Last spring, a friend suggested that I consider joining MENSA, the group for highly intelligent people. Without any false humility, I’m reasonably sure that I’d qualify, but I don’t think I’ll bother, even though joining might extend my circle of acquaintances. Groucho Marx’s comment about not wanting to belong to a club that would invite him to join aside, I dislike the thought of being evaluated before I can join. I also suspect that a club based on intelligence is a false sort of elitism, with misplaced criteria for membership.
Part of my reluctance is a deep-seated dislike of being evaluated. When I was in Grade One, I needed speech therapy to pronounce a hard “c” properly, and was shunted into the slow readers’ group solely on that basis. The appropriateness of that assessment is indicated by the fact that, by the end of the year, I was reading at a Grade 7 level, but the unfairness has left me with a lifelong detestation of tests and evaluations. Report cards, job performances – anything of the sort sets off an alarm and a sense of injustice in me. So, right from the start, the idea of writing an intelligence test in order to belong to a group unsettles me. Although I usually do well on tests, I don’t exactly seek them out.
At any rate, I don’t approve of self-appointed elitism. I’ve always believed that, if you have any talents, you should be self-deprecating about them, and people will appreciate them without you having to trumpet them (how I actually worked in marketing for a couple of years with that attitude escapes me now). In fact, if you have to trumpet your abilities, then either you over-rate them or you need to work on your insecurities (don’t we all). And if you don’t have them — well, better to stay silent in that case, too.
Besides, the elitism of MENSA has always seem misplaced to me. The first MENSA member I ever knew usually found a way to mention his membership within ten minutes of meeting a new person, and I don’t remember a single conversation in which he didn’t boast about his affiliation. He was fond of hiking solo, despite repeated warnings and having been lost on several occasions, but insisted on continuing the practice. He died in his early twenties because he fell off a cliff while taking a short cut on a trail. I don’t know, but I’ve always imagined him thinking that he knew better than the posted warnings because he was supposed to be intelligent. That would have been just like him.
To be fair, other MENSA members I’ve met since haven’t been so conceited. Yet, at the same time, most of them haven’t been extraordinary people, either, although they all had something of the same sense that they were special that the young hiker had. So, with all respect, I suspect that intelligence alone is an insufficient criteria for being an interesting or accomplished person.
Personally, I’d rather hang out with people who have done something. I’m really far less interested in people who are quick with a pun or able to cite knowingly the latest geeky reference than in people who are experts in their chosen fields. When I hear a writer talk about her latest work, a free software developer enthusing about the new features in his upcoming release or executives talking about expanding their business, I don’t care about their intelligence. What I respond to is their obvious love of what they’re doing. Imagination and enthusiasm are what make these people worth spending time with; their intelligence is interesting only so far as it supports these traits.
Nor, in my experience, do you find many such impassioned people who are fixtures in their local MENSA chapter. The reason, I suspect, is that they don’t need the validation of hanging around a self-proclaimed elite. They’re too busy with what they love – and they’re all the more interesting for their preoccupation.
I could mention, too, the shortcomings of all existing measures of intelligence, but that’s a topic for another day. The real point is, by demeanor, temperament, and preferences, an organization like MENSA just isn’t the place for me. I’m sure that, for some people, especially when young, MENSA can be a much-needed refuge, but, for me, belonging to the group would be looking for companionship in the wrong place. I simply don’t value intelligence as an isolated quality – or myself – as much as most MENSA members apparently do.