the Fast Kid in the Slow Heat

It’s the flip side to the Dunning-Kruger effect, you have some semblance of what you don’t know.

I was riding up a chairlift with my dad once and he said, “I think you’re more observant than I am,” and I almost said, “ah, I see what you did there, you noticed I’m more observant!” But I was worried the joke was too subtle, so I didn’t say it.

People have called me smart my whole life, and throughout childhood it made me very uncomfortable—like racism, sexism, and nationalism, I really don’t like people praising or taking pride in things that they have nothing to do with, and if I happen to be intelligent, it’s not like it was something I did. (It was fairly easy to dismiss my mother lauding my intelligence, cause of course mothers who love their children will inflate the praise they heap on their children!)

Still, throughout college it did seem like I understood many things more easily than other people. I’ve always liked to think it’s just that I’m interested in things most people aren’t.

In high school we had to run the mile, and I was reasonably good at running in 5th grade, but by 9th or 10th grade I wasn’t much of a runner. The teachers had us self-segregate ourselves into two groups, the fast heat and the slow heat. I decided to go with the slow heat. The fast heat went first, and then we ran, and I finished first among the slow heat, but I looked at the fast heat times and I would have been dead last if I had ran with the fast heat.

In 11th grade my physics teacher called himself the unambitious science teacher. He started by pointing out there’s often controversy over the levels of classes—A english, B english, C english…—but that when he was in middle school the classes were labeled from 7-1 to 7-22. He explained how kids typically take a few IQ tests, though they usually don’t know it, and they’re not supposed to know the results, since high scores can go to a kid’s head, and so can low scores. Then he pulled out his middle school yearbook, and flipped to a photo of his class. I think there were about 16 kids. He explained how one day, their teacher left them alone in the classroom, and they all read their own files. Then he went through, student by student, and I think one or two he didn’t know about, but the rest of them, every one of them was either a doctor, or a lawyer, and the highest IQ students were like professors of law, things like that. And he was the lowest scorer, hence, the unambitious science teacher.

I really related to that. I was never a good student. I was good at the things I was interested in, and I just barely got by with the rest. I think I aced every science class I ever took, except for University Physics III, in college, in which I got an AB. And that was because I got one problem wrong on one exam. The worst part, I had found two different ways of doing the problem and one was correct, but I couldn’t decide which was the right way to think about it, so I went with the wrong answer. Oh well.

But I also didn’t go to any kind of college with a prestigious physics program, I loved Keene, it was great, but it’s a liberal arts college, their physics program is so small they supplement it with math or chemistry, so my degree is math-physics. I was the fast kid in the slow heat.

It was later in college, and afterward, that I started to get a big head about my intelligence. It seemed like the most intelligent people I knew were off-handedly saying I was the most intelligent person they knew, and I had just breezed through a lot of math and physics that students around me seemed to struggle with. So I began to accept the idea that maybe I was unusually intelligent.

Still, I’d wonder some times, maybe something about me gave people the impression that they should praise my intelligence, that I needed that somehow. Maybe it wasn’t that I was so smart, but that other people could sense that complimenting my intelligence could boost my confidence, or relax me, or something. I don’t know. Deep down I want to think it’s just that I’m interested in stuff most people aren’t, and that I’ve spent my time focused on things other people don’t, and consequently, my understanding of those things seems to stand out. Conversely, I’m well below average at plenty of other things. I’ve never had much in the way of relationships, I don’t seem to be able to communicate my feelings to people, and while sometimes I can recognize signals from women, I can often imagine a lot of ways to interpret those signals and quickly persuade myself that they maybe don’t mean what I want them to mean. Richard Feynman said the first rule of science was not to fool yourself, and I’ve tried very hard not to fool myself. But it comes at a steep cost.