When You’re Smart, People Need You

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Mon, Feb 26 - 2:23 am EDT | 8 years ago by
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I almost gave up on a career in physics and astronomy. Several times. I had significant math blocks and I seemed to constantly struggle with higher concepts in physics.

All my life, and more than anything in the world, I wanted to be an astronomer, nothing else mattered to me, yet I didn’t seem to possess the skills necessary to actually do it. For example, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I could even begin to do the math required in first semester physics. I was starting to feel desperate and depressed that I just didn’t have what it took to do the thing I loved the most: astronomy.

I also grew up reading about amazing scientists who were essentially rock stars in astronomy and physics: Einstein, Feynman, Bohr, Bethe, and Hawking. Reading their biographies made things even worse.

i remember sitting in my second semester quantum class when the realization that I would never be the kind of scientist those men were hit me. I had struggled mightily throughout my physics education, spending 20 hours per week on the problem sets alone. Nothing came easily to me in physics, I had to work HARD.

Nevertheless, I graduated with a very good grade point average and consider myself very fluent in much of what I learned as an undergraduate physics major. I also left with a very well developed ability to solve problems. I seem to possess the very handy skill of breaking a problem down into a manner that makes logical sense, to cut through to the relevant details so that time and effort isn’t wasted dealing with extraneous and unnecessary concepts.

And none of that came from a natural ability, I had to develop it from scratch. The really weird thing is that I didn’t notice ANY of this while I was in school. I was too busy doing problem sets and being depressed about not being a genius in physics. All I could think about was that I wasn’t ever going to be Richard Feynman.

I kept at it though, I worked my ass off because this was all I’ve ever wanted to do with my life. NOTHING else appealed to me. While everything was hard as hell, I was passionate about it and very interested in the ideas.

And not once did I ever meet another student who said physics was trivial or easy. Everyone I knew was working their asses off, just like me.

In fact, many, many people find this stuff hard. I’ve learned that very smart, intelligent and articulate people have to work mightily, just like I did, to understand and apply physics. I would even say that MOST people entering the field of astronomy find the work, the math, and the science non-trivial.

I’m so happy I kept at it and didn’t quit, even though I almost did several times. My perseverance has paid off in an ability to think critically, to practically and intelligently solve scientific questions (to know which questions to ask and answer), and an appreciation for the intricacies of doing science. By working hard, I have developed good work habits and attention to detail.

Another little factoid: most scientists are terrified of appearing stupid. Because of this, they don’t always understand what they think they understand. Much of the bad science I saw being done was built on assumptions founded on a lack of understanding of first principles.

I’m not afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions because I’ve learned that most of my colleagues would ask the same exact questions if they weren’t so terrified. I’m much more interested in understanding the details of someone’s research WAY more than I am about appearing stupid. The best scientists I’ve discovered, also approach understanding new ideas by examining first principles, then moving up from there.

You need a lot of confidence to approach other scientists and ask questions that may appear basic or stupid. The kind of confidence that comes from working in the trenches.

Hard work and diligence makes for a better scientist than genius. By working hard, you can make great contributions to science. You can train your brain to be smart. In fact, that’s what most of us have to do. There are very, very few natural-born geniuses in the world.

Imagine the smile that crept across my face as I read this post on Cosmic Variance about the Cult of Genius:

Yes, you have to be clever, but if you have good taste in problems, an ability to forge intellectual connections, an eye for untapped opportunities, drive, and yes, a willingness to work hard, you can have major impacts on the field.

Any and everyone considering a career in the sciences and whose ever felt completely NOT up to the task, needs to read this post immediately. I wish I had read this 10 years ago.

Doing good science is hard, but it is within the grasp of most thinking humans who want to do it badly enough. Most of us can’t just walk into a physics course and ace everything without working at it, but I’ve learned that’s a good thing.

Working hard on physics problems forces your brain to create new synapses all the while training it to break complex ideas and problems down into smaller, manageable ones. The unique approach that YOUR particular brain will take often leads to overlooked insights which sow the seeds for your particular contributions to the field.

Working hard on physics problems creates raw intelligence where none existed before. Keeping at it, working diligently, raises you IQ.

Working hard on physics problems makes you smarter just by being involved in the act of solving them.

Working hard on physics problems makes you smart period.

Everyone can become smart: train your brain, work at it, keep those synapses firing. Being smart is the best thing you can ever do for yourself.

Because when you’re smart, people need you.

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  • http://www.cfssquared.com laura


    Excellent Post!!!!

    Are you serious about comparing yourself to Feynman??? No wonder you had “smartness issues”. That’s like me comparing myself to Andre Segovia (excuese the classical guitar reference, I have to put this on my own level). Mr Segovia was the greatest classical guitarist this world has ever known. I am a good guitarist, but I will never be a Segovia. I had to let go of that ideal in order for me to be good. When I did that, I finally realized that I am fine,and that I am a really interesting musician to listen to. And it was worth it for me to continue to study. I too had issues on whether I was “smart enough” (or talented enough) to continue to have music as my career.

    I am not a scientist, but I have read some of the writngs of Mr Feynman, and will admit that I didnt understand everything he talked about. I read recently that his IQ was BELOW average. Hard to believe, I wish I could remember the source where that came from….so maybe he had some kind of savant like quality. He did lead a pretty extraordinary life. One that made for a very very interesting biography (in my opinion).

    Anyway, it seems to me that you got over it through perseverence and hard work, which is pretty much the only way to do it, and I want to congratulate you on that.

    By the way, I love your blog.

  • http://www.astronomybuff.com Tony

    I know, how crazy is that? Talk about a recipe for madness.

    The problem was, I really thought that I needed to be a genius in order to be a great scientist and to make meaningful contributions to astronomy.

    Just like the Cosmic Variancce post said, there is a culture, or ‘cult’ of genius, especially in physics, that worships genius over hard work.

    Even after I realized hard work could overcome much, I felt like I was rationalizing, giving myself a warm fuzzy so I could feel good about myself.

    Some of the best scientists I know are level-headed, clear-thinking people who could easily hold their own in a room packed with geniuses. They make damn sure they understand the basics, and that you do to when you’re talking with them.

    Your music reference is a good one, and one I can also relate to. I am learning to play Irish music, both on the whistle and the uilleann pipes, I noticed that I immediately started comparing my abilities to the best players.

    I have NO IDEA why I keep doing that, but it really gets in the way sometimes, of my enjoying myself while I’m doing the things that matter most to me.

    It’s a character flaw I guess.

    Thanks for the kind words and for commenting on my blog Laura!

  • r06u3AP

    Character flaw? Perhaps, but more likely simply the human desire to be admired and thus bolster one’s self esteem. It’s related to the fear of looking stupid.

    I agree with the idea that a person can make important contributions through hard work. I disagree emphatically with the statement that hard work is better than genius. The greatest advances in science were made by geniuses, without doubt – Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Von Neumann, Shannon, Feynman, to mention a few. I can’t recall a single instance of a paradigm-shattering epiphany being produced by sheer hard work or even a committee of hard workers. Unrewarded hard work is nearly a proverb.

    But I also agree that the more you work on something the “smarter” you become at it. Regardless of what you do, whether it’s physics or something else. That, too, is a natural function. In fact, it is so natural that our perceptions are refined to deal with the basic necessities of life to the point that those perceptions overwhelm and take priority over abstractions. And we are thus constrained by them.

    We are not at all naturally equipped to deal with the abstract principles of mathematics and physics, even the so-called “first principles”. Our natural first principles are – what we see that looks good, what we hear that sounds good, what we smell that smells good, what we taste that tastes good, what we feel that feels good.

    Which makes you wonder how geniuses do their thing. It always amuses me, though, how people deal with their resentment towards geniuses by trying to reduce them to the status of being “savants”, “nerds”, “geeks” and the like. I guess nobody likes being made to feel dumb in their presence, after all?

    Heh, heh!

  • http://www.astronomybuff.com Tony

    @r06u3AP: I didn’t say hard work and diligence was better than genius, just that it makes for a better scientist overall. I guess I’m saying balance is important. Genius, almost by definition, is not a balanced mental state.

    Working for every bit of knowledge and understanding you get trains you to remember where you came from, gives you tools to create sound science.

    You’re right that genius is responsible for some of the biggest and greatest advances in science, I would never argue against that. My point however, is that is not ALL there is to great science or to it’s advancement.

    It is too easy to think that just because you’re not a genius, that you have nothing to contribute. That thinking pervades physics and it’s simply not true.

    I have no resentment towards geniuses, quite the opposite, I am very much in awe of them. I spent my entire life being envious, not resentful.

    I need to temper that envy though and realize that there is good work to be done by anyone who cares about discovering the truth. I can’t just not contribute because I’m not a genius (wow, that’s a lot of negatives).

    It is OK and even preferable to be a scientist and not a genius. I know that sounds like a rationalization, and I don’t mean it to be, I actually think it’s true.

    But I didn’t always think that way, I wanted to be a genius.

  • r06u3AP

    And you might still prove yourself to be, Tony! You’re still a young lad, after all. And even Einstein and all the rest of ‘em made mistakes! Their minds weren’t going full-throttle-inspired-deep-insight mode ALL the time; too many distractions in life, too many red herrings, for everybody.

    BTW, you’re going to have to explain to us how they figure that they can extract repeating random CMB patterns from the already random background CMB patterns, in that “Constraining Topology” article. I’m still scratching my head over that one.

  • http://www.astronomybuff.com Tony

    Not that young I’m afraid, but thanks for the vote of confidence. Good point about the lack of balls-to-the-wall creativity mode. Most geniuses aren’t being geniuses every minute of the day.

    I’m working on that paper question. I have an email into the first author, maybe he’ll respond. I think we have the same problems with the paper.

  • http://google.com/ Marc Metayer

    This one makes sence “One’s first step in wisdom is to kuesstion everything – and one’s last is to come to terms with everything.”

  • http://scifijedi.com Shannon

    I love the idea behind this. Genius is worshiped, but for us mere mortals it does put a dent in our armour of self confidence. It wasn’t science for me, but writing that made me question myself. Reading some of my favorite authors I know I’ll never hit the mark they’ve set. My own blocks get in the way of that. As well as a lack of “genius”. I think this is such a common feeling in whatever field you persue, yet people are afraid to share it afraid to delve into their own shortcomings. That fear itself holds many back. It’s inspiring, and gratifying to know all of us grapple with these issues. We are all standing on the shoulders of these giants. And hopefully, providing a platform for the next generation to do the same.

  • jjjn

    One small quibble. The constant refrain that Feynman had a low IQ is irritating {Some have even said it’s a mere 125]. He did poorly on one test that he claimed to have deliberately sabotaged. Everything else — from his math tests to the Putnam to his entrance work to MIT suggest that he had a “conventionally” high IQ. Given the strong testimony of his colleagues and students as to his raw abilities as well as his accomplishments, it’s safe to dismiss the shaky evidence that his IQ was below that of the typical Nobelist, let alone of that of tenured professor at Caltech level establishments. So please can we either say that we have no reliable tests of his IQ or else say nothing about IQ?