How Being Intelligent Can Be More Isolating Than It Is Rewarding

by Michael Lenoch

Our parents prod us our whole lives to study more, do our homework, to do better on our tests, get into good colleges and eventually, achieve gainful employment.

But, can an enlightened life bound to academia be fulfilling?


Famed proponent of utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill, once wrote,

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”

In a recent BBC Future article, “The Surprising Downsides Of Being Clever,” David Robson opens his piece on a similar note, saying, “If ignorance is bliss, does a high IQ equal misery?”

Robson even cites the great author, Ernest Hemingway, who said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”

And, they all may be on to something.

“At best, a great intellect makes no differences to your life satisfaction; at worst, it can actually mean you are less fulfilled,” Robson remarked.

Torturingly, the moral dilemma that often plagues political and diplomatic action, can wear on the intellect of so-called “smarter” people.

While I realize how pompous this may sound, I happen to be underway in writing a book that addresses many issues in American society.

As a self-styled perfectionist, I can sympathize with what Alexander Penney from MacEwan University in Canada says:

“It’s not that their worries were more profound, but they are just worrying more often about more things. If something negative happened, they thought about it more.”

Taking Robson’s argument a step further, however, can reveal yet another dissatisfaction “smarter” people experience: their social lives.

Last semester, I got to feel what is was like to be “smart.” I was carrying an eight-course, 24-credit hour workload, and in spite of all that, I made the dean’s list.

I can definitively say being “smart” is a surefire way to win a grand total of zero friends.

Infused with the brute desire to graduate a semester early (which I ultimately never achieved), I hit the books each and every night, unintentionally alienating myself from the friends I previously held.

As a result, my friends soon grew apart and assumed I simply did not want to hang out with them.

Though this was not true, one could argue my “smarts” got in the way of my social life. There was simply no time to hang out, go drinking, watch Netflix or engage in any of the various other activities college students are known for.

How do we define “intelligence” though?

We can look at it in one of two ways:

First, there’s likely what is the most conventional understanding of intelligence: academic performance.

Next, there is a far less traditional perception of intelligence, and one that I am (and I’m certain many other writers would be) certainly keener to subscribe to: eloquence.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, eloquence is “the ability to speak or write well and in an effective way,” and is part-and-parcel to intelligence, as far as I see it.

You could be the most brilliant physicist the world has ever known, but if you are unable to communicate your findings and research, your ability may all be for nothing.

Naturally, one can also be a skilled communicator without having anything intellectually stimulating to say.

In case you couldn’t tell by now, I revel in writing and speaking in an, shall we say, elevated manner. That is not to claim that I am in any way astute.

After all, this is the age of Internet defamation, so I am required by tacitly-established rules which decree no individual shall engage in any degree of self-praise.

And, that is fine; I enjoy challenging myself to communicate complex phenomena using intricate and well-chosen words whenever they may be necessary.

As such, I find that in all of my courses at Marquette University, I am approached with a certain amount of disdain.

That is, my classmates — perhaps lazily — assume people who speak using large or “fancy” (as they, themselves, might put it) words are conceited.

I have witnessed this in the form of them either looking upon me as I speak in class with judgment in their eyes, rarely interacting with me during or after class, ignoring or outright contradicting the contributions I make in class.

This is all paired with the sense that students generally tune out whenever I speak (sometimes even chatting in the background as I pose an admittedly overly-convoluted question in class).

Whether stereotyping is indeed a lazy man’s tool for judging the world around him, the rules don’t always apply.

Rather, I take pride in communicating the way I do for the sheer love I have for language and expression, and no amount of scorn from my peers can stand in the way of that.

Additionally, it can mean suicide to your reputation to say the right thing.

In a media ethics course I took last semester, a group of students made a presentation on how great America is.

While I could have just as easily feigned patriotism for my homeland, I threw caution to the wind when small groups of students were required to present their opinions when asked various questions.

Though I can’t recall the exact question, I said something to the effect that America is plainly not the world’s greatest country.

While we won’t get into the innumerable facts, figures, informed opinions and evidence that support my position, it can nonetheless be hugely unpopular to say the right thing.

And, being willing to appeal to a greater good — whether that be justice, truth and so on — is not the easiest thing to do, either.

Ultimately, being intelligent is not glamorous. After all, if you are well-informed, you are then equally beholden to tell your aunt that GMO foods are actually safe to eat, your roommate that he regularly violates a particular grammatical rule (and how to remedy it), your best friend to wear her seatbelt or your boss that he or she should quit smoking.

Quickly, the people around you can mistake your desires to improve, or even perfect, the world around you for cynicism, hatred, depression, elitism, pompousness and so on.

Your perfectionism, too, can rub many people the wrong way and preclude you from potential job opportunities, romantic relationships or depending on the nature of your business, even potential clients.