How would the world be different if everyone was a genius?

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Answer by Lauchlin MacDonald:

I originally answered this question anonymously, because I assumed people might interpret what I said as bragging if I attached my name to this. However, several people in the comments and a couple people privately asked me to go public, so here I am. Nobody special, like I said, and I hope that this does not affect how people read my answer.


A lot of people have written answers to this question that I agree with the broad strokes of, but the problem with most of them is accepting that there is a meaningful category called “genius.” I have a ridiculously high IQ. Taking different tests at different times in my life, there’s been about a 15 point spread, but the highest was in the low 180s. I took the LSAT on a whim a few months ago, and with no preparation scored in the 96th percentile. People were calling me a genius all through school, until I switched from studying Physics to another discipline where people aren’t always looking for geniuses.

There is no such thing as “a genius.” I’m not one, and I’m not special. Virtually everyone I’ve ever met, aside from people with brain damage or intellectual disabilities, is as smart as I am. The only thing that makes me different is that I am extremely good at logic puzzles, and I’m better than average at math, and I am firmly convinced that those are not inborn aptitudes, but things that I learned.

So, what am I doing in my life? Am I a venture capitalist, or an entrepreneur, or an award-winning novelist? Nope. I’m just now getting somewhere in my career that I’m pretty pleased with, but I spent most of my 20s blundering around. I made a lot of emotional decisions, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, and I made several aborted attempts at different professions. I moved a bunch of times, and I delayed my own plans for romantic relationships. Nearly all of my peers who were also called geniuses did similar things. The one thing that unites most people we call geniuses is intellectual restlessness and the speed with which they get bored (not positive qualities, on their own). My peers and I were lucky kids, with supportive families and lots of opportunity, and almost none of us could get our careers together before we were pushing 30. Clearly “genius” is not what gets things done.

Nearly everyone is as smart as I am. I’ve never met a cognitively normal person who didn’t have as much capacity for learning and understanding as I have. There might be Good Will Hunting people out there somewhere, but I’ve never met one of them either. So you want to know what a world where everyone was a genius would look like? You’re living it.

Our culture is extremely invested in the concept of geniuses, special people who rise above the rest of us to accomplish great things. I think this concept is a symptom of something sick in our society. Some of us like the concept because we like to think of ourselves as geniuses, and we think this somehow makes us better than the ignorant masses. Many of us also feel the need to elevate those who achieve greatness to a special intellectual category, to justify why the rest of us aren’t doing as well. We say, “Oh, she’s a genius, of course she’s a success.” We do this to trivialize the extreme hard work and absurd good fortune that is necessary to succeed in any field in this system we’ve created. Steve Jobs wasn’t a genius; he was a megalomaniacal businessman with some good product ideas who was in the right place at the right time. Change his life’s circumstances a bit, and he could have ended up as a manager at McDonald’s instead of getting rich selling us shiny pieces of metal and plastic.

Some of the other answers have said how society wouldn’t function if we were all geniuses because there would be nobody to do unskilled work. If you don’t think that there are millions of Einsteins toiling in thankless, unskilled jobs, you are fooling yourself. Some flip burgers or dig ditches or drive delivery trucks or work on fishing boats for a while, and then find a way out to something better, or work their way up to management. Some never do, and keep flipping those burgers for their entire lives. They have the aptitude and the interest that would have let them study physics, or compose a symphony, or start a successful company, but they were never encouraged to think they had the capacity, or they had no opportunity to study, or any number of other things that prevent people from doing all they’re capable of.

So what would the world look like if everyone were a genius? A few really successful people, lots of people bumbling around trying to find their way, and an enormous mass of frustrated, bored people, flipping burgers every day so you and I can afford to pontificate about geniuses on Quora.

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