Having been born in 1980, I remember when MTV used to broadcast music on television; now its programming consists mostly of bad reality shows. There are two such shows I actually find somewhat interesting, though, depending on the focus of the episode: True Life essentially brings the freak show tent into your living room, each episode spotlighting a handful of individuals who share the same unusual quality (at least by the standards of TV stars) -- for example, those who have OCD. Made tracks the progress a single person makes in achieving some outlandish transformation over a brief time period, such as a tomboy who wishes to blossom into a girly girl, or a 100-pound runt who wants to play on the varsity football team. Typically, the individual falls far short of their goal; e.g., usually they are given a token spot on a sports team, one assumes only because to do otherwise would crush the ego of the under-a-magnifying-glass subject. Where the person does achieve success, it is frequently a case of a "hot girl with glasses" transformation of the type parodied in Not Another Teen Movie -- that is, where the person has already been blessed by good genes and good luck, and so simply needs a brief intervention to smooth out their few remaining wrinkles. These shows tie together two important perspectives on human variation: namely, that it is ubiquitous and wide in scope (True Life) and that a lot of it has more to do with fortune than effort (Made).
Not being a TV junkie, I don't always care to watch the new episodes, but the summary of a recent True Life installment caught my eye: the "I'm a Genius" episode would profile three young individuals deemed geniuses. As I didn't recognize any of their names -- which you would expect given that two were in high school and one in his early 20s -- I knew immediately that "genius" didn't mean "genius" but "gifted" or "talented," since there is no such thing as an unrecognized genius.
The 20-something guy was skilled at chess, an immensely overrated means of detecting "genius" -- although it clearly places high IQ demands on the participants, it's difficult to construe playing chess as a creative endeavor rather than a display of cerebral prowess. Not knowing much about the subject, I'm sure there are bona fide geniuses, such as those whose insight opened up unexplored possibilities of attacks, defenses, and so on. Still, it's a bit of a stretch to claim that top chess players will leave an indelible stamp on the human record after their interment, unlike eminent poets or physicists. So, this person's profile is interesting mostly as a showcase of our culture's irrational reverence of chess masters as geniuses.
A more plausible candidate emerges in the profile of a 14 year-old boy who has published several novels, attained virtuoso status as a violinist (he has played Carnegie Hall), and participated in laboratory research. From the vignettes in the lab, it seemed he was more of an assistant than a member contributing original insight, but again, he's only 14; he's clearly capable of conducting novel research in adulthood if he wanted to. If I recall correctly, he got a perfect or near-perfect score on the PSAT. He displays the personality traits typically associated with a child prodigy: an unrelenting work ethic (including after-school tutor sessions to study AP subjects that he couldn't squeeze into his regular school schedule), a broad curiosity about many areas of culture, and a social life befitting an outsider (though not necessarily that of a pariah or recluse). Tellingly, he scarcely used the term "genius" to describe himself: his accomplishments speak for themselves.
In marked contrast, the final subject, a 16 year-old boy, dropped the "g-bomb" in a manner as profligate as the swearing of a weakling who confronts a brawny bully: the goal is to puff himself up in the face of a clearly superior contender. Unlike the other two subjects, he had no accomplishments to speak of -- as in, zero. He leads the social life of a common teenager, his only intellectual pursuit consisting of bubbling in responses to online IQ quizzes. Aware of his lack of achievement, he made a last-ditch effort to impress college admissions officials by trying out for Teen Jeopardy!; and though he easily qualified, he was smashed in his TV appearance. Despite this, he applied early-decision to Stanford, certain that the admissions committee would be awed by his "genius." In fact, he was so sure that he hadn't even bothered to start his applications to any other schools yet -- that would only happen in the (to his mind) rare event where he wasn't admitted early. Not surprisingly, the admissions committee must have been unimpressed and denied his application. Stewing in rancor, he muttered something to the effect of "I guess being a genius just isn't enough to get into Stanford." Replace the word "genius" with "cognitively gifted," and you'd be right.
No doubt this last individual will make a fine long-term employee at Starbucks or Barnes and Noble, where other smart yet directionless individuals eke out a living. Sometimes I wonder why, with so many smart people in the world, we don't enjoy a level of cultural production like that of the Renaissance or century of the Scientific Revolution, proportionate to the size of the population. Charles Murray wrestles with this question in Human Accomplishment, and I have my own peculiar hypothesis -- namely, that positive changes in health conditions -- long a significant environmental source of variance in traits -- has resulted in more individuals being bunched around the average, with fewer "deviants," including geniuses of the stature of Newton or Beethoven. (This applies only to variance in personality and other traits unrelated to intelligence, since general intelligence has steadily increased over the past 200 or so years.)
Yet another, not mutually exclusive explanation, which Murray considers only in a footnote, and which I'm becoming more convinced of as time goes by, is that our modern world offers too many opportunities for gifted individuals to earn a comfortable living from doing work that is not particularly culturally productive, as well as offering too many quick-fix distractions such as video games and TV -- and now, maintaining, reading, and commenting on blogs. As with all vices, they are all well and good in moderation, but we also inhabit a world in which self-restraint has become the watchword mostly of culture-skeptical fuddy-duddies. Although I wouldn't count myself among them, many paleoconservatives will tell you how embattled they feel in both the political and cultural arenas, Burke having been replaced by Bush as the most recognized conservative political figure. This loss of heterodox thinkers has surely retarded advances in the arts and sciences.
As an illustration, consider the differences in the lives of two of the greatest mathematicians -- Gauss, whom many regard the greatest math genius of all time, and John von Neumann, whom many view as the greatest math genius of the mid-20th Century. Both were deeply conservative, yet Gauss was more of a traditional, religious conservative who so valued restraint that his credo on publishing his ideas was Pauca sed matura -- "few, but ripe." Von Neumann, on the other hand, was a conservative mostly due to his anti-communism and militarism. In his personal life, he indulged in such a rakish lifestyle that one marvels that he didn't die earlier in a car crash. He is more of a neoconservative, then, and he also fits another aspect of the neocon profile in that he was an Ashkenazi Jewish intellectual. Now, clearly von Neumann inhabited an entirely distinct region of the intellectual galaxy than the 16 year-old soi disant genius from the MTV program, but imagine what more he would have produced had he not pursued such a thoroughly hedonistic path.
And for sure, most undergraduates at elite universities couldn't hope to be as imaginative as either of these figures -- but that doesn't excuse complacency. They can always worry "what if" their IQ were 15 or 30 points higher than their already gifted level, or "what if" they were possessed by a tireless passion rather than being "merely" highly motivated. But there are factors that they do have control over: e.g., how much leisure time to allow and what to do with it, or whether or not to sell out and join a profession rather than a culturally productive field. In fairness, I'm not talking about those who would enjoy a career in law, but rather those who are suited to culturally productive work but who wimp out and choose even more comfort and money than would be accorded a professor or composer (who surely don't want for human necessities). Nor am I poo-poo-ing those who hold down a day job to pay the bills while they churn out creative products, as with Einstein when he worked in a patent office.
But with the explosion of middle-class and professional niches since the Industrial Revolution, there has been no shortage of temptation to lead an intellectually indolent lifestyle. I certainly don't believe that individuals capable of cultural work should be forced into it, since they are intelligent enough to make their own decisions, unlike small children, but I still wish there was a stronger push to emphasize restraint in enjoying one's vices. Make no mistake: it is sheer vice for a mathematically gifted person to join the ranks of "quants" on Wall Street in order to be buried beneath a pile of money once they're gone, or for a singularly dexterous wordsmith to apply their craft in public relations or some other apparatus of the Ministry of Disinformation. Making some money on the side, or helping out some organization in wording a press release -- OK, but not devoting your life to it.
In short, when you look at how many gifted individuals expend their time in fields whose present and future contributions could be flushed down the toilet without much affecting the state of things, it's almost enough to make you long for harsher times when they could not have survived so easily as Lotus-Eaters. Fortunately, though, our modern world does allow us to enjoy much longer lives than before, so although none of us "is getting any younger," at least we have a more forgiving window of opportunity in which to correct the errors of our misspent youth. And on that note, I'm off to bury myself in some textbooks on math that I should have learned in college.