it!

If you’ve ever felt that this is a mediocre world society run by and for mediocre people, you deserve credit for your readiness to see the truth, even when it hurts.

After all, if everyone in the world is to survive, its tasks and requirements have to be manageable by very nearly the least capable among us. That means such tasks are unlikely to challenge or produce results that consistently satisfy the healthy demands of the most highly-resourced individuals.

P.T. Barnum famously declared that “no-one ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the American public”. That same observation applies equally to the world at large, with the result that those motivated by money and temporal power focus their efforts on the lowest common denominator. This doesn’t leave much over for those who would prefer something more challenging than a night out at “Jurassic Park” followed by a Big Mac.

A basic principle

The sad truth inherent in the above example helps to explain why the more able or visionary among us feel so lonely, rejected and undervalued. We are genuinely in a minority, thinly distributed among much greater numbers of humans with less of every quality – thoughtfulness, integrity, reflectiveness, vision, insight, etc – we hold dear.

This sounds shocking to those of us brought up to believe in democracy and the belief that we are all equal. However, equal rights to exist as best we can are not the same as equal personal resources. Those are in the hands of mother nature, the universe, or God, depending on your preference, and they are not evenly distributed or evenly applicable.

Those most richly endowed with personal gifts are in a minority, so it is unlikely that they will predominate in power or even influence. It seems as if they should – after all, evolution alone might be expected to prefer the exceptional over the ordinary – but evolution, like democracy, takes a more cautious middle path. It’s just not fair! And it can be painful to endure.

What makes it hurt?

The reason for the pain can be shown by example. A good many sci-fi films have included a sequence in which a robot, given two opposing instructions, goes into a spin shouting: “Does not compute!” and eventually blows its own head off. Our human equivalent is called ‘cognitive dissonance’ – the attempt to hold two opposing ideas – and it causes us great pain.

You can see the signs of this in someone given conflicting instructions. Perhaps they’ve been told they have to produce a piece of work by a given time and simultaneously informed that an essential resource is unavailable to them. They stop in their tracks, wrinkling their forehead, scrunching their face, scratching their head. They’re simultaneously stressed and perplexed. And it hurts.

I believe a similar pain is caused when we experience the conflict between what we can see of how life could be and how it actually is. Call it: ‘existential dissonance’. Of course, the reality is that it can’t be other than the way it is, but this doesn’t mean that our visions are based in unreality. My sense is that we typically incorporate the tools and structures that are already to hand when we develop our visions of a practical utopia. It makes it all the maddening when ‘they’ get it wrong.

Our task is to find a way to live with this painful reality.

Recognize and accept

Most people have some acquaintance with the statistical concept called a normal or “bell” curve. This curve results from the observation that most direct measures of varying traits in human beings and most psychological measures, such as IQ scores, have been found to approximate closely to a mathematical model called the ‘normal distribution’.

The graph of this normal distribution is a continuous, symmetrical, bell-shaped curve. Frequencies tend to concentrate around the median and become fewer and fewer at either end, resulting in a frequency curve which is high in the middle and low at the ends.

The bell curve looks like this:

The Normal Distribution

The Normal Distribution

The numbers at the bottom aren’t a measure of anything specific. They are simply to be used for reference. The mark in the center is the median, where ‘most people’ predominate. Those at the right hand end of the curve have more of whatever is being measured than most, while those at the left hand end have less.

You could imagine the bell as a moving entity, going to the right. Whatever it encounters, the right hand end (where the the pioneers and early adopters live) finds it first, the bulk meets it a little later, and the tail reaches it last. Thus inventions form in the mind of the inventor (on the right), then reach the university research lab, then trickle into industry research labs before finally finding their way out as products into the mass of the public. Late adopters – those at the left hand end – will acquire ‘the latest things’ just before they turn obsolete.

The point of this bell curve is that it applies to everything. It can be the distribution of intelligence, or integrity, or independence or autonomy or awareness; it can be physical capabilities or IQ or EQ. It stands to reason that if you are of exceptionally high intelligence, integrity and intellectual courage, then you are going to be sitting right up at the front end of the bell curve of those qualities.

That would mean you’re likely to be pretty lonely. It means you’re not going to be immediately understood by more than a handful of fellow humans. Worse, it means your contribution probably isn’t going to be valued by many people because most of the world (all those ‘behind’ you on the curve) won’t recognize its significance.

If you want to maximize your chances of being rich, happy and successful in every way, make sure you’re born into a space round about the +1 mark. Then you’ll be just ahead of the masses sufficient to profit from them coming along just behind, and not so far ahead that their relative lack of vision will bother you too much.

A practical example of the impact of the normal distribution is my practice. The psychological types who predominate among my clients are the IN** types and those numerically close to them. Those four types, out of a possible sixteen, total only 10-14 percent of the USA and probably world population.

This means my constituency is only about a quarter of the size it would be if we were ES** types, who add up to nearly fifty percent of the population. It also means that if you are an IN** type, you must look harder to find like-minded individuals to partner with at work or home. (You might find them among the varied gatherings of those classified as ‘core cultural creatives’).

Generally speaking, however, if you feel lonely it’s probably because you’re seriously outnumbered by people who don’t think or feel like you at all.

What can you do about it?

Such an imbalance calls for a considered response. I feel sure that as children we were all full of our greater vision and insight and shouted it loudly from the school desk or the dining table. Until, that is, we learned that it wasn’t wanted. Then we went into a state of hurt and resentment and a sort of ongoing bafflement as to the nature of these weird people who couldn’t – or wouldn’t – see the obvious.

Sometimes, our caretakers were so blind they actually put us at risk. Pretty scary. This brought additional intensity into our experience of existential dissonance. Often, we would compensate by assuming it was us who were wrong in every way.

Today, we can easily find ourselves in similar positions: with workmates, acquaintances, and even our spouses. This is very troubling, recreating the old mix of pain and frustration at not being able to make ourselves understood.

Managing this pain is much easier if you can find yourself in a mental and emotional place of lowered expectations, both for yourself and for others. Some of these thoughts might help move you there:

* Remember, wild animals that are outnumbered and not respected by the rest of the animal kingdom tend to lie low until they‘re sure it‘s safe to proceed. Self-protective IN-types do likewise!

* Recognize where your understanding is on the bell curve and accept the fact that those more than a short distance behind you are simply never going to understand what you‘re talking about. Yes, this does have huge implications.

* Acknowledge your difference to yourself and don’t try to bring the full force of your competence to bear in an environment designed for less-resourced individuals. It can only bring you grief.

* Accept that you aren’t going to change the world of mediocrity you’re forced to live in. Find a task space, a hobby or preferably a career, where you can genuinely stretch yourself and be challenged by the possibilities. This is easier for academically-oriented individuals than for action-oriented ones.

* Be ready to discover and acknowledge the aspects of life in which ‘they’ sit further toward the front of the curve than you do. In acceptance, perhaps, or courage or pragmatism, or physical strength.

* Accept that in a couple, the person further back in the curve, no matter what the subject, is going to set the operating standard. This is because the one behind cannot easily adjust their position forward, but the forward-dweller can operate at a stage further back. In real terms, this control-from-the-rear dynamic is often seen in couples whose risk-tolerance is widely divergent. There, the most risk-averse partner controls risk-related issues and can apparently prevent the readier risk-taker from achieving his or her goals.

* Don’t make the mistake of believing that your competence can compensate for a work- or love-partner’s relative incapacity. Forward-dwellers are often so lonely they underestimate their own exceptional qualities and embrace less adequate others, mistakenly believing they can fill the gap or bring their partner on. Sooner or later, this breeds resentment and ongoing recrimination, resulting in partnership breakdown.

* Recognize that the wayward behaviors that forward-dwellers are prone to – such as addictions, eating disorders, alternative sexual practices, compulsions, paranoid responses and reclusiveness – are a natural response to being in a very difficult position. These behaviors may not make it any easier to make friends, but they aren’t anything to be ashamed of in themselves.

* Most of all, don’t blame yourself for what you cannot change. Recognize that your powers to effect change are disproportionately small compared to your vision and understanding and that you didn’t make it this way. Push where you can but don’t blame yourself if the wall doesn’t budge. Put real effort into finding others like yourself and be creative in your adaptations to life in what amounts to an alien world.

* Trust the universe to know best. One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: “Don’t believe everything you think.” Like many people who sit and think a lot, I have a tendency to imagine I have a personal line to the truth. (‘Eureka’ moments come so much more frequently if you don’t risk exposing them to others’ inspection!) However, it’s worth remembering that all our ‘thought’ is just conjecture. None of us have the superior perspective to truly understand this universal system that’s been chugging along contentedly for around 14 billion years.

* Oh yes: a healthy sense of humor helps, too.

Summary

One of the intrapersonal dynamics I encounter very frequently arises after a client has seen something clearly yet has had their observation refuted. Alone, perhaps even disparaged, they then attempt to explain it away to themselves as some error of their own.

In order to live the life and produce the work of which only you are capable, you must develop a substantial faith in your right to your own judgment. A good starting point for this is to accept that you feel differently and see differently for a good and natural reason: you are different.

As you grow in confidence and articulation, you will find others of like mind who will respect and appreciate you, just as you do them. Your peers are not plentiful but they are there. Don’t be afraid to let them know about you, too. Then the blindness of so much of the world won’t seem so painful.

20 Responses to “Being self-protective in a normal world”

  1. Lizzy says:

    Thanks so much, I was looking specifically for a post on this subject! IMO our nature as herd animals makes this condition especially confusing and difficult. The majority are dumb and unaware of it, but if they deem YOU deviant they withhold social capital from you. And since people need support and recognition, shunning can often be worse than death. I just keep reminding myself to seek out those few places that value merit over popularity and to remember Kurosawa’s quip that “in a mad world only the mad are sane”. Perhaps one has to fake being one of the madmen now and then.

  2. Kevin says:

    I stumbled across this posting while searching for an image of the bell curve — studying for a statistics class in my MBA cirriculum. I’ve been supervising a team of high school educated employees in my company, and I continue to have conflicts with them. I haven’t been able to help them improve and it has frustrated me to no end. They don’t seem to understand me, and I know I don’t understand them. This has culminated in a recent meeting with my boss to discuss my inability to relate. I’m a fairly self-aware INTJ, and I consider myself on the front end of the bell curve intellectually. Reading this post has helped me to accept my inability to impact the results of my team and will help me set more realistic expectations for the future. Thank you!

  3. Hi Kevin, I’m delighted it was useful to you. It’s exactly the kind of purpose The Gifted Way is intended for. Christopher

  4. Vania says:

    This is one of the few articles I’ve come across after 2.5 days of scouring the internet that provides some real suggestions as to how to DEAL WITH giftedness. Thank you. Upon my discovery of my ‘condition’ (lol) I was at first happy to be ‘normal’ albeit exceptional, then dejected that my many struggles were not just bumps in the road but rather a lifetime of hurdles, and finally heartbroken that the lack of knowledge and understanding for giftedness has irrevocably destroyed my most valued family relationships. In fact, I am sure that I am still seen as a complete and utter disappointment to those who raised and watched me grow up. It’s ironic that most articles/books only tell the gifted what it means to be gifted. But if we’re gifted, shouldn’t authors realize that we’d understand the ‘definition’ and implications before the first chapter is done, and that they should really move on to various solutions and ways of managing giftedness in our real life situations? Thank you again!!

  5. Thanks Vania. You raise a good point about solutions in real life as being a worthwhile subject for study and publishing. There’s obviously an opportunity there. And you seem to write rather well . . . ;o)

  6. anthony says:

    Excellent artical really enjoyed it, I grew up the scape goat of a narcissistic mother. I pulled away from that toxic environment that was some what liberating for me i then through reading and resource gave myself a better understanding of my life and the need for compassion between man kind, as well as the down side to our real world we live in the enslavement of man cloaked choice in society, cloaked as justice the almighty doller. I ponder these thoughts not to much opportunity to discuss with many people due to the level difference I c and feel less as an 8 ball and more common thank you for hearing my piece much love and peace.

  7. James says:

    Hi Christopher, loved your article. I have spent the last few years researching giftedness and become increasingly frustrated at how little of it is aimed at ‘gifted adults’ All that seems to come up when you type giftedness into Google is: ‘CHILDREN CHILDREN CHILDREN!’ Well i’m glad that there is help for them, but it doesn’t help the multitude of gifted adults walking wounded. I, like many grew up without even realising my abilities and believed from a very early age that there was something wrong with me. I just knew i was different. I finally found out at age 31 that i was an INTP with an IQ on the far right of the bell curve. It’s funny how the penny drops….or should i say someone emptied a bucket of loose change lol! Suddenly the myriad of misunderstandings made sense. The bit about ‘bringing people on’ really hit home. I have been trying to do this for years, hoping that i’m helping people to ‘open up their minds a bit’….or doing them a bit of good; only to meet with constant frustration and feeling tired after. You’re right, it’s not worth it, they only end up judging you negatively. None of us choose reclusiveness, but you end up becoming aloof as a self-defense mechanism. I have tried many different careers and found working with others annoying and frustrating despite making great efforts. I ended up becoming self-employed and highly recommend this to other highly motivated gifted individuals. I wouldn’t say my job is intellectually stimulating or rewarding, but it pays well and allows me to be my own boss. I also have time to pursue my intellectual interests outside of my work. It’s a compromise, but it works well for me.

  8. Nikki says:

    Hello,

    Thanks for this article. I am a junior at a top research university, and for an assignment we had to have our research papers reviewed by our peers. I never take the easy route, and as usual chose a challenging topic with complex and integrating factors that I tried to depict in a clear and concise way. I spent an hour trying to explain to my peers why I couldn’t just leave out integral factors leading to the phenomenon I was trying to explain. They all just didn’t get it. I was frustrated and started experiencing cognitive dissonance where the subject was plain to me, but everyone disagreed with me. I went to ask the TA about it, and he told me not to simplify the issue, and that it was expected that I would get the feedback that I got from my peers. I walked out and had a mini existential crisis for a few hours, after which I came to terms with the fact that I am gifted, and even in this competitive academic environment I apparently think on a different plane from my peers. This article helped me come to terms with that, and understand in context some of my other recent and related struggles.

    Thanks,

    Nikki

  9. Amanda Ng says:

    …so emotional reading this…

    Laughing and crying…hahaha

  10. Anne-Marie says:

    Thank you for this incisive piece, and the useful tips. It’s comforting. I already feel less lonely reading it, in that it describes exactly what I’ve been feeling/thinking/experiencing for some years now. What can I say… Great minds think alike ; D

  11. Nancy says:

    I, too, can understand the cognitive dissonance of which you speak. I was recently in a graduate program for mental health counseling, and there was only one other person I could really relate to in my cohort group. The other eleven or twelve were so “unenlightened.” I sometimes wondered why they were there! I could more relate to my teachers than my peers. Of course, I was also probably older than my teachers as well as the rest of the students.

    I have a friend who is presently going through some difficult times. I have known this woman for 40 years, and I never before thought she was stupid, but for some reason she has lost all semblance to a smart, capable person. Although I suppose I should have expected it, since we are on opposite poles when it comes to our political views! I have decided to stand back from this relationship, even though I know she could benefit from my experience with what she is going through. But good advice is not good advice, if it is not heard through the filter of hysteria.

  12. davorin says:

    Great read and it hits a lot of nails on the head. It’s important to remember to forgive those around you because it is not their fault that they don’t have the capacity to understand you. It is on our shoulders to deal with the world because the world cannot deal with you.

    Acceptance of ourselves and those around us us critical.

    We are creators and it is only in creation that we can find comfort.

  13. Ariel says:

    I still struggle with the idea that I have more abilities than most in some areas. So many things just seem so obvious to me, it seems to me that other people must just not be trying to understand . I am afraid to think I am too smart, so I guess this is my way of taking myself for granted. Also, I have an IQ score that puts me in the gifted range, but I use it to tell myself I’m not that smart. Imagine how stupid I must seem to someone with a 170 IQ!
    I guess this is why, even after having been on earth for 54 years now, I am still shocked by people acting in ways that show a lack of integrity. Don’t they know it’s wrong ??? I suppose facing the true nature of the world that is populated by so many people who are mediocre in their moral reasoning and who don’t value intellectual honesty is just too horrifying for me to quite take in. Surely people could do better if they just tried ….right?

  14. Thanks for your comment Meredith. I’m sure you summarise a set of feelings that many gifted people experience. I particularly like what you said about mediocrity in moral reasonining. I think it comes down to being governed by fear, a kind of “See the truth but ignore it anyway.” The cost of integrity can be very high, especially in terms of being rejected by ‘the group’, so most will go along to get along. In a funny way, though, it doesn’t matter because presumably those who act from a lack of integrity ultimately balance each other out. A bit like the left and the right in politics. This might explain why the human condition does improve, albeit very slightly, from century to century.

  15. Desdemona says:

    I feel blessed and cursed at the same time. Never understood why I was the target of passive-aggressiveness, rolling of eyes and dirty looks, even ridicule. I always thought there was something wrong with me to the point of having headaches from so much thinking what did I do wrong to deserve such treatment.

    I had to move to another country to find out that the problem wasn’t me, but mediocre, underachieving jealous people. They are majority in this world, so kind, gentle, caring, honest overachievers pay the price for standing up against mediocrity. When I realized that the treatment I was receiving from most people was the same as in my country of origin, despite the fact that it is a totally different culture with different costumes, I had an epiphany: I have realized that no matter how kind, good and honest you are, there will always be someone out there trying to bring you down and sabotage you, and the more you ignore, the more they try to get a reaction out of you, to make you look as ugly as they are. The story of my life.

    To add injury to insult, I also committed the “terrible crime” of being born with good looks. They try to make you look stupid because of your looks, and when their attempts fail miserably, they resort to character assassination, calling you a sl*t behind your back, making up stories and the sad thing is that people believe it, or it’s convenient for them to do so, as they are also mediocre.

    This is a sad world to live in. I don’t feel lonely because I found comfort in my faith, otherwise…

    “Cursed is the man who trust in man”. So true…

  16. Desdemona says:

    Oh, and thank you for your website, it’s truly a source of comfort. It’s always good to know you’re not alone. May God bless you ten fold!

  17. Maura says:

    “Recognize that your powers to effect change are disproportionately small compared to your vision and understanding and that you didn’t make it this way. Push where you can but don’t blame yourself if the wall doesn’t budge.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! This thought eases my pain over not achieving more in a world that has consistently devalued me.

  18. Persephone says:

    Wow. Thank you. All of you. I just learned of my extreme right side after 40 years of being judged on the two areas of extreme left (handwriting and auditory processing, the only skills you need for classrooms) . . I knew I was different, and being told I was “stupid” was oddly rather stupid to me, but I had no other mirror to look into. I now understand why the haters are gona hate and why I will never again try to fix it. I’m so pleased, and saddened, to know my experience is quite probably “stereotypical” for those of us who are different. I can now embrace being different from a more productive position. Whew. Weight of world – gone. Thank you

  19. Tara says:

    Wow, great to hear that I am not the only one who experiences these problems. I guess I still don’t understand my own difference. For example, I would assume that all people in a Masters program would be very intelligent, and then if they seemed otherwise, I would be left wondering “How can that be???” I guess I am still st the “Dies not compute” stage! All this morning , I was wondering why I see the same sort of situation in every workplace: a manager has behavior that causes very serious problems . The manager never learns or changes, and the company never gets rid of him or her. They just lose a lot of money and have a great deal of headaches and extra work instead. Does not compute!!!!!!

  20. Lars says:

    Thanks for this article.
    It is unbelieveably painful to not be understood by the majority of people.
    Or beeing labled as “insane” “mad” or whatever.
    I always looked inward and projected the pain onto me, doubt myself, even hate myself.
    So this article reminded me that nothing is wrong with me.

    thank you

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