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Smart people are different from you and me
Publication Date : 29-09-2013
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to get out of my office to be around smart people for a change. Don't misunderstand me: My colleagues are very sweet, but unless there is a Nobel prize for drinking coffee, I see no awards from the Stockholm committee in our future.
My workplace is where there is a sign above the pantry sink telling people that food objects larger than the holes in the drain cover will not pass through. Yet, every day, there are people here who would deny the truth of the sink holes.
So, seeking the company of high-powered minds, I hung out with some Mensans. Mensa is an organisation of people with high IQs. They were having a big Asian pow-wow and dozens of members from across the region were gathering to make merry at Hotel Re! for a few days. I wanted in: I had hoped that by pretending to be a member of a tribe of really clever people, I would absorb their powers, or at least walk away feeling so stupid that I would turn my life around and start, you know, reading books and stuff like that.
At the door to the hall, I met Patrick Khoo, the president of Mensa Singapore, who had told me that when Mensans gather, a few things can be expected: fun, enjoyment and drinking, not necessarily in that order. I felt relief. Those are concepts I am not unfamiliar with.
When I walked in, I had a pang of worry. Could they smell the dumb? Would they turn on me, and tell me their village had no place for an idiot?
The fear of being outclassed intellectually, of being insecure in one's own power of reasoning is a feeling I deal with constantly. I suspect I am not alone; it's a pretty common Singapore neurosis. In my time, we were split into A, B, C and D classrooms in primary and secondary school. At my school, A classes were for the bright kids, and so on down the line until the D class, which, to my young mind, was the place where academic dreams went to die.
I was in C classes much of the time, and I might have been in a D class once and for that entire year, neither of my parents could look at me without sighing.
The first thing I saw when I walked into the hall was that everyone was playing a brain game, one of several that afternoon. This is the thing about Mensan events - these people love puzzle-solving. The harder, the better. Even the ice-breaker was a game. They ran around asking questions of strangers until there were enough answers to fill a grid.
For Khoo and his committee, keeping Mensans occupied and happy must be like being a teacher in a gifted class. The stress must be killing. I spoke to several of them that afternoon. There were people who were trilingual, quadrilingual and more. Malcolm, an IT expert from Australia, tested in the 99.99th percentile, a score found in about one in three million people. Dana, a geophysicist and also from Australia, has an IQ of 146 (100 is normal). She said she joined to "find a man". She found one; her equally gifted partner was also there.
Then she and Malcolm began arguing about whether being really smart is a curse or a blessing. She said she had met too many smart people who are miserable and unmotivated. Malcolm's retort was that if some people find it so hard to cope with being smart, they should lobotomise themselves. I wanted to tell him that this is why man invented beer, the great intelligence equaliser, but they had moved on to other topics.
Malcolm said that the group present was not quite representative of the whole; the majority of Mensans never come out to play after joining up. The ones at the gathering were incredibly comfortable mixing with strangers and playing silly games with them.
He might have been right, but had I been looking for a few high IQ idiosyncrasies, I would have found them. Take their treasure hunt, for example. A plain vanilla one would, for these people, have been an insult to their - yep - intelligence.
These people could unravel a Rubik's Cube in one minute (I know because one guy, a delegate from Japan, did it in front of me). So their treasure hunt was a multiple-stage marathon involving code-breaking, room searches, arcane riddles and remembering song lyrics. Most normal people would see it as a needlessly elaborate waste of time; the joy on the delegates' faces told me they thought otherwise.
I spoke to one about her passion for Star Wars light sabres and how she and other fans take part in performance duels with them. Sci-fi, especially the world of Star Trek, has a strong appeal for Mensans, I think, because The Federation is a utopia ruled by the nerds of science and engineering.
I left the hotel some hours later filled with helpings from the buffet lunch and a sense that I would miss their earnest, games-obsessed company once I returned to the world of sink-hole deniers.
But if these high IQ men and women want to get The Federation started, they had better stop messing around with treasure hunts and get to work on that warp drive.