The Joys and Burdens of Intelligence

Three musts for the high-IQ person.

Posted Apr 30, 2020

Geralt, Pixabay, Public Domain
Source: Geralt, Pixabay, Public Domain

I know someone who has a 155 IQ (99.99th percentile), and he articulated the joys and burdens of intelligence.

Even if you’re not quite as brainy, his story offers lessons that the intelligent readership of Psychology Today may find of value.

I recorded his telling of the story. The following is pretty much a paraphrase of what he said but with irrelevant details changed to protect his anonymity.

I don’t deserve credit for being intelligent. I really was born that way. Environment couldn’t have been it: I spent my first six years in a Wynnefield, Philadelphia tenement, the child of new-immigrant Holocaust survivor parents who spoke little English. I taught myself to read by comparing the pictures with the text in TV and newspaper ads.

My parents then moved a step up to Greenfield, where I attended Philadelphia public schools and teachers ignored or hated me because my hand would always shoot up and teachers would appropriately call on me only 1/30th of the time, but in my frustration, I’d blurt out the answer before she could call on another student. They did test me for the gifted program.

My desire to display my intelligence wasn’t to show off; it really was just being who I was and I thought it was a good thing to share what I knew. Unfortunately, I wasn't smart enough to realize that people viewed it as showing off. They went beyond resenting it. The tough kids regularly used me as a punching bag.

On one hand, actually mostly, I’m grateful for my intelligence. It made it easy to be a good student with just modest studying and even to learn to a high level without school. For example, in my state, you can be a lawyer without going to law school. You just need to self-study and apprentice. I did and passed the bar.

Being smart does have downsides. Throughout my life, I’ve felt pressure to always be living up to my potential. That’s why I work long hours even though my natural self only would prefer to be just a moderate worker. My happiest times are doing things like playing softball and watching TV.

Worse, my brain, which constantly generates ideas, compels me to give unasked-for advice. That makes even my girlfriend nuts. Most people respect but dislike me.


Be grateful for your intelligence. Few attributes yield more wide-ranging benefits. Indeed, the definitive study of genius —Terman’s “Termites” — who had an average IQ of 151 and were studied from childhood, found:

At midlife, 70 earned listings in American Men of Science, and 3 were elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Ten had entries in the Directory of American Scholars, and 31 appeared in Who’s Who in America . . . Nearly 2.000 scientific and technical papers and articles and some 60 books and monographs in the sciences, literature, arts, and humanities have been published. Patents granted amount to at least 230. Other writings include 33 novels, about 375 short stories, novelettes, and plays; 60 or more essays, critiques, and sketches; and 265 miscellaneous articles on a variety of subjects.

The Termites’ accomplishments even extended to health. It may be that high IQ leads to a better life, so they’d have more to lose if they engaged in risky behaviors. 

Think twice before giving unasked-for advice. If you do offer a suggestion, try to couch it in a face-saving way, for example, “I can understand why you’d want to do X but am wondering if Y might be wiser. What do you think?”

Take some pressure off yourself.  Even geniuses have the right to occasionally be foolish. Allow yourself a bit of silliness and forgive your stupid mistakes. Everyone makes them, even if your IQ is at the 99.99th percentile.