The burden of intellect

Yesterday afternoon I took the GRE, a standardized test that is commonly required for graduate school admissions. It’s like the SAT for grad school.

I got a perfect score.

The thought of going back to school for another master’s degree (I already have an MBA) had been nagging me recently, but I did not expect to be applying this soon. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, starting school in the fall suddenly seemed like a viable option, but I only had a few weeks to put together my applications.

So, I paid for for the GRE on Thursday and scheduled my exam for Saturday. On Saturday morning, I used the free practice test software to do a quick run through of the question types and exam format. In all I spent no more than 15 minutes preparing.

The test is computerized, so the software is able to provide your score immediately upon completion of the test. I unconsciously held my breath as I clicked through the last question and waited for my scores to pop up on the screen.

Quantitative: 170
Verbal: 170

I did not feel overjoyed, ecstatic, triumphant, or proud. Mostly, I just felt relieved. My intellect had been validated.

In fact, what sticks with me most from the exam is a question that I got wrong. The quantitative sections consist of 20 questions with a 35 minute time limit. Generally, I don’t have problems running out of time on exams like this, but at the end of the second quantitative section I found myself with only 3 minutes remaining for the final few questions.

The penultimate question was a gnarly system of equations problem about chickens and ducks on two farms, with fractional coefficients. It consumed almost my entire remaining clock time, and I breathed an exasperated sigh of relief when I finished computing my answer with 30 seconds to go.

Alright, final question!

I remember the exact question, but stating it here would violate the terms and conditions of the test. In general terms, I had to calculate the remainder when a small integer raised to a large exponent was divided by another small integer.

I realized that the solution could be found by calculating the repeating pattern of remainders, but I ran out of time while trying to compute that pattern, and ended up just guessing.

Later on, during a short break in the test, I went back to my calculations and finished the problem. I had guessed wrong.

While I was not expecting to get a “perfect” score on the GRE, it didn’t surprise me. About five years ago I took the GMAT, another standardized test used for admission to business school. I prepared in exactly the same way: about 10 minutes reviewing the question types and format of the test. No practice exams, no study books, no tutoring. I scored a 770, which is not a perfect score but is deep within the 99th percentile.

Before going to business school I served in the U.S. Navy for five years. Twice a year, all enlisted personnel who are eligible for advancement to the next rank take an exam which is used, in combination with other factors, to determine who will get promoted. The exam scores are normalized much like the SAT, with a median score of 50 and a range from 20 to 80.

I took three such exams over the course of my enlisted service. My scores were 76, 80, 80.

This story repeats itself throughout my life. I don’t know how many standardized tests I have taken, but I’ve scored in the 99th percentile on pretty much all of them.

Actually, there is one exception–in 7th grade, I took the SAT as part of Duke University’s Talent Identification Program. I scored a 1320 (720 math, 600 verbal) which is, I don’t know, maybe 85th percentile. Of course, I was being compared to students who were 5 years older than me, so I guess it was an acceptable result.



At this point, I probably come off as some arrogant prick who just wants to gloat over how smart he is. I cannot deny that my ego is stroked when I tell people about my test scores. But that’s not the reason I wrote this post. I’m going to dig deeper here.

For those who attend public school in the U.S., standardized testing starts early. I’m pretty sure I was first tested in the first grade, because I was being pulled into “gifted” programs all throughout elementary school. And from that very first test, I was marked.

Something happens when you test at the highest possible score, 99th percentile, on every test that is handed to you. You’re not merely a bright kid. You’re an outlier. The magnitude of your raw intellect becomes your most distinguishing characteristic, at least to all of the adults in your life.

Many of my significant memories from that early age revolve around the shock and delight of the adults around me who experienced that intellect. I recall a special day in third grade when an astronaut visited our class. I had been obsessed with space for several years, and had probably read every single book in the school library about it.

The astronaut started quizzing us about the solar system, and in a room full of eight year-olds there’s bound to be a few space fanatics, so I was not the only one answering correctly. However, his final question had everyone stumped: “What lies beyond Pluto within the solar system?”

No one could figure it out, and after a minute or two kids were frantically yelling out answers. I was scouring my brain for all the knowledge I had gathered in my study of elementary school space books, but my first few guesses were wrong. Asteroids? Planet X? Nothing?

Finally, the astronaut decided we didn’t know. As he was about to tell us the answer, I stood up and yelled,

“Wait! I know it!”

“Okay, one final guess. What’s your answer?”

“The Oort Cloud!”

The astronaut’s face was a mix of surprise and confusion as he confirmed that yes, the Oort Cloud is indeed beyond Pluto. The rest of the students were silent, wondering what the hell the Oort Cloud was, and my teacher just stood with her mouth agape. She would later refer to me as “Oort Cloud boy” and remark that she would never forget that moment in all her years of teaching.

As an eight year-old, getting a jaw-dropping reaction from authority figures around you makes a big impression, and it was abundantly clear that this jaw-dropping reaction was a response to my intellect.

Straight-A report cards were pretty much standard throughout elementary school, but on a few occasions I ended up with a B in a subject. I felt a lot of shame when I didn’t have perfect grades. I know that none of the adults in my life ever intended to make me feel bad, certainly not my parents. But it was clear from their reactions that I was disappointing them when I wasn’t perfect.

This pattern escalated in middle school. I had a history teacher in seventh grade named Mr. Rayer who routinely won teaching awards at the state level. He held students to high standards and demanded a lot of work. One of the largest components of our grade was a daily journal of sorts, in which we wrote about the topics we were learning and completed other writing assignments.

I hated the daily journal. I didn’t understand the point of it. I just wanted to read the textbook, and then take a test. That strategy had worked for every other subject I had encountered in school up to that point. So, I just didn’t do it.

I ended up with a D on my midterm report card, and of course that triggered parent intervention and conferences with the teacher. I did enough work to recover my grade in the class, but I still struggled with Mr. Rayer’s demands.

High school was four more years of the same failure to meet expectations. My grades were good despite taking some of the most demanding high school courses available in the state (I took 10 AP classes, and passed all but one AP exam), but it was always apparent that I had underperformed my true potential.

The final poignant example of this was in college admissions: I had applied to the top five universities for computer science in the country, but was only accepted to the fifth place school.


Through all the struggles I had in school, there was one enduring message that I got from the adults in my life: You’re so smart! This should be easy for you. Why don’t you just put a little more effort into it? Why don’t you just apply yourself?

Even if the message was true, I only heard the first part of it: “You’re so smart.”

My experience in elementary school defined the word “smart” for me: Smart equals effortless achievement.

Another story from second grade comes to mind: as part of our curriculum, each student authored an illustrated book which was entered into a competition with all the other students in the school district. We stepped through the process of writing the book through classroom exercises–choosing the characters, setting, and plot, then writing a draft, and finally going through cycles of revision and editing.

I was not fond of the classroom writing process. It felt tedious and boring, and I didn’t like what I had written so far. So, I presented my teacher with an alternative: a short story about a spaceship traveling through the solar system that I had written, for fun, during summer vacation.

That story went on to win an award at the countywide competition. My takeaway? The writing process is for chumps! Why put so much effort into it? If I just sit down and write what I want to write, adults will be impressed. At least, that’s what my seven year-old self learned.

And it kept working! Every school writing assignment from that point on was completed on my own schedule, which typically meant I wrote it–with no preparation–the night before it was due.

But the problem with relying on sheer intellect to do everything is that it works… until it doesn’t.

My transcript for the first two years of college–note the GPA inflection point.

College is where my intellect train went off the rails. I had accumulated so many credits (52 to be exact) from AP exams and equivalence exams that I was almost a junior before I even set foot on campus, so I could skip the bullshit and go straight to advanced topics in engineering and computer science.

During my freshman year I took courses in algorithms, data structures, discrete math, thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. I stuck to my old strategy of relying on intellect, and it seemed to be working.

The data structures course was a notorious weed-out class for computer science majors, and was graded heavily on a curve–the kind of class where the median test scores are in the 60s, and maybe one person (out of 150) gets a 90 or above.

There were two midterms and a final. I diligently attended most of the class sessions during the first third, and got a slightly above average score on the first midterm. Then I realized that all of the lectures were recorded for a group of remote students from a different campus, and I could just watch them online instead of going to class.

Needless to say, I didn’t get around to watching them until the weekend before the exam. I crammed about 12 hours of lectures into one caffeine-fueled night, and took the exam early the next afternoon on zero sleep.

I scored higher on that second midterm than I did on the first. My academic strategy seemed solid.

With complete confidence in my abilities I enrolled in Computer Graphics the next semester, which was clearly the most advanced course I had ever attempted. This is where my intellect first failed.

The first project was to create a simple paint program which had flood-fill functionality. I figured a weekend would be sufficient, given my previous success in programming courses. On Saturday afternoon I coded up my first attempt and started debugging.

Nothing worked. I didn’t even know where to begin. And after an hour or so of working on it, I knew–there was zero chance I could complete even a crappy version of this program by the end of the weekend.

So, I folded. I dropped the class and decided I would attempt it again when I was ready. I had no other strategy! What, was I suddenly supposed to attend all the lectures and take diligent notes and work sample problems in the text? I had never needed that before, so why now?

My next semester was the knockout blow. I simultaneously took courses in advanced computer architecture, differential equations, and probability theory. They all proved to be beyond my ability to learn by osmosis, and I ended up with a D and an F. The third course didn’t even give me a grade; I had attended class so rarely that my transcript simply said “Absent”.

I changed majors and took easier courses, but by this point I was broken. I earned a GPA of 1.2 during my sophomore year and was not invited back.

At the beginning of this story I mentioned that I am considering a second master’s degree, so you can deduce that I eventually resolved my academic troubles. That part of the story is less instructive, in my opinion. We can learn a lot more from our failures than from our successes.

I felt a lot of clarity around my failures after reading Mindset by Carol Dweck. It is the book that introduced the concepts of fixed mindset and growth mindset to the collective consciousness, and spawned a million viral articles about why we shouldn’t call kids “smart”.

You could say I am a textbook case of the fixed mindset: I got consistent validation from adults by demonstrating superior intelligence. It was recognized and praised to the near-complete exclusion of every other aspect of my identity, so that eventually my entire sense of self-worth was predicated on “being smart”.

A couple quotes from Mindset succinctly sum up the effects of my fixed mindset:

People with the fixed mindset expect ability to show up on its own, before any learning takes place. After all, if you have it you have it, and if you don’t you don’t.

I never attempted anything where I couldn’t be reasonably successful right from the start. I hated sports because I was bad at them, and couldn’t stand the feeling of being just like everyone else once I set foot on the field or the court.

In [the fixed mindset], effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort.

From the point of view of the fixed mindset, effort is only for people with deficiencies. And when people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying. But if your claim to fame is not having any deficiencies—if you’re considered a genius, a talent, or a natural—then you have a lot to lose. Effort can reduce you.

The surest sign of my superior intellect was the ability to get the right answer without even trying. If I had to work at it… well, then I probably wasn’t that smart, since that’s what everyone else had to do.

When I finally faced an intellectual challenge that did not come naturally to me, and which required concentrated effort to overcome, I gave up. To acknowledge that I needed to work hard to be successful would have required me to tear down the identity I had built over years of coasting through school and being praised for it, and that was a frightening thought.

If I’m not smart, then what am I? What redeeming value do I have in this world?


Simply understanding that I have a fixed mindset has gone a long way in helping me acknowledge and shift my behavior towards a growth mindset, but it’s a slow process to overturn decades of brain wiring.

However, I don’t believe that the power of mindset is the only lesson to be learned from my experience.

Suppose I had been praised for effort instead of intellect. What would they have praised me for? Pretty much every subject I encountered in school was (relatively) effortless for me, even after being shuffled into the most advanced curriculum available in my local public school system.

The Duke TIP talent search uses the 95th percentile on a grade-level standardized test as the criteria for being “gifted”. Assuming a normal distribution for intelligence, this would be roughly 1.65 standard deviations above the median, and we would expect 1 in 20 kids to have this level of intelligence.

But what about the kid who is 1 in 100? 99th percentile is at +2.33 standard deviations. And 1 in 1000? That’s +3.1 standard deviations.

Put another way, the difference in intellect between a median child and the gifted 1-in-20 kid is almost the same magnitude as the difference between the 1-in-20 kid and the 1-in-1000 kid.

We could stop here to quibble about the messiness of defining and measuring “intelligence” but that’s not necessary to make my point: Clearly, a gifted academic program aimed at the 95th percentile is going to be less challenging for the 99th percentile, and downright easy for the 99.9th percentile.

Was I a 1-in-1000 kid? I don’t know. But I do know that throughout my primary and secondary schooling, I was able to get good grades in the most challenging curriculum available to me without ever developing good study habits–or any study habits at all, for that matter.

If you had pitched me the growth mindset during that period in my life, I’m not sure it would have stuck. If I could excel year after year without real effort, why do anything differently? I would never have believed you if you said that trend would stop, because all my experience told me otherwise.

A 20-year longitudinal study of exceptionally gifted Australian kids seems to corroborate some of my personal experience. The kids in this study were selected on the basis of having an IQ above 160, which appears in the population at a ratio of fewer than 1 in 10,000. I’m not that intelligent, but I think I shared more in common with these kids than with a kid of average intelligence.

The primary finding of the study is that kids who were challenged according to their abilities thrived, while those who followed a normal curriculum did not:

The considerable majority of young people who have been radically accelerated, or who accelerated by 2 years, report high degrees of life satisfaction, have taken research degrees at leading universities, have professional careers, and report facilitative social and love relationships. Young people of equal abilities who accelerated by only 1 year or who have not been permitted acceleration have tended to enter less academically rigorous college courses, report lower levels of life satisfaction, and in many cases, experience significant difficulties with socialization. Several did not graduate from college or high school.

Given this finding, it is unfortunate that more than half of the subjects in the study were not accelerated at all. This is how the researcher describes their experience:

The remaining 33 young people were retained, for the duration of their schooling, in a lockstep curriculum with age peers in what is euphemistically termed the “inclusion” classroom. The last thing they felt, as children or adolescents, was “included.” With few exceptions, they have very jaded views of their education.

You could say that I have a somewhat “jaded” view of my education as well. Math was the only subject in which I was able to accelerate to any degree, but even that was constrained by the school’s reluctance to allow a child to skip two grades ahead. I distinctly recall my frustration when, after taking a course in advanced algebra during the summer vacation before my freshman year of high school, the stodgy math teacher insisted that I take pre-calculus, which covered many of the same topics I had just learned. Her justification was simply that no one in her experience had ever gone straight to calculus as a freshman.

Would jumping ahead two (or more) years in school have solved all of my problems, and turned me into the next Doogie Howser? I don’t know, I’m probably not that intelligent. (That was an actual nickname I had as a young child, by the way.)

But I do know that I feel a deep sense of excitement and fulfillment when learning something difficult. That feeling pushes me to work harder and longer than I do otherwise. It’s a feeling that was absent for much of my schooling, and in its absence I felt adrift.

This is, perhaps, the root of my fixed mindset. As the Australian researcher notes:

The impostor syndrome is readily validated with gifted students if they are given only work that does not require them to strive for success. It is difficult to maintain the belief that one can meet and overcome challenges if one never has the opportunity to test oneself.

What about those accelerated kids, the geniuses who are identified early and placed on a track that stretches their talents?

A popular Nature article describes the outsize impact that such luminaries can have on the world. It recounts the story of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY), which was founded in 1971 and intends to follow over 5,000 intellectually talented individuals for 50 years. The first few cohorts have been part of the study for over 20 years now, and the results are remarkable. The author of the article makes this bold statement:

With the first SMPY recruits now at the peak of their careers, what has become clear is how much the precociously gifted outweigh the rest of society in their influence.

Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Lady Gaga are just a few notables from the SMPY cohorts.

And just to reiterate, even among this select group, there emerged stark differences in outcomes based on whether the kids were accelerated or not:

The SMPY data supported the idea of accelerating fast learners by allowing them to skip school grades. In a comparison of children who bypassed a grade with a control group of similarly smart children who didn’t, the grade-skippers were 60% more likely to earn doctorates or patents and more than twice as likely to get a PhD in a STEM field.


In the 14 years since I failed out of college, much has changed in my life. Aside from successfully finishing a graduate degree (with honors), I’m now a husband and a father, and those roles in particular have demonstrated to me that intelligence provides almost no advantage in certain realms of life. Sometimes it can be downright unhelpful, in fact. I’ve had to put a lot of effort into other aspects of my character in order to find a consistent and enduring happiness.

I don’t see my intellect as a source of pride anymore. After all, what have I done to earn it? It was a gift, plain and simple, and I am beginning to understand the proper use of such gifts. In the words of a favorite book of mine:

He may not see at once that he has scratched a limitless lode which will pay dividends only if he mines it for the rest of his life and insists on giving away the entire product.

The gift of intelligence is special. I owe it to the world and to my creator to mine this limitless lode and give it away. There’s certainly no use in lamenting my past; that won’t help anyone.

When I started writing this article, I didn’t expect to unload a 4,000 word novella. I just wanted to tell my story so someone else might learn something from it.

My biggest lesson in all of this is that regardless of what happened when I was a kid, I have the power now to choose a life that celebrates my intelligence.

I’m not stuck in school anymore–I can say no to work that doesn’t challenge me or spark intellectual curiosity.

I don’t have to be jaded.

I can accelerate myself to whatever level I want.