Underachieving Smart People - Understanding Their Struggles to Succeed
“If you’re so smart, how come making it in the real world is so hard for you?” Only a few would ever say that out loud, of course – but a lot of people think it.
We’re not all agreed on what “very smart” even means, but we do know more than ever that the term “intelligence” gets at something that is real, a big part of which is biological, and efforts to measure it are getting ever more sophisticated – despite how elusive its essence might be.
We’ve all learned that intelligence isn’t the only asset that counts toward success, but it’s also just as obvious that an awful lot of successful people are very smart. What’s harder to make sense of is the existence of that small, yet persistent, group of people out there: very smart people who don’t seem to be going anywhere.
What can be so maddening is that the lack of intelligence can be such an obvious impediment, while it’s not clear at all why high intelligence should ever be an obstacle. So, just what is it in the mind of a very smart person that causes problems?
One thread may be that some of those very smart folks simply enjoy the way their mind works to the point that they don’t much notice or care that they haven’t landed in some sort of lucrative economic position. They’re oblivious.
More common, I’m afraid, are the very smart people who, far from oblivious, still fail to connect with something solid and suffer, to a greater or lesser degree, because of it. The question remains, How does this happen? Why hasn’t high intelligence resulted, finally, in at least minimal connection to the grid?
Fear of failure is the obvious one, because failure will puncture their iron grip on a version of themselves they hold so dear – the misunderstood, undiscovered genius/artist – and possibly expose them to judgment and embarrassment at the hands of mere mortals.
Fear of success is another thread, and gets at the disruption of the “now” that might come when finally required to focus and function, produce a work product on someone else’s timetable, and possibly become the very person you’ve promised yourself never to become. It’s a hassle, man.
Some very smart people are selectively smart about inanimate or abstract things, which can also render them clueless about the real world out there – how to behave, show awareness of feelings, social intelligence, etc.
On the other hand, some are actually pretty clued-in (even acutely so sometimes), know a great deal about feelings (theirs as well as others’), yet are still laid low, paralyzed, easily hurt, and become isolated either by their own volition, the rejection of others, or a combination of both.
Still others are not so lovable and are even more isolated. They brood at home, smoke a lot of weed, hold marginal jobs, and are chronically un - or under- employed. They just don’t connect to people in ways that sustain relationships.
Some very smart people do have loving parents, but very often the parents have their own version of the same problems, and turn out to not have been much help guiding their children through the modern world up to now.
Functioning normally involves an integration of cognition and “emotion management” that we tend to take for granted – unless we don’t have it. It boils down to that implacable truth of the human condition (even the “very smart” human condition): it’s really all about our feelings, and the illusions we invest in, and cling to so stubbornly in order to see ourselves the way we think we need to.
Sure, the narrative about the social clique rejecting the nice but slightly quirky outsider is a cliché, but it’s true often enough to need to be taken very seriously. The hurt from feeling like a weird outsider is real and destructive.And some turn that rejection around, of course, and lock into insisting to themselves they’re choosing failure, rejecting the world and success because their special-ness is not recognized. Many people make themselves very sick by giving in to that one. It can be so sad.
If the individual in question is willing to get help, that’s a real leg up. Psychotherapy can be just what’s needed, but so many have not connected or had success with that process. There’s also personal Coaching or consulting, or a stimulating Adult Ed class, or something like an Outward Bound trip. You never know, but taking action should never be underestimated.
But if they still resist all suggestions and urgings, then it’s the loved ones who need, and shouldn’t hesitate to get, help: help with managing conflict, help keeping channels open and hope alive, and – very importantly – help with permission to have their own lives.