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.

Innovation, Social Liberalism, Cultural Diversity, etc

Here is Steven Johnson speaking about his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. I was watching the full version of this discussion at FORA.tv.

I could go into detailed analysis about these ideas, but I just wanted to point out some related ideas.

Johnson’s idea that cities have been the breeding ground of innovation because of all the social mixing. This seems to have started most clearly during the Axial Age when cultures began mixing like never before. Also, I’ve seen research that shows people who grow up with multiculturalism become more socially liberal as adults. There is something about being socially liberal, also supported by research, that relates to the trait of ‘openness to experience’ which is an attitude of being open to what is new, including new ideas and new ways of thinking. Interestingly, I’ve read that paranormal experiences are most often reported (more often experienced?) along the coasts and major cities (i.e., where liberals are concentrated)… and some research shows that religiosity is opposed to supernatural experience.

Some other related ideas and issues are America as a melting pot, the rise of the creative class, an increasingly global society, Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, religious syncretism, paranormal experience. Et Cetera. I’m sure much else could be added.

Anyway, the central point in my mind is that the liberal vision of society has it’s benefits. One thing Johnson points out is that many of the American Founders were part of the cultural mixing that was going on in Europe (Paine, Franklin, and Jefferson all traveled in Europe). Specifically, Johnson points out the coffee houses that were popular in European cities at that time. These coffee houses were where people and ideas mixed together. As we all know, this led to much revolutionary fervor in the New and Old Worlds.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/04/17/what-drives-motivation-in-the-modern-workplace/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/08/22/cultural-shift-generations-race-technology/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/12/12/religious-syncretism-paranormal-experience-and-democrats/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2009/06/27/psychology-and-parapsychology-politics-and-place/

Marshmallow Test vs Candle Test

I just saw this video about the marshmallow test.

The first thing I noticed was that the emphasis was on the belief we should teach our kids more self-control because it leads a to a more focused mindset and so increases the probability of traditional success. My immediate response was that psychological research shows that people are born with such traits and there is a limit to how much you can cause your child to change. It’s good to teach kids self-control, but I don’t think it’s good to force the ideal of “success” on young children. Kids should to an extent be allowed to be kids and allowed to be their natural selves.

I’d heard of the marshmallow test before, but I decided to post about it because it connects to another video I recently saw (and posted about: Rise of the Creative Class & Second Axial Age).

In the second video, another study shows an interesting contrast to the Marshmallow test. The more that the self-controlled, success-focused mindset is increased the more that innovative thinking decreases. Traditional schooling has focused on self-control, but as I described in my other post innovative is gaining a higher priority in our society. If you want to know who will be the geniuses, I’d bet on the kid who didn’t follow the rules in the marshmallow test and instead did something unexpected.

Hybrid Books

Curling Up With Hybrid Books, Videos Included
By Motoko Rich
(The New York Times)

The article is decently informative, but it doesn’t offer much analysis.  I found it irritating how the author concluded.  There are always critics of every new technology.  Experts and others have been warning about the death of the book for the last century and the book industry is still very profitable.

Video (or hyperlinks or whatever) aren’t going to destroy people’s ability to read text.  People will still have the choice to read books with plain text.  This merely increases the options.

Videos don’t make people stupid.  Every technology demands different kinds of intelligence.  Even video games increase intelligence.  These new hybrid books will make reading more interactive which will most definitely increase intelligence.

However, it’s very rare to see an intelligent criticism of evolving technology.  People were complaining about written text when it was replacing oral culture.  There were those who believe telephones and television would destroy society when they were invented.  Change is change.  Get over it and quit complaining.