Hidden Abilities

There are some human abilities that are equivalent to superpowers, in that they seem superhuman. The most obvious examples are certain kinds of athletes and performers. Some of these people can do things that are hard to believe a human can do. In watching acrobats and contortionists, one worries they might hurt themselves.

I have some athletic ability. I’ve played sports and I’m decent at juggling. My greatest physical skill was hacky sack or, if you prefer, footbag. I played all the time and even invented tricks that were quite impressive. But even then there were surely thousands of other people just here in the Midwestern United States that were at least as good as I and probably far better. My skills, as great as they were, were not at the level of the superhuman. I’m not a genius in physical ability, just above average.

That is fine. Most people don’t mind having limited athletic skills or whatever. We live in a society that only moderately admires and rewards such abilities. For all the wealth a professional athlete can accrue, a popular movie star or powerful CEO will still make vastly more money, and no one even cares to watch the CEO. Besides, the movie star or CEO doesn’t have to worry about potential physical injury and permanent brain damage that might lead to chronic pain and a shorter lifespan.

What gains respect in our society, more than anything, is cognitive ability. Even the entrepreneurial businessman is largely admired because his success is supposedly a sign of intelligence and innovation, whether or not that corresponds to book smarts. It’s a different kind of cognitive ability than a professor or scientist, but it’s the same basic quality that compels respect in a society such as this.

Yet, at the same time, Americans tend to only appreciate outward forms of intelligence as they manifest in worldly achievements and positions of authority. A scientist, for example, will be much more respected if he invents a new medicine or technology. It’s the rare scientist, such as Albert Einstein, who is respected for merely developing a new theory.

That is the rub. Intellectual capacity is rarely obvious. The most brilliant people, even geniuses, don’t get much respect or reward for all their talents, no matter how hard they work. It’s partly because the greatest thinkers don’t tend to have an immediate and spectacular impact on the world around them, as any society will be resistant to change. To appreciate the impact of a great thinker might take centuries, until the rest of society catches up.

Plus, many people with immense cognitive abilities have their talent wasted. They are working at jobs that don’t make use of their intelligence, creativity, etc. I suspect more geniuses are never discovered than those who get the opportunity to live up to their potential. Working class jobs, poor communities, homeless shelters, prisons, etc are filled with lost and wasted human potential.

It’s not unusual to meet people with all kinds of talents and abilities. Rarely are these people doing much with what they have, partly because life is tough and most people are simply trying to get by. Being smart most often won’t do you much good if you live in isolated, desperate poverty with few positive outlets of intellectual achievement. But it doesn’t require poverty to obscure human potential. Let me give an example.

My friend’s father is a bookdealer, although he collects books more than he sells them. This guy easily could be doing greater things than running a practically nonprofit book business. He is smart, clever, witty, and has a near perfect memory filled with vast information. He was working on his dissertation when stress and a psychological breakdown caused him to drop out. Despite his being well respected by other bookdealers, few others would suspect that this slovenly guy is anything special.

There are many people like that.

I live in a town filled with smart and well educated people. A large part of the working class around here has college degrees. Many people I know don’t do anything with their education: someone with an architecture degree who is a busdriver, someone with a psychology degree who is a postal worker, someone with a history degree who is a bartender, someone with a religious studies degree who is a baker, someone with an art degree who is a maintenance worker, etc. One of my coworkers who works as a cashier has a PhD. Even the homeless population around here is far above average.

That’s just talking about the well educated. Genius is a whole other level. If you met a mental genius, how would you know? Someone could be having genius thoughts right in front of you and you’d probably not notice anything unusual was happening. It’s harder for a physical genius to hide their talents while using their talents because, well, they are physically apparent. You might not pay close attention to the street juggler as you pass by, but you most likely will at least notice that juggling is happening within your vicinity.

In reading books, I sometimes come across a writer who has amazing knowledge, understanding, and insights. Most of the time, such people aren’t famous and well paid authors. There seems to be a negative correlation between how brilliant a writer is and how well they are rewarded in their profession. The more brilliant a writer is the far fewer readers there will be to appreciate their brilliance. It takes above average intelligence to even recognize brilliance, much less fully appreciate it.

That is the difference. Anyone can watch physical ability and be awed by it. Cognitive ability, at the extremes, tends to just go over people’s heads or else is ignored. A scientist doing cutting edge research often would have a hard time explaining the research to most people in a way that would make it both comprehensible and interesting. The fact of the matter is most scientific research is boring and, besides, it happens in laboratories few people ever see. Scientists are hidden away while doing their scientific work. That is the nature of most intellectual pursuits. They are outwardly unimpressive and not easily seen, at least until some worldly result is achieved, which comes out long after all the hard intellectual work was done.

The work and thought being done that will change the world in the future is happening all around us. Knowledge, ideas, and inventions slowly percolate through society. Meanwhile, a large part of the population is watching sports.

4 thoughts on “Hidden Abilities

  1. Here is an example.

    Air and the combustion of oxygen was discovered maybe back in the late 1700s, but they had no practical application for this knowledge. The first combustion engine was invented in the early 1800s, but no one knew what use it could be at the time.

    It wasn’t until later on in that century that people began to seriously see ways a combustion engine might be useful, especially considering how steam had already been successfully implemented. Still, it took until the 1900s for the combustion engine to make a serious impact on society. After being used to power vehicles, it was used to power airplanes and rockets.

    The original discovery of air and combustion was only of minor interest to an intellectual elite of the time. Even most of the ruling elite probably ignored and dismissed it. As far as the rest of society was concerned, even if they knew about it, it would have seemed like meaningless intellectuality and useless knowledge.

    There are regular discoveries like that of air and combustion. They are discoveries that could transform all of the world. Yet we go about our lives in utter ignorance. And these great minds that achieve the discoveries often end up penniless and forgotten, until later generations make use of their discoveries.

    It would be nice if we appreciated and supported great minds while they were alive. If we did that, we might find that there are more great minds doing great things.

  2. I hope you’re talking about me, Benjamin!

    I recently watched Einstein’s story (PBS thing, “The Mind of Einstein”), it was really interesting. Lately I’ve found reason to be learning about Robert Trivers, which is an interesting sort of genius story too.

    • Sure. You can be part of the secret intellectual elite. But don’t tell anyone about us. We are working covertly in the shadows. Once our plans are in place, we are going to finally take over the world.

      I assume I must be a sleeper agent because no one has yet sent me any orders about the plans. It’s best to that each of us knows as little as possible what the others are doing, in case any of us is captured and tortured.

      Einstein is an obvious and stereotypical example of a genius. But even most geniuses smarter than Einstein rarely become so famous. It is surprisingly difficult to become famous simply for being brilliant.

      I’ve heard of Robert Trivers. I can’t say I know much about him. I’ll look him up. What most interests you about him?

      • that’s right, you’ll get your instructions when you need them. Trivers is like a freelance genius, he focuses on where he sees a problem, learns it, revolutionizes it and moves on.He spits theories out like Trump does bullshit – fast and furious. He is an interesting investigoogle, for sure.

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