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

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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