Being a Mensan – a Gift or a Curse?

What is the good of an intelligence when it reasons always the same way and always reaches the same conclusion?

— from CHANGE, Cuba, 2007

When Argentinean novelist Ernesto Sabato (a reputable genius) passed away a few weeks ago, the son of famous composer Astor Piazzola shared an unflattering story about him. As a middle-aged man, Daniel Piazzola confessed that he still held a grudge against Sábato for having said, “having good memory is nothing to be proud of, intelligence is what counts.” as a reply to Astor’s praise of his young son’s memory skills.

As a Mensan (someone who passed the High IQ Society’s qualifying test) I have often wondered about what Sabato, whose opinions I have usually shared, was so convinced of, namely, the assumption that intelligence is a value in itself or something to be proud of. If people are born with a certain degree of intelligence that is measurable by IQ testing, then they shouldn’t be more proud of being great at calculus than of having blue eyes or lush black hair.

Personally, I think that people should only be proud of what they have accomplished with their hard work. In harmony with my argument, a reputable 2004 study covering 140 American eight-grade students concluded that self-discipline was more relevant to academic results than IQ scores. Another interesting psychometric study from Britain about the correlation between Emotional Intelligence (EI) and academic performance, which covered 650 teenage students, reached the conclusion that “trait EI has incremental validity over cognitive ability and established personality traits in predicting achievement and behavior.”

So, if a healthy self-image and a good self-discipline achieve better academic results than a mere high IQ, then who is putting Mensa-level intelligence on a pedestal?

For the brief time while I was the “head” of Uruguayan Mensans, I was in charge of testing aspiring members. I had been advised by the British central not to test anyone under 16. However, I received desperate calls from eager parents who were sure that their kid was “a genius” and wanted to have them tested. As someone with an above average IQ who had enjoyed a normal childhood and no special “gifted programs” like the ones that are common in America, for example, I used to say to those parents that their kids didn’t actually need to skip grades, but they needed stimulation. I used to advise them to take them to music classes and foreign language courses. I don’t think my answer made them happy, though, they wanted a trophy child, much like how rich old men want young and beautiful trophy wives.

Now, where’s the curse? (Aside from the possibility of having annoying parents who will make you lose part of your normal childhood by skipping grades). Well, things are not the same in school as in the real world. In my experience, Mensans or people with high IQs have it a bit easier at school, because they can generally get very good results with little work. But everything changes when they leave the school environment and move into the workplace.

A study about gifted individuals and their roles in the workplace advises managers and human resource department officers to “learn how to make a distinction between different kinds of deviant behavior of gifted individuals. A part of that behavior is perhaps troublesome, but at the same time it is necessary for them to be able to fulfill the unique innovatory role they are looking for.” While the study recognizes the need of organizations to develop strategies to maximize the potential of “gifted members,” it also acknowledges the fact that these people tend to cause trouble, precisely because of their “innovatory” power.

When I was studying English literature, I wrote an essay about Othello, arguing that his pride and his blind belief in his own perceptions and assumptions was what doomed the character, much more than jealousy itself. In a way, I believe this can be a Mensan’s greatest pitfall. When one thinks and learns fast, one learns to learn in a certain way. When the world diverges from the results we expect, we may find it hard to adapt.

As far as intelligence is concerned, I have personally concluded that the ability to change one’s mind is the highest form of human intelligence; fundamentally, the ability to recognize that one can be wrong; that is what I call intelligence. This is the best brain-training I can recommend as a former Mensan: to try to keep an open mind.


PETRIDES, K., FREDERICKSON, N., & FURNHAM, A. (2004). The role of trait emotional intelligence in academic performance and deviant behavior at school Personality and Individual Differences, 36 (2), 277-293 DOI: 10.1016/S0191-8869(03)00084-9.

Corten, F., Nauta, N., Ronner, S.. Highly intelligent and gifted employees – key to innovation? Academic paper, International HRD Conference 2006, “The learning society or sustainable development”, Amsterdam, 2006.

Duckworth, A., & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents Psychological Science, 16 (12), 939-944 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01641.x

Duckworth AL, Quinn PD, Lynam DR, Loeber R, & Stouthamer-Loeber M (2011). Role of test motivation in intelligence testing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 21518867

  • sleeprunning

    We fetishize IQ, which seems to mainly be processing speed. Research suggests it is not a value in decision-making especially for groups. Radical pluralism and diversity, especially including low IQ folks is optimal.

  • JL

    When I clicked on this link, I was expecting something that focused more exclusively on the pros/cons of being a member of Mensa or not rather than just being intelligent. Not the slightest bit disappointed, though 🙂 Nice article, and people definitely underestimate the importance of the social aspects of school.

  • I tend to agree, IQ is definitely overrated.

  • I think it’s important for gifted kids (and adults) to have plenty of contact with other gifted folks. Not because they’re better than others, but because they need to know they aren’t alone. They also need support for their unique ways of being. Once Mensa group is fond of saying this is where we get your jokes. That really speaks to the sense of isolation gifted people can have in some locations. So you were in Uruguay? I just learned that mensa (and menso) means stupid in Spanish.

  • Actually, menso means dumb in Mexico, but not in Uruguay….
    I think maybe the beginning of the problem is the use of the word gifted. I certainly don´t consider myself or the other people I met while in contact with Mensa “gifted.” I guess the traditional school system only caters to a certain group that is somewhere in the middle, but I believe there are more advanced ways to integrate everybody and expose them to social interaction with lots of different people with varied skills and types of intelligence.

  • Daniel R

    Great article.

    I remember that when I was studying mathematics in college, people that didn’t seem especially bright usually outperformed friends that were much more gifted in “raw intelligence”. I could feel that they were naturally smarter, but that made them arrogant and overly fearful of their performance – which was obviously negatively affected by this. On the other hand, some of our colleagues, such as a group of girls that we chauvinistically despised, ended up faring much better than all of us, as they were more humble, disciplined and hardworking. In a state of youthful arrogance and resentment, we had long discussions about this, coming to the conclusion that sometimes, because a person lacks a natural knack or ability in a particular area, that ends up bringing a quality of self-will that is astonishing and almost unmatched in the possibilities of its accomplishments.

    In this regard, the form of intelligence that is measured by IQ tests pales in comparison. It measures something meaningful certainly, but by no means that elusive trait we call genius. Which great thinker wouldn’t feel appalled by the restriction of the powers of the mind to the crude statistical evaluations of the tests? Not only that, but the type of thinking that produces great results in mathematics or physics, for example, is unimaginably distanced from what is sought in psychometric tests. If we read Poincaré’s account of his creative process, or speak with any active mathematician, we hear something that is much closer to the inspiration of the mystic than the structured pattern inquiry of Raven’s Progressive Matrices.

    All this brings to my mind one of the final scenes of the film Gattaca. The main character, who is of a lower genetic strain, is asked by his brother, after losing a swimming race, how he managed to beat him, as that had to be physically impossible, considering his genetic superiority. He then answers “You want to know how I did it? This is how I did it, Anton: I never saved anything for the swim back.”

  • Justin

    People are often proud if they have beautiful blue eyes, or are handsome, or have lovely hair or nice teeth. Many things we are “proud” of have heavy genetic components. Likewise nothing is purely genetic – many nutritional/life-style factors can attribute to the white of one’s eyes, the gloss of one’s hair or the sparkle of one’s smile. I don’t think IQ is particularly different to these things.

    Don’t forget that not long ago almost everything was attributed to genetics and heredity. People were still proud of their attributes then.

    I believe that motivation (a precursor for hard work) is also largely genetic/biological (albeit with heavy interaction with the environment – but still, is it your fault if you went to a good/bad school, or had parents & peers who encouraged/discouraged academic performance?) – if this proves to be true what is there left to be proud of?

  • Barbara Stott

    IQ is great, but to be great takes humility.

    Emotional intelligence is critical if someone is to have a positive impact on the world.

    To solve the world’s great problems you need to know that there is a great problem. That requires empathy, positive interaction or usually both. Because the worlds great problems are always someone else’s problem.

    No one solves a problem alone. If you think you did, you have forgotten all the people who provided you with the skills and information you started with. (And most education happens outside school)

    And then you need to know that the impossible is generally just not possible yet.

    If you have the arrogance to think that you can make the impossible possible and the humility to know you cannot do it alone, then that is just as valuable as that sky high IQ score.

    What attitude solves a problem?
    I don’t know! Lets work it out!

    That’s impossible! Let’s make it possible!

    Roll on global cooling.

  • Anonymous

    Intelligence is beyond description. We try to measure it in this way and that way, but no test and no score can really do justice the feeling you get in the presence of intelligence. You don’t leave a conversation or finish a book and say, “cool, I think that guy has an IQ of 143”, or “she’s an idiot, must have an IQ of 110”. Intelligence is comprised of so much more than just sheer computational might.

    Awe-inspiring skyscrapers and structures, crazy technological achievements, beautiful interactions.

    The feeling you get when speaking to somebody who is just so lucid and engaging that you can’t help but feel energised. A piece of writing so perfect you just say “fuck, how did they manage that”.

    More concisely, intelligence is taking a step back and marvelling at the amazing intricacies of our world: the people, the landscapes, the technology, the interactions. Intelligence is then taking a step forward and contributing to the beauty.

  • Maybe what is the most critical is tolerance. Tolerance for those not “gifted” from the gifted and tolerance for those “gifted” from the “non-gifted”. I am not sure how much of the “non-gifted” are truly “non-gifted” and I don’t mean this in the simpering manner of a kindergarten teacher. Sometimes I think that the “average” person just has not had his “gifts” fully brought out. I think if the “average” person understood his potential fully, he would have more tolerance for the “gifted”. Maybe we could aim for a world where everyone could just “be” and we would all revel in our uniqueness and have the freedom to pursue our “gifts”.

    • Well said. I couldn´t agree more. Tolerance is the magic word.
      Thanks for your insightful comments.

  • Tfitz

    People still join Mensa? In the US now, I think it is considered at least a bit pathetic.
    On the subject of IQ I have to say that it is better to be a little stupid. I see tragedy in the so-called ‘gifted’, including my own life. Have you ever watched your cat and yearned for that simplicity? I sure have.

  • Russell Johnston

    Tfitzy, we must have *very different* cats. Mine spends all its time scheming and often with great success. (Einstein’s cat was spent a lot of its time being outraged by inclement weather. Not a very Zen animal, the cat.) I’ve known an even trickier cat that liked to sneak out at night and kill dogs, believe it or not. Again, not very Zen. (But then Zen holds that animals are not and can’t be realized.)

    I actually long to have the complexity and wiles of a cat. I think you should have your cat checked out, frankly. Maybe it didn’t get enough oxygen during birth.

    Anyway, as for the thesis; the more intelligent you are the better you are able to rationalize away discrepancies and cling to a previous opinion, if you so choose. True. (Studies show expert opinion and problem solving is often worse than chance, so this stuff is empirically documented. See David Kahneman’s new book, or work.) Knives in the hands of monkeys, as it were.

    But also, the more intelligent you are the better able you are to use meditation or other techniques to boost your self-awareness and emotional intelligence, if you so choose. If you’re willing to take the emotional pain, that is.

    Zen tradition holds that highly intelligent people are in fact much less likely to become enlightened; but are dazzlingly effective teachers if they do manage the feat.

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA

Veronica Pamoukaghlian, MA, holds a Masters in Creative Writing. She has directed two documentaries shot in psychiatric wards and a feature documentary about the 77-year old senior Decathlon champion of the world, Raul. Her last production is Monstruo, a short film about non-voluntary euthanasia. She is the CEO of Uruguayan film production company Nektar FIlms. You may visit her blog at The Wander Life

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