Stupid is a local minimum

My mother likes to joke that when I was born, I took all her smarts.

Growing up I thought everyone around me was stupid. According to my parents, I was quite vocal about this too. At some point I was given at least a couple IQ tests, and while I never knew the results, I always got the feeling from my folks that I was smarter than the average bear. [I distinctly remember being asked by one of the test givers if the sun rose in the east or the west, and having no idea I guessed — incorrectly.] I was always in the gifted and talented classes at school, scored high on the SAT test, and ended up at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at age 16 with 199 of the smartest math & science kids from all over the state of Texas.

Then I figured out that I wasn’t near as smart as I thought I was. I was the stupid one.

In one fail swoop I went from being in the top 10% of my class to the bottom 10%. I was struggling with trig in pre-cal when many of my fellow TAMSters were working through calculus. For once, I had to study and work at school. I did well enough and loved every single minute of it, but it certainly recalibrated my smart scale, and I was no longer at the top.

Since that time I’ve gained more wisdom and realized that intelligence isn’t an absolute scale, or at least if it is we’ve never really plumbed either the depths or the heights. Moreover there are multiple scales, or at a minimum multiple dimensions. There’s spacial intelligence, mathematical intelligence, social intelligence, and problem-solving intelligence just to name a few. Folks strong in one are aren’t necessarily strong in another.

Throughout my career I continue to run into crazy smart people. Coworkers at both IBM and Isilon continually amaze me with their ability to look at a problem or situation, go “huh”, and solve them. Likewise conversations with friends will demonstrate that I’m far from the smartest person at the dinner table — at least in the area at hand. At first this made me feel stupid (and technically I suppose that’s because in those situations I am “in a state of stupor” on the subject). Now I appreciate it for what it is: recognition of someone else’s mental agility and a much-needed mental challenge to at least feel the edges of their thought process even if I can’t grasp it firmly with both hands.

Today, in many ways, I did feel like stupid one in the command & control room at the Microsoft Puzzlehunt. Here were ~15 smart people who created these complex puzzles and meta puzzles (complete with theme, plot, costumes, and skits), and were running the event for almost a thousand people. My contribution to the effort: picking up food. And you know – I loved every minute of it. Sure, I was most certainly the local minimum in the room for puzzle solving intelligence but I was ok with that. Maybe I’ve gotten less competitive overall as I’ve aged or maybe it’s that I’ve gained the bit of wisdom that it takes all kinds of smarts to make the world go ’round.

I’m still immodest enough to think I’m smarter than the average bear. Maybe not smart enough to get a job at Google, Facebook, or Tagged by the sounds of it, but still smart enough to know I need to do better at challenging myself intellectually.

Published by


I'm a gay geek living in Seattle, WA.

One thought on “Stupid is a local minimum”

  1. If you thought being in the control room warped your sense of self-worth, try playing in the event. It’s a roller coaster ride of feeling amazingly smart to amazingly dumb and back and forth again. Local minimum is exactly right.

    And thank you for bringing the food. :-)

    – Matt
    (I was the one who spent most of my time at the far end of the table with Mike.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s