Really Smart People

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I have always had a fascination with really smart people. There are kids who grow up wanting to be the next big baseball or football or soccer star. What always impressed me was smart people. I think I first realized this when I watched The West Wing for the first time in the late 1990s. It was a fantasy where the government was run by smart people, people who didn’t apologize for being smart. But I admired really smart people even as a kid. For the last 27+ years, I have worked at a place surrounded by incredibly smart people. When I first started there, I was almost overwhelmed. Everyone seemed smarter than I was. I learned something new from them every day, and that continues to be the case more than 27 years later.

I have met people over the years with smarts that almost seem like a superpower and I am always in awe of them. I have told this story elsewhere, but after selling my first story to Analog Science Fiction back in late 2010, then editor Stanley Schmidt invited me to lunch. I was going to be in New York for the SFWA authors and editors event, and so I headed into Analog’s offices in Manhattan and sat in Stan’s office chatting before lunch. Lunch was at a place called Baluchi’s and in addition to me and Stan, Carl Frederick and Jay Werkheiser were present. Listening to Carl and Jay talk–I can’t find the words to describe it. They went from one disparate topic to another smoothly and seamlessly: astronomy, astrophysics, writing, and even the grammar of Native American languages (both Stan and Carl spoke many languages).

I’ve often thought about why I am so fascinated by smart people. For one thing, it is a super power I wish I had. For another, I judge my own intelligence as about average. I’m not trying to be self-deprecating here. I’ve done very well in some areas, but it is not native smarts, but really hard work. Maybe really smart people also put in a lot of hard work, but when I meet them, or read about them, their abilities seem more like native talent than anything else. Indeed, most of my long-time friends seem far smarter than I am. They see things more quickly than I do. They put two and two together much faster than I can.

I made up for this lack of native talent by continually trying to learn new things. I do this mostly through reading. More than any other reason, this is why I have read more than 1,100 books since graduating from college. Not everything sticks, which is why I’ve been looking for ways to improve how I take notes on what I read. I’ve also learned to recognize what I don’t know. Sometimes, what I don’t know feels like awful lot more than what I do.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been reading a wonderful new biography of John von Neumann: The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann by Ananyo Bhattacharya. Talk about smart! von Neumann seems off-the-charts. My fascination of really smart people has led me to read a lot about really smart people, with the hope of gleaning useful information and insights. von Neumann has to be among the smartest people in modern history. Smarts like that seem almost like a superpower.

I wish I had superpowers like that. I wish I could play multiple games of chess in my head the way the fictional President Bartlett did on The West Wing. I wish I could do advanced math in my head the way people like von Neumann could do. I’ve come to accept that I can’t. Instead, I try to make up with it by hard work and constant reading. I wish I could retain a lot more of what I read, for that matter. But I do the best I can..

As I approach 50, I’ve come to be satisifed with my own smarts, limited though they may be. I’d love to be a polymath, but I’ve accepted being a generalist instead, which is to a polymath what a minor league player is to a major league superstar. I still find myself processing things more slowly than my friends and colleagues. Frequently, in meetings, I will pause to think over something, puzzling it out in my head. These pauses are long enough that I usually have to say, “Hang on, I’m thinking.” I used to feel bad about this since most people I know didn’t do this. Now I’ve come to accept it as a natural limitation of the pathways in my brain.

There are a handful of things that I think I’ve gotten particularly skilled at and that give the illusion of smarts. I’ve been a software developer for about 30 years. Over time I’ve gotten the impression that people think you have to be smart to do this type of work. The truth it that it took me a long time to get a hang of the basics. I learned more or less on my own, from programs printed in computer magazines and spent countless hours writing my own programs to no other end but to learn. I am pretty good at what I do these day, but it’s taken me 30 years to get here. I think that, by definition, is the opposite of “prodigy.”

I find that I am still envious, especially when reading about someone of von Neumann’s abilities. But at least the years have given me the experience to know and accept my own limitations. And despite those limitations, I keep plugging away, trying to learn as much as I can, under the (perhaps false) notion that the more I learn, the smarter I become.

Written on March 2, 2022.

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