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Understanding Very, Very Smart People

Gifted Resources

In this article, Samuel Kohlenberg, LPC, discusses his observations and experiences with profoundly gifted students and young adults. Here are a few things he would like to tell them (as well as the people in their lives). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Being smart is really hard.

There may be people with high IQs who have an easy time in life; relationships are simple, work and school are a breeze, and they long ago addressed the existentialist questions that some of us might carry with us until the very end. I wish them well, and what follows is not about them.

In my practice, I have been able to observe and experience how the world treats young adults with superior intelligence. At times it can be pretty heartbreaking, and these are a few things that I wish I could tell all gifted young adults (as well as the people in their lives).

You’re not allowed to talk about it.

This is the message that brilliant people receive from the world. Because much of the world sees intelligence as a good thing, talking about it seems braggadocios, which is incredibly problematic. People with high IQs are outliers, and outliers are often a more difficult fit in many respects because the world is not made for them. You are different enough for it to be potentially problematic, but you are not allowed to acknowledge how you are different because to do so would be self-aggrandizing. Be more like everyone else, but don’t you dare address how you are different. Bright people who have internalized this message may go far out of their way not to talk about a fundamental difference that often contributes to difficulties in a number of areas.

    • Learning how and when to acknowledge your own intelligence instead of sidestepping the subject can be incredibly important, and sometimes this means learning how to talk about it tactfully. One of my favorite quotes happens to be on tact:

“Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.”

     -Winston S. Churchill [attributed but disputed]. Learning to talk about how you are different without turning people off may mean that your needs actually start getting met…

Trying is a skill.

If you’re so smart, why aren’t work and school easy all of the time? If you have had a lifetime of being able to intuit your way through school or work, it also means that you have a lifetime of not cultivating the skill of trying. Some gifted teens and adults get to high school, college, or sometimes the workplace, and all of a sudden a completely undeveloped skill set relating to trying is required of them, and nobody is telling them that that is what is going on.

So how do you learn how to try? I recommend finding something that is low-stakes (meaning that it is not going to affect your grades or your work life) and that does not come to you easily. For many, such activities may include learning a new language, mastering a musical instrument, martial arts, team sports, or visual arts. Now that you have found something to try at, commit a significant portion of your week to it. Cultivating a new skill takes time, and the skill of trying is no different.

People can’t tell how sensitive you are.

A common trait amongst the gifted is that the outward expression of emotional states can be more subtle than in the rest of the population. You can be feeling things very deeply without anyone knowing, and that can be a painful and isolating experience. I wish that I could tell every gifted person that people are not missing you intentionally, and you are not alone. This tendency is relatively common, but very rarely talked about.

One way to attack this potentially painful dynamic is to tell people what you are feeling. You might be surprised at how effective verbally disclosing your emotional state can be. Habitually saying things like “I know that I don’t always show it, but I’m super happy right now” can be a total game-changer in some cases.

Existential crises happen a lot earlier, bigger, and more often.

For many gifted people, looking at a lamppost is a different experience than it is for the rest of the world. They do not just see a lamppost. They see an imagined history of how the materials that comprise the post were sourced, manufactured, and installed. They see the way that the lamp is connected to a power grid like a cell in a greater organism of a city and how they fit into that system. Imagine then, for a moment, what it must be like for such a person to turn their attention to their existence and what it means to be human.

The world is ready for angsty teenagers. The brooding 15 –year-old is a cinematic trope for a reason. People are less prepared for 6-year-olds in the midst of an existential crisis befitting a 40-year-old. Not only does it not fit the script, but it may be contributing to depression for decades to come.

Finding meaning is important. I recommend reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Thoughtfully explore how you make meaning in the realms of interpersonal relationships, how you spend your time, and what you enjoy doing/feel called to do.

The rest of the world isn’t going to change.

Learning to do well with people or with organizations (school, work, etc.) that are a less than optimal fit can be amazingly important, and you may as well figure out how to do this sooner rather than later. This idea comes up a lot when I talk to people about they way they fit in (or don’t…) at work or school. While finding optimal fit can be very important, learning how to work well with people who are different from you can be important too. For many people whose minds make them statistical outliers, learning to do this early in life has the potential to save a lot of discomfort.

To this end, there have been times that I have literally told someone that the most important thing that they might learn in high school may involve finding a healthy way to deal with people who have more power than them, but less intelligence.

Stop trying to do things their way.

One of the most agonizing things that I get to witness is the conflation of means with ends. Well-intentioned bosses, teachers, family members, and friends are often generous with advice when you have difficulty. The unfortunate reality is that following their advice does not guarantee that you will be able to overcome the obstacle before you.

I am sorry to say that there does not seem to be a one-size-fits-all answer. I have noticed a trend, however, that many of the gifted people that I work with have an easier time when they are able to learn things as a system and not as a series of steps or isolated facts. In other words, understanding how things fit together as a system is often a more helpful goal than memorizing a list.

While this blog post may be of some help to those who know or who work with people with very high IQs, the real intended audience is adults who are too smart for their own good. While there is a seemingly inexhaustible list of topics that one could cover in such an article, I have intentionally picked the ones that I think have the most clinical utility and may receive less attention than they should. Awareness changes relationship, and it is my hope that awareness of a few of the ideas presented here makes life easier for someone. It is unlikely that the world is going to change anytime soon, but changing the way that you relate to it may yield a more comfortable fit.


Brendan King

Thank you for writing this, it seriously made my day. I'm a 28 year old guy who this describes to T, I'm currently back out into the dating world 😑 and it is so HARD. I realized, whenever I message people I say these things that to me are just jokes, I'm just trying to be clever and funny (and admittedly impress them a bit, but that's how this stuff is supposed to work right?? ?), but they just don't get it. I realize, looking at their bios, that they just say everything straightforwardly; it's not like a game, they're not trying to be fun, they're just communicating. But it's like look, I can be straightforward and not try to be funny, BUT WHEN I DO IT ENDS UP BEING LIKE THIS; A DISSERTATION THAT NOBODY WANTS TO READ (which I get, but-).

I wish there was a dating app for gifted adults, that then separated the ones who made it out of childhood and are successful, and the ones like me that got eaten alive, and are now starving creative types who have to drench everything in 20 layers of sarcasm.

kathleen Lillard

We get it Brendan.

I’ve adopted over time a secondary, more folksy personality to deploy on the many occasions when I’d rather not alienate or intimidate. I sort of enjoy it some times.


I think all the comments and their slightly negative narrative regarding the more "average" intelligence level individuals responses to more "intelligent" individuals achievements, misses what should be an obvious connection IMHO. For many of humanity that kind of ability differential is perceived as a possible threat. They know the more "intelligent" individual can potentially, outsmart, outperform, outmanoeuvre them at almost anything apparently. How can you trust that individual not to use that "leg up" at some point, in a competitive world, to your detriment? If anybody has seen quiz shows like "The Weakest Link" or even "Survivor"type shows they would know the perceived smartest contestant is often earmarked for removal as they are dangerous and a threat. It's really a fairly natural human response and "never" going to change. You are a potential threat, even if it is just a boss or a social connection where your intelligence stands out as over and above the referenced "average" individual. There is deemed a necessity to be aware and cautious of the potential for that intelligence to be used against you, without you even realising it. Some will choose not to be in that constant state of cautious assessment and avoid interaction altogether.
Of course the more "intelligent" individual will grasp these responses and may react by being more cautious themselves with how they present to others,though there will be some who simply think""bugger it", I don't care what others think.
That's my barely above average take on it, coming from a family of a little above average IQ testing.
I have a personal take on the whole intelligence level testing and measurement that throws a lot of this into a different area,including how and why individuals whom never performed well academically at school for example.go on to be have great success in various areas. Just what is "intelligence" really?
I like to think I'm intelligent enough to know,I have no real idea. Lol


I am not exceptionally gifted, but my IQ was reported to be in the "moderately gifted" range, just one point shy of the Stanford–Binet minimum score to join MENSA. I believe I could have scored much better on the same IQ test just a few years later. I also have an inherited anxiety disorder that has made adhering to societal expectations very difficult. The discussion I had with a parent earlier today is most likely the reason I found myself on this website. It was pertaining to the problem I have communicating with people. As life progresses, I have tried to amend my speech to include more descriptive words and I have tried to present my objective from several different perspectives, hoping that my audience would understand the big picture, and this has only served to make me less understood.

Steve Davenport

It takes a lot of effort to communicate with folks who do not grasp things as easily as you do.

Sometimes you can't bridge the gap, no matter how hard you try.

That being said, I absolutely adore being around super intelligent people. It's like I can jump in the deep end of the pool of intellectual bliss...


Multiple perspectives can be confusing for most people.

Craig Swisher

Yes! I particularly liked the system comment. I am in IT and want to know how it works. My coworkers and supervisors want a checklist of what to knock off. It doesn’t always work that way!


Yes, I want to see the whole elephant. Then, explain to me the parts.

Ayumi Kiyomizu

Wow and here I thought I was alone in this! I have x2 PhD's, work as a test pilot, teach tae kwon do 3 days a week and for me it's nothing but a life. I used to be so proud of the things I've done and wanted to share that with others to inspire them and 99% of the time it had the opposite effect like resentment, jealousy, and sometimes their ire...

Now I just keep to myself, in my own little world watching things as they happen and smile because the work I do will bring about change. (disruptive tech ^^) To my brothers and sisters, wear your intelligence like a badge of honor because we were born this way! Now if only we had a flag...


Pepito Illan

I feel identified with this

Mat Delano

Yep, it's interesting how we all accept differences in income, athletic ability, attractiveness, whatever, but somehow, differences in 'intelligence' not so much. My sense is that a higher IQ and more 'smarts' often enables a much better appreciation for the complexities, broader relationships, and the greater 'possibilities' inherent even in relatively prosaic things. So as far as mastering the 'social' aspects, usually the challenge is how to distill that broader POV into something more 'accessible' to a wider 'audience'. Which when 'ya think about it, is what great filmmakers, and other artists do all the time.


I was placed in one of those gifted programs in elementary school. I left it because of the amount of attention it brought. The part about not learning skills is so very true. We can't be allowed to breeze by, it comes back to hurt. I withdrew completely from education and have wasted my talents. Pursuing art, literature and philosophy as a child while the others were playing baseball and amusing themselves with their own gas. Instead of college I ended up in the Army, only for so long as that was not a place I fit in either. I remember my commander frustrated that I was leaving the Army, it was validating. All these years I've worked as a mechanic, the engines and drive system, it's allowed me to reduce face time with other workers which I find exhausting. Whether professional or personal, relationships are so hard when it feels like you have to keep explaining. And wait while the troop figures out how to peel the banana. It can be like a prison to be intelligent and very introverted. If you add being physically imposing with immense strength all that that sounds like a blessing of genetics feels like everything but.
Children are lucky to have a source like this


oh yes all that explaining can wear you down . . .

Frank Connell

I'm very humbled by reading the comments above. I was just searching for reasons why I'm having conversations with others that are nowhere in sight, for years and years, happens usually in the darkness of night. I realize now, I'm not alone. I crawled in a hole, a long time ago, believed I was exiled, nowhere to go. I joined their ranks, tried to fit, never felt accepted, another misfit. Years have come and years have past, some have accepted me for who I am, for that I'm forever grateful. Still a weary traveler, walking a narrow trail, carrying a little more hope than the day before. Thanks to all (:

Harry Houdini

The worst part about being intelligent, is that almost no one else understands you.

They are not – arrogant as it sounds – smart enough to understand your thoughts (and feelings.) Or maybe they just think and feel in different ways.

I guess its better to use the word 'different' than the word 'smart'. Because most of the bad consequences (aside from the overthinking) comes from simply being so different as to not being able to relate.

I have found, though, that by taking an interest in every single person, and trying to understand who they are at core, and how they became who they are, and how existence must be for them, the most uninteresting topic can become interesting. Trying to forget oneself and ones own interest, in conversation, can be deeply rewarding.

Scalyfradge Whopster Bligett-Snoodleguffer

Being intelligent is horrifying, you can generally envisage every situation many steps ahead but all the people around you can only see one step ahead. This means that people relentlessly tell you that you are stupid and wrong. When you are proven correct, people accuse you of cheating, because they were unable to see beyond their own noses. Intelligent people tend to be bullied to the ends of the Earth, 'tis a gift and a curse. A huge amount of solitude can help. Best wishes all. Cheerio!


That paragraph about not able to talk about it. Ie stfu about the challenges to intelligence, hits hard. a cycle of being possibly TOO independent because any problem must also have the solution . & efficiency in solving those problems?it can create a cycle of letdown. I think we all have a role to play in our communities & nations. If you aren't fulfilling your best role then you are going to waste. part of the reason you haven't found your proper home is because the world is constantly telling you to stfu & conform to lesser standards & if you dare map out how that thinking is wrong then you also are arrogant. Intelligent people are every bit as human in making mistakes but are sometimes treated as super humans & excessive expectations are applied towards intelligent people. The main takeaway is that we need to destigmatize intelligence & rather offer the best roles for these individuals for the better of all. It's just a crazy matrix to break out of sometimes & a side effect of a very statist, very obedience driven, cult like society. Our educational system was designed after a Prussian military model of education.

Carey D Hartmann

Thank you for writing this. It made me cry.


My mother would sometimes try to be my "interpreter" if she thought something I said was "too old" for the other kids. I guess she meant well, but it would divert attention away from my ideas, and sometimes it would diffuse the punchline.
For example, once when my family was out for a drive at night, and there were no other cars on the road, my dad stopped for a red light, and I said, "You always stop for a red light, even if there are no other cars on the road. Because if you don't, you may soon find out there's at least one other car on the road." My mother found it necessary to add, "Yeah, a Police car!" as if to imply nobody else got my point.

G Phillips

I don't like when people assume I didn't "get the joke" or "understand" what they are saying, because tend to skip ahead a few steps in the conversation to arrive at the conclusion. They will say, "No, I was saying... ," and am torn between saying telling them I understand, but skipped to this point... or letting them explain to me in their voice they use for small children and animals. (face palm either way)

kathleen lillard

Very much sympathy Carey. My mother wouldn’t let me know my i.q. because “you might get a fat head.”
Adolescence: “ You’re like someone from a different planet.”
I wonder if others of our ‘tribe’ felt the bafflement I did throughout childhood.


To this end, there have been times that I have literally told someone that the most important thing that they might learn in high school may involve finding a healthy way to deal with people who have more power than them, but less intelligence.

If only, if only....I still haven't figured this out, to my detriment. One day. I'm struggling to teach this to my kids and I still haven't figured it out. But I'm a step ahead for them than I was for myself. At least I'm aware of this. No one explained this to me, probably because they didn't realize. My parents were of average intelligence. I still don't know where I came from. Great post. Thanks.


Nice post. I'm not sure about my level of intelligence. But i find it difficult to build meaningful relationships simply because the other person doesn't seem to get my point even though it can be logically described, step by step. I'm genuinely inquisitive and feel unwanted in many social settings. Not sure if there are more like me.

Jiminy Kriket

It's more of a pick your battles thing, people with power will hold it over you. It's a sad life lesson, but you gotta learn when to let people have the power they are clutching because what they are holding onto is so insignificant.

Other times, you gotta stand up for yourself and say make me. Take the loss and let them bully you (required if you aren't going to bend from your most fundamental beliefs.)

I've always thought people would love to teach gifted kids. Didn't seem to be true. They told me they had me teaching the other kids, but it's like so what? That's fine, right? Helps us both.

The funny thing is... Norm MacDonald is always (unfairly) making fun of school teachers and saying they have the easiest job and they only have to be smarter than an x grader. Maybe that's some of their resentment, some people don't want to put in the extra work to deal with a child you can't stick in a corner.

But much love to everyone who took time out! Also teach kids to keep going and that eventually someone will stand up for them. Really, though, learning to just brute force through what the world calls 'bullying' is very important.

Because compromise isn't always an option, either, you make gifted kids compromise early (imo) you can give them complexes for life.


Thank you.

Possible smart guy

This article was comforting in the way it covered its topic but i found this article while trying to research where i could find more intelligent people to mingle with this means this website is tagged or in someway associated with the googling of "where do the smart people go" which seems like a form of entrapment.

Just diagnosedsmart

I am 40, just went back to work after six years maternity leave, the Last six months has been harder at work than raising two kids 🤣

Possibly smarter gal

Haha yes it is a trap for all of the smart people who are looking for smarter people.


I’ve often viewed the cosmos as small spheres, I can see how they dance and jiggle when interacted with; how the greater system fits in place...

My mind has not changed since the age of 6

I see no limit to my intellectual hight.

Where do I find more like me?


Having the highest IQ is a gift but being smart totally different.

Bonnie Marshall

True that. I have been accused of thinking I'm better than them although I am a friendly person in general.


I was never attentive to the difference between the terms intelligent and smart until I read this comment. I learned now that people who call themselves "dumb" and compare themselves to smarter people don't realize that they have the ability to be as smart so long as they put in the work. However, with intelligence, it's a different story. As you say, one's level of intelligence is inborn and can be considered a gift.

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