Monday, April 24, 2017

The Doubt Trilogy, Episode Three: It took me a long time to make this crappy graph to explain my feelings

I have terrible skills. I've been trying for over a week now to make a simple graph using some tool in the Microsoft Office toolbox, and I keep failing. This graph does a pretty good job of explaining my limitations in life. I've finally opted for just drawing the damn thing and taking a picture of it. Here it is:

Behold my mad skills

This is more or less a self-explanatory graph. When comparing performance across an array of standardized tests to actual intellectual ability, the deltas in actual intellectual ability of the majority of the population can be charted in fashion that shows steady growth from one end to the other. Only the extreme outliers defy this linear growth. No amount of effort can turn a mortal into a genius, and no amount of slacking can turn you into a genuinely mentally handicapped person. At the two extreme ends, people are born that way.

Yes, I realize standard tests are flawed, and there are all kinds of intellectual abilities that tests may miss. Let's pretend those issues don't exist for the purpose of this discussion. 

One important thing to note is that the difference in real intellectual chops between someone at 98 and someone at 95 on the X axis is probably a bigger difference than that between someone at 90 and someone at 65. We normal folk are pretty much all alike, and our differences are in scale, not in kind.

As you can see, I tend to score in the low-to-maybe-mid 90s, percentile-wise, on almost every standardized test I take. I once got it into the high 90s on one part of the GRE, but otherwise, I'm very reliably in the very-good-but-not-genius realm.

I used to think I could get into the exponential growth part of the graph with hard work

For a long time, I was very angry with the way television shows portrayed very intelligent people, like Gregory House or Bones or everyone from Big Bang Theory. The portrayal was always that very smart people: 1) Just are that way, and 2) Are all weird. My belief was that usually, very intelligent people are just normal people who worked hard at something. Furthermore, I didn't believe highly intelligent people were normally good at everything--only at the things they'd disciplined themselves to be good at.

I have begun to accept that this understanding of intelligent people as ordinary people who worked hard really only applies to people like me. There is a whole class of people out there who really just are in a class I will never get to, no matter how hard I work. I've gone about as far as hard work can take me already.

The frustrating thing is that I've worked hard enough to appreciate the work of the people above me, but never can work hard enough to be one of them. This is a special kind of hell, and probably what led the writer of Ecclesiastes to proclaim that with much wisdom comes much sorrow. He must have been a low-90s guy, too.

I remember I once wrote a poem vowing to keep working until I'd become a luminary. The poem I wrote took an epigraph from Luis Cajas Silva's "El Contador de las Estrellas" (The Counter of Stars). Cajas' poem features the image of a young boy counting stars: one, two, three, four. Of course, you can't count them all. But in my poem that riffed off Cajas, I vowed I would keep counting as though I believed I really could count them all. It was like Yossarian rowing to Switzerland. No matter how absurd, I was committed to it.

For some reason, I saw writing as the most important cluster of stars to count

Writing for me was the best yard stick to measure of how many stars I'd counted. Maybe because it was hard, or because it required knowledge of many subject to do well. So I put a lot of effort into it, when maybe I'd have ended up a lot happier and in a better place in life if I'd just put that level of effort into becoming a programmer or an engineer or an HVAC technician. 

I don't think it's in me to be a great writer. Not truly great. I'm good, maybe very good with some of the best stuff I've written. But I'm not great. If you set out to be a great engineer and only turn out to be good, there is still a nice living to be made. There's only room in fiction for about nine people to make a living doing it. More important to me than making money out of it, there just aren't a lot of writers who get read, who have any influence.

While working as a fiction reader for a journal that pays only $40 for published stories, I just can't get over how many good writers there are in the world. I've never felt as superfluous as I have in the last six months. And I feel superfluous a lot. I work for an organization so big, it takes me 15 minutes to walk in from the parking lot.

So there you have it: my trilogy of reasons to feel like focusing so much on writing is a huge waste of time, even though I've just finally had a tiny bit of forward momentum with it.

When I was young, I felt it was important to try for what I really wanted to do, even if the odds of failing and the consequences of failing were so severe. It's normal, I guess, for young people to dream big. Now, I'm older and a little bit tired. I worry about money all the time. It's not uncommon for me to wish my younger self had helped out my older self by throwing effort after something a little more practical.


  1. This is why for a lot of people it might actually be nicer to live inside the cave. I think it's worth bearing in mind that the greatest talent, genius, if you will, does not make for the best: Caesar was thought to have more talent, but Cicero is remembered as the best orator.

  2. I wonder whether the Platonic Socrates would like or hate the term "woke" that kids are throwing around. I'm not sure I'm really Platonically woke myself. Rather than having found my way out of the cave and see the true forms of things, I'm more just smart enough to understand that I'm looking at shadows, but not smart enough to get out of the cave to see what the true forms are. In other words, just woke enough to be unhappy, but not wise.

    1. i see myself as being in the same situation.