And All the Children are Above Average

Imagine a place where everybody’s a brilliant scientist. I mean, Feynman, Einstein, Bohr, Hawking kind of brilliant. But nobody knows that, because they don’t know about the outside world, where people aren’t all brilliant scientists. Because of this, they consider only the top 1% of their population to be at all intelligent; most of the brilliant scientist folk don’t even bother doing science because they’re not really smart like the uberbrilliant folk. Say, they have an IQ of only 195 instead of 220 or whatever, so they flip burgers for a living. It’s a gigantic waste, but they don’t know any better. They don’t know the absolute value of their world of geniuses, just the relative value. So most of their people never bother using their scientific abilities.

There’s another place where everybody’s a genius musician or composer. Everybody there is a Bach, Mozart, Haydn, or a Hendrix, Lennon, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or a Louis Armstrong, or Muddy Waters, or a Yo-Yo-Ma, or whatever. They’re all musical geniuses, every one of them. But because they don’t know about the outside world where people aren’t all musical geniuses, only the top 1% of them (by some measure or other) are considered actually “talented” — perhaps some forms of musical genius aren’t even respected at all in this world — and most of these people never pick up an instrument at all, or when they do, they’re ashamed of their work and think it’s pedestrian, amateur crap. Because they’re just average or sub-average people, in their world. The absolute value of their musical ability does not occur to them; they can only see the relative value. And despite the fact that the worst of them is still a world-class musician to us, their musical ability is the object of derision in that place.

Repeat this scenario in as many fields as your imagination can supply. A world of Mother Teresas. A world of Bill Gates’s. Whatever.

That’s the actual world we’re living in, I think. I think that our civilization is suffering terribly from an obsession on people’s relative value to the expense of their absolute value — grading on a curve. It’s scarcity-based economics applied to human beings.

I have come to realize working day to day in a moderately difficult field like programming that 95% of the skills you need as a programmer are skills you would need as a fry cook or a house cleaner or anything else. They’re the human skills of perception and problem solving and response to unexpected situations and judgment of importance and all that. The things we’ve all been doing forever. There is an additional 5% which consists of having learned a bunch of unusual technical knowledge, but it’s not the most important 5%.

Being human, having a normal, ordinary, day to day, functioning human mind, is a huge thing. It is genius, in an absolute sense. An ordinary everyday human who can think is capable of incredible things, and most of those humans are artificially prevented from doing most of what they are capable of because in any given field they can see someone more capable and therefore they judge their own absolute genius as relatively worthless.

The further hell of it is, those standards are not only unfair because they’re merely relative and ignore absolute value, they are also arbitrary and context-dependent. Despite the pretensions of IQ and other such curves to grade on, there is no real absolute measure of competence, ability, value, or the like. Any standard by which you measure how much something is “worthy” is going to have limitations and ignore other ways to be worthy or have value. So besides the relative/absolute problem, we have the sheer arbitrariness of the standards by which relative and absolute value are judged.

The fact is, our civilization hasn’t really learned that people are valuable just as people, without being on the end of this curve or that, and have a lot to contribute individually. We make a lot of noise about “everybody being special/valuable” but we don’t act that way; we act as if you only matter if you’re on the far end of some arbitrary bell curve. And we are so much the poorer for it. There are so many things that everyone could contribute to the world that they are afraid to becaue they’re not “good enough.”