I once went on a date with a girl with whom I had the following exchange:
Me: I just started reading this new book.
Girl: What is it?
Me: The Perfect Storm. It’s great.
Girl: Great? Excuse me? Pffft. To me, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is a great book. The Perfect Storm? Great? Please.
Needless to say, that was our only date. (You know how you often think of an awesome comeback to statements like that a little too late? If I were faced with that today, I’d gleefully retort, “What are you talking about? Nuts gave it an ‘A’!”) Her comment didn’t catch me by surprise, however; it was already clear from our first meeting that this girl had decided I was not a smart person. Not stupid, mind you, not unable to string together words in sentences without drooling on myself, but just not intelligent, not the way she, with her red-brick education and nice middle class upbringing, believed she was. How we actually ended up going out on a date still befuddles me.
But she was right, of course. Intelligence is one of the more nebulous, shifting concepts we have, and from my experience, if people consider you smart in a conventional fashion, you probably can’t change a tire. We all had that one person in our class who was a straight-A student, was involved in all the extracurricular activities, was accepted to a fancy private school, and typically wore her bra backwards.
At school in the Caribbean, I’m sad to say, I was that person (except for the bra thing, of course). Ninety-ninth percentile, on just about all the tests. I aced them all. When it came time for the 11-plus exam that everyone dreaded, I smashed that too, gaining entry to the country’s top secondary school. But after I received the result from my giddy school principal, she informed me my fly was open. And the day after winning a national essay competition and collecting a trophy for my efforts, I tried to change a lightbulb using a screwdriver.
How does one define intelligence? I’m excellent at trivia and bits of seemingly useless information. If you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me which movies won the Oscar for Best Picture in the last decade or who holds the record for most wickets in a cricket season, I can tell you. (The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire, No Country For Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind and Gladiator; Tich Freeman, with 304 in 1928. Thank you, thank you.) Ask me why I threw the house keys in the bin yesterday and put the crumpled scrap of paper in my pocket instead, I have no answer… Get my drift?
They say that Einstein couldn’t tie his shoes, and, truth be told, I’m kind of grasping onto that idea. Because there are so many things in this world that I cannot do. To some people, not being able to do them makes me a moron. To others, it’s a sign of my intelligence.
It all depends on whom you hang around and what you value. When I’m back visitng the Caribbean, I sometimes try to tell myself that I’m smarter, that I had the otherworldly insight to leave, which the sorry minions I grew up with lacked. It’s incredibly stupid and condescending, of course, but I actually had the temerity to imply this to a friend there once. She looked at me. “David, you pay thousands a month in rent and you live thousands of miles from your family and best friends. I have a mortgage that’s half that, I can see my friends and family anytime I want, and I have a proper detached house near the beach with loads of outdoor space. Tell me again how smart you are.”
To change the subject, I sprung up a cerebral monologue about snot.
There is this girl I like. I think she’s really intelligent. There is no doubt in my mind.
I was describing her to another friend recently: “She’s smart. She’s creative. She’s ambitious and she has drive. I think she gets what’s important in life. She helps people and she also knows how to take care of herself. Doesn’t take shit from anyone. She seems to have the right idea about getting the most out of life, and she wants to do it on her own terms. When I look at everyone else I know, she’s just about one of the smartest people I’ve met for a long time.”
My friend was unimpressed. “So you’re saying that she’s really nice. That’s not smart. That’s nice.”
But I’m serious. To me, that’s what intelligence is. An understanding of your place in the world, the wisdom that comes with being comfortable with who you are, an inherent sense of empathy for every speck of humanity that crosses your path. That’s smart. Being able to realise what really matters.
In other words, I’m an idiot.