The idea of the certified genius—which usually means someone who is in the 98th percentile on IQ tests—evokes stereotypes of business tycoons and unconquerable chess players riding the trajectory of their inevitable success. They are the World's Smartest People and we've been conditioned to expect great things from them.
But data collected from high IQ societies—such as Mensa and Triple Nine —shows something quite different: People with exceptionally high IQs come from and fall into all walks of life, and are just as likely to be found managing a restaurant as they are theorizing about the early universe.
While IQ alone is no longer considered a comprehensive measure of intelligence, it still remains the most useful way of measuring non-verbal reasoning ability and other cognitive processes. To demystify the stereotypes surrounding the highly intelligent, I spoke to dozens of high-IQ individuals about their lives, brains, and the relationship between intelligence and success.
"Geniuses are everywhere," says Varun, a 35-year-old Mensa member who worked as a grocer for years after earning a chemistry degree. When first joining Mensa at age 19, he imagined being part of a society of quantum physicists. But he "soon discovered that a lab assistant was just as likely to have a higher IQ than the tenured professor," he said.
Varun believes a variety of factors, such as being able to afford education, mingling with the right crowd, where you grew up, and self-perception, play as much of a role in how your life unfolds as your reasoning and computational abilities. Why? Because most of us don't get to compete on a level playing field. "Society is not a meritocracy, despite what the movies show about the underdog genius who overcomes this and that. It's bullshit," he said.
One female member of the even more exclusive Triple Nine Society said that the stereotype likely comes from a young perception of classroom intelligence, and from people like Bill Gates or Stephen Hawking, who reach positions of such notoriety that the details of their intelligence becomes public knowledge. On the other hand, the majority who don't flourish and work menial jobs remain unknown.
"You won't find waiters on top IQ lists because no one would be interested to read it," she says. "People want to characterize why these people are so successful, and so they latch on to things like IQ."
Very few of the people I interviewed worked in fields traditionally related to having a high IQ. The vast majority enjoyed everyday jobs—administration, transportation, hospitality, etc.—well below social and public radars.
"If people who think they're smart just wanted to do what everyone considered a smart job, I think it would be kind of silly."
Like Varun, most imagined upon joining that they'd be an outlier among the world's leading academics, but were surprised to find out everyone felt the same way.
"Occupation and intelligence are only superficially related," says Marie Hough, a Mensa member whose IQ ranks within the top 0.1 percent. She worked as a flight attendant for years before settling down to do a PhD in occupational health. "You don't need a high IQ to succeed in life, just like you won't necessarily be successful if you have a high IQ."
Many say they actually hide their membership in a high-IQ society—from non-members and on their resume—to avoid prejudices. "It's only an advantage in the right circumstances," Marie says, adding that it can quickly become a pejorative.
"To succeed in a way that is applauded by society—like winning a Nobel Prize—takes relentless hard work, obedience, and dedication to a single, almost irrational topic," says Mensa member Sebastian Maharaji. "My experience is that most people that want to succeed in that way usually have some sort of chip on their shoulder, and have developed a lot of habits that feed achievement. But people who know they're smart from the day they're born don't really have that, and as a result develop a lot of character habits that are distractive and not necessarily complementary."
Martin, a 43-year-old warehouse worker and longtime Mensa member said, "I don't tell anyone because I don't want to be called out or isolate myself. I've always kept it a secret from coworkers; it's just a personal thing for me."
Many confessed that they were exceptional at games like crosswords or chess, and areas of knowledge like mathematics, regardless of if they were putting it to occupational use. Many also added that "occupational use" is a subjective term.
"I use it for remembering names and orders and allocation numbers, so I don't have to keep looking at the sheets all day to know what goes where," says Martin, who has a nearly photographic memory. "But I don't make a scene out of it; everyone just thinks I have a good memory and work hard."
Henry, a Mensa member in his 50s, discovered his exceptionally high IQ after doing a test while serving a long prison sentence for assisted murder charges, which according to him, "goes to show IQ is certainly no indicator of wisdom."
He believes that a high IQ can actually give way to conformity issues. "You see the way that society is spun," he says, going on to say this can instill a disinterest in contending in the rat race. So while being able to learn things quickly might seem to open a lot of doors, it can also paradoxically cause one want to keep them closed.
Many also admitted suffering from some variant of ADHD or social anxiety, but not in the way characterized by fictional TV geniuses.
Philip, a 40-year-old Mensa member whose IQ ranks in the top 0.5 percent, worked as an interstate train driver for years after earning a PhD in economics. "It paid more than most financial entry jobs, and I didn't have to interact with anybody," he says.
A political science major and Mensa member who worked as a cab driver says they were drawn to the job due to a fascination with existing "in the peripheries, and interacting with people from all walks of life in that way."
Asked whether or not in an ideal world they'd rather be doing something else that directly correlated to their unique skills, or ever wondered about wasted potential, most brushed off the idea.
"You can be smart at what you do and apply the way you are to whatever you're doing in a way that is satisfying. I wanted money the easiest and quickest way possible. Societal values are not a factor in that if one is really being honest," says Philip, the former train driver.
Warehouse man Martin agrees. "Work is work. I don't think it matters what you do. I do this. I get a paycheck. I spend time with my family. If people who think they're smart just wanted to do what everyone considered a smart job, I think it would be kind of silly."
But Philip and Martin don't speak for all of the high-IQ community. Many I spoke with maintained executive or academic type jobs, and added that their IQ score has directly led to jobs and university placements, and is the talking point of job interviews.
"At the end of the day employers see that and in the back of peoples' minds, there is a curiosity that 'this person is smart in a way that 98 percent of people are not,'" says one Mensa member and intellectual property lawyer. He believes success with a high IQ is a fine line between being hardheaded and exhibiting one's skills in a socially agreeable way.
Unfortunately, he says, having the developmental environment in life to learn to recognize where and what that line is, is likely the gray area that determines societal success.
For the majority of those I spoke to however, the biggest use of their high IQs has been about leveraging personal satisfaction, like with any other skill.
"One of the best parts of working a cab was the discussions I'd get into with the odd professor or whoever who'd want to talk about wasted potential," says the aforementioned taxi driver. "The conclusion was usually, 'No thanks.'"
Some names have been changed or removed entirely, as requested by the interviewees.
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