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.

Social Environment & Human Potential

A thoughtful article:

Cities and Ambition
By Paul Graham

“Great cities attract ambitious people. You can sense it when you walk around one. In a hundred subtle ways, the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder.

“The surprising thing is how different these messages can be. New York tells you, above all: you should make more money. There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer.

“What I like about Boston (or rather Cambridge) is that the message there is: you should be smarter. You really should get around to reading all those books you’ve been meaning to.”

This reminds me of a report by Luminosity that claimed that Iowa had 6 out of 100 of the smartest cities in the US. There measure was a specific test for cognitive ability.

Some years ago, I read that Iowa City (where I live) had the highest per capita of degrees and PhDs, but I don’t know if that is still the case. Iowa City does have the second highest per capita of doctors. Sure has a lot of writers and artists as well. I’m not sure what message Iowa City puts out in all of this.

I have a friend who grew up in Iowa City. She moved to Portland, Oregon many years ago. She loves it there.

Like Iowa City, Portland has a writers workshop, although it is more alternative than the mainstream workshop here. Compared to other US cities, Portland has (or did have, the last time I checked) the largest bookstore in the US and the most book stores and coffee shops (either according to per capita or per block, I forget which).

Portland is a very creative town with tons of artists and writers. But it also seems a bit like a hipster town. Living there, you want to be or be perceived as intellectual and creative, but you also want to be hip and cool.

Iowa City lacks that hipster quality for the most part. Instead, it feels more middle class. In Iowa City, even the mailmen and bus drivers not unusually have at least a college degree. Artists and writers don’t starve in Iowa City for they just get a job at the University or the City or one of the other large employers here.

“You can see how powerful cities are from something I wrote about earlier: the case of the Milanese Leonardo. Practically every fifteenth century Italian painter you’ve heard of was from Florence, even though Milan was just as big. People in Florence weren’t genetically different, so you have to assume there was someone born in Milan with as much natural ability as Leonardo. What happened to him?

“If even someone with the same natural ability as Leonardo couldn’t beat the force of environment, do you suppose you can?”

That is the most important point to take away. I’ve been convinced by the theory that some of the most intelligent and innovative people in America have their skills squandered or else apply their skills toward ends the mainstream considers immoral, for example (Gang Leader for a Day by Benjamin Wallace-Wells, Washington Monthly):

“In the project, Venkatesh finds men and women who easily flit back and forth between the legal and illegal economies (depending, usually, on which pays more at any given moment). Drug dealers aspire to buy small businesses, and their subordinates move between legitimate jobs and the hustle of drug dealing and prostitution. What Venkatesh is able to develop, through the view J.T. grants him, is a new way of thinking about the ghetto and ghetto crime, as the consequences that come when morality is uncoupled from the law.

“J.T. is a good tutor. He is a learned and steady bureaucrat of the drug trade, a man with some college and management experience behind him. Most of his life is spent dealing with, somewhat endearingly, the small headaches of petit bourgeois career life—managing less-than-competent subordinates, handling the objections of Taylor Homes residents, and trying to restrict police access to the project.”

In a country like the US, with a shrinking middle class, social mobility and good job opportunities, with growing poverty and desperation, an entire underclass is created with its own separate communities. As with cities, what community or neighborhood you live in or come from can make a big difference, not just in your opportunities but in shaping who you become (often the opportunities you are able to see and the opportunities that you value).

Many potential Leonardo da Vincis are gangsters tagging alley walls and dumpsters or working at Walmart. Many, probably most, of them don’t even know about even an iota of the talent and potential they have within them.

Genius or even just above average talent doesn’t arise in a vacuum. Without social capital, potential remains potential. Countries, cities and communities that invest in social capital at the same time invest in human capital.