Notes From the 99th Percentile
Notwithstanding the fact that it's the intellectual equivalent of cocaine cut with baby-laxative -- which let me tell you really isn't any kind of fun, appealing though it may seem -- there's lately been a new spasm of comment around the crypto-racist tome The Bell Curve, a book that tries very hard to create an intellectual edifice in support of timeworn prejudices about who's smart and who's not based on skin-tone and "cultural background." Poo on that.
This isn't a post about politics though, so I'll leave the debunking behind the links above. Rather, it is a jumping off point to talk about the personal conundrums of intelligence, or more generally "capacity for life." This is a post that's filed under "authentic experience, hubris, love" and "juicy." So then, lets get to it.
First principles. Statistical metrics of measuring human capacity and/or achievement are suspect. Highly. At the same time, it's also undeniable that there are differences in people's capabilities and accomplishments, especially borne out over time. Equality is an ideal, something to be pursued in principle but impossible, even counter-productive, to enforce in practice. Different people do different things, and this is Ok, and probably Good.
Disclaimers aside, I've got good stats. Standardized general testing consistently puts me in the 99th percentile. That's one in a hundred, one of 10,000,000+ in China, nowhere unique or even really special, but certainly someone who's "talented and gifted," as they say.
But it ain't easy being a smarty-pants, as a casual acquaintance with The Simpsons will tell you. Being a bright person in a lowbrow world is stressful, and a lot of people don't really make it. I think of the girls I've met who pretend to be dumb until it's no longer an act, the freaks and geeks walled off from social contact out of self-defense, the poor souls who opt to self-medicate away their standard deviations from the norm. I think about the way that my own perspective as a 1-percenter creates pitfalls and traps.
I started working up this blog topic after I wrote of my recent experience becoming a "class-traitor". Contemporary culture uses money as a crude proxy for human value, capacity, achievement. It's near the top of that list of suspect metrics (right up there with "how many people have you slept with?") I wish we could all do away with.
Having been raised w/my hippie values, money-as-virtue isn't something I can really get behind. But you can't help growing up a little North American Scum; it gets into your head. The struggle around that was what animated my thinking/writing, and I found it to be interesting and good to ponder.
Lurking beneath my riffs on fiscal solvency and the social distance it creates is a much more hairy bundle of questions about real human capacity, intelligence, energy, chi, whatever. Why is it that some people are leaders and others are followers? Why is it that some people are more charismatic, smarter, able to get more done than others? And if you think you're one of these people, what does this mean for you?
I find myself stuck between the egalitarian and elite. On the one hand I believe that "everyone can/should be able to live like me, do the things I do, understand the things I understand." But people are different. Regardless of what might exist in the realm of possibility, the way I live and the things I do are not accessible to everyone, and I want to be with my own. There's an in-built drive to seek this, and there's an undeniable allure to the notion that you're a part of something special, discriminating, un-common.
People start using terms like "level" and "league" when they talk about this sort of stuff. "Big fish, small pond" and all that jazz. I'm generally uncomfortable with that talk. There are enormous problems with elitism and hubris. Just from a practical standpoint, exclusive cliques don't work out well, whether they're out on the playground or running the country. Once you start reflexively screening out people or ideas based on the perception that they're somehow "beneath" you, you've started concocting your own downfall.
Yet at the same time, the pattern-matching part of the right brain and the evaluative and analytic part of the left brain are constantly at work categorizing the other human beings around us. This is natural, inescapable, and hardly without merit.
Perhaps this isn't the sort of thing that other people get hung up on, but I find myself stuck on it a lot lately. After a lifetime of moving to bigger and bigger "ponds," I took a leap into a much smaller and more private pool. It's a more sparse social world, less ambitious and boisterous compared to what I'm used to, and I don't have many people around who really understand what I do or who can play my brand of intellectual tennis.
Most heavy on my mind is how this factors in on questions of Love. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I need a woman who I can go toe-to-toe with on multiple levels, and this hasn't been easy to find. Partly this is because I almost immediately slip into competitive modes of thought (e.g. "toe-to-toe"), and competition isn't a great frame for romantic relationships, and largely because what this means in practice is that I'm terribly fucking picky. Except when I'm not.
As you can see, this line of thought is fraught with self-contradiction and hypocrisy. I'm uncomfortable with language I turn around and use two paragraphs later. I'm suspect of statistical measures, even as SAT scores and career achievements have been known to turn me on in a decidedly superficial way. I'm publicly shoring up my egalitarian conscience while internally hoping to find my way into an elite club of peers. The serpent is eating his own tail, and ain't even shy about it.
Ultimately it is this inability to let go and roll with things that's the greatest drawback to living in the 99th percentile. You're inescapably conscious of your position, of your privilege. This very easily becomes an inhibiting kind of self-consciousness, a second-guessing one-step-removed-from-real-living meta-consciousness. Every superlative compliment you've ever received just reinforces the notion that you're different, better, blessed. And yet you're still lonely. You still make mistakes and do bad things and hurt people. Nothing changes, it's just that you get to be more keenly aware of how it all goes, and of your own power and weight in affecting the situation one way or another.
I remember when I was about 14, one of my young friends telling me about his first-time experience of being in a mosh pit, the feeling of being able to move a crowd, to lean into the people next to you and have that really do something. When I was still in the process of discovery, exploring the reaches of my capacity and power was exhilarating. Every day a new horizon. Now it feels like more of a known quantity, and the whole thing is paralyzing well beyond the simple moral of Uncle Ben's Law. Perhaps I've become to focused on the harm, rather than the good to be done.
Bringing it all back home, it's not like this is an impossible situation. I have confidence that I'll be able to let go and roll with things again. It just takes a lot to engage me, and without that it's not going to happen. Much like okcupid's advice to the Playboy, finding adequate challenges is probably my best out. There are always more horizons out there, and the best way to stay limber and avoid creeping stuffy aristocratism is to stay on the move. Never draw a box around what can be known and what can be done. There is no 100%, just infinite and unfolding degrees of closeness.