The Smartest Person

The Smartest Person
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

I used to think I was pretty smart. I have lots of friends who are just as smart as me, and many who are smarter, but always the difference was a difference of degree. Until I met the Smartest Person.

When I was a child I played a computer game about the Olympics, as much as a computer game can ever be about the Olympics. You would tap “n” and “m” a lot, and the faster you hit them the faster you ran. N-m-n-m-n-m. One day the game struck a bug that made time slow down, and suddenly I could cram in a hundred taps before the game-clock passed another second. So for one afternoon I won every race and broke every record; for one afternoon I knew how it feels not just to be good at something, but so very good at it that you’re playing a different game.

I’ll never really know how the Smartest Person’s brain works, but sometimes I suspect she’s like the runner in the bugged-out game. I suspect she just has more time than I do: that’s how she answers questions before I’ve even finished asking them, why she never seems stumped by whatever I throw her way. She’s a supercomputer and I’m a plastic children’s toy, and what looks like magic is just a brain that processes faster than I can imagine.

I have to admit it: sometimes, in conversations, the Smartest Person can seem a little fake. She’s trying not to be rude – she nods and smiles and tracks – but on some level I often wonder if she’s thinking of other things. It reminds me of a preschool teacher who’s reached her limit for the day, who’s only half-listening while another small child tells another small story.

Maybe, for the Smartest Person, I’m like a child, and she’s basically given up on learning much of anything from me. She’s trying to encourage me, but it’s hard to make a response seem genuine when it’s prepped pre-emptively and waiting for deployment at suitable moments. (It's like the thing at dinner parties when someone’s telling a story and someone else is trying to guess when to laugh: they know there’s meant to be a funny bit, but they’re not sure what the teller thinks it is). And maybe that’s life for the Smartest Person; whatever I’m thinking she’s already thought it ten years ago, and she’s doing her best to guess which bits of it seem insightful to me.

Sometimes I wonder what the Smartest Person thinks of me. I don’t entirely understand why she spends time with me at all: we have mutual friends who are a good deal smarter than I am, and even if they’re not as smart as she is, surely at least they’re closer to her level?

Then I start to think about cats. Some are bigger than others, and if the cats met up they would surely notice the differences. But from our great heights they all look vaguely cat-sized; the differences don’t matter very much, since they’re all so small compared to us.

I don’t know if this is an encouraging thought. What if the Smartest Person just spends time with me because, to the smartest person, everyone in my circles is almost-equally dumb?

Growing up in the West, in the-years-I-grew-up-in, I was led to think that intelligence is not something you’re born with, that it’s all about working hard and studying well. Meeting the Smartest Person was difficult because it forced me to question whether that was true.

If you’re an academically successful person, you generally want to believe that your success came through hard work and not dumb luck at birth. I remember as a kid once getting a ride home with a classmate’s mother, and her telling her son (poor guy) that if he just read more books he would be as smart as I was. And maybe that’s a sensible thing to say because, between effort and ability, the only part you can (possibly) control is effort.

But maybe it’s sensible and also not-true.

I only met the Smartest Person when she was already an adult, and I don’t really know what she was like as a child. Maybe her brain was once like everyone else’s, and she just honed it much better than anyone else I know. But I’ll admit that, viscerally, it’s hard for me to believe that. She seems to process faster, think clearer, be sharper than anyone else I’ve ever met. If you give her a topic she’s never heard about she’ll figure it out in seconds.

It feels to me like her brain is just better.

I did ask the Smartest Person about this, eventually. She doesn’t believe that intelligence is innate; she thinks it’s entirely about applying yourself tenaciously.

There’s a scene in Good Will Hunting where the Dutch-ish mathematics professor is sitting with Good Will and trying to solve a problem. A few months earlier the professor still had something to teach the unschooled genius, but now Will can solve the hardest problem before the professor finishes reading it.

“This can’t be right”, says the professor. “Have you ever considered...”

“I’m pretty sure it’s right”, says Will.

“But did you ever think….” says the professor.

“It’s right,” says Will. “Take it home with you.”

And the room is tense, because Will is an obnoxious brat, but also because on some level the professor knows that after many hours of struggle he will eventually understand why Will was right.

And then Will sets the proof on fire.

And the professor starts to cry.

“It's just a handful of people in the world who can tell the difference between you and me,” says the professor. “But I'm one of them.”

My situation with the Smartest Person is not that extreme; there are bucketfuls of people who can tell the difference between us. But there’s many, many others who couldn’t. And what’s more, though I'm uncomfortable saying so, I think a lot of people, if they met us both, would think I was smarter. Perhaps I'm more intelligible because I'm less intelligent. The Smartest Person is so far ahead that sometimes she makes jumps no normal person would understand; sometimes I feel like I’m only just smart enough to appreciate how smart she is.

Oh wait. Maybe she’s not the smartest person, she’s just the smartest person I’m smart enough to understand.

Once I heard the Smartest Person talk about a guy she knew. “You don’t understand how smart he is,” she said, in awe. I couldn’t help laughing. To me she was the Smartest Person, but somewhere out there was her smartest person, and she simply couldn’t imagine being as smart as he is. It’s Smartest People all the way up.

Thanks to Jehan, Applied Divinity Studies and Kaamya for comments.

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