At what point did you realize the limit of your intelligence?

High school geometry. Luckily my kids got my wife’s (considerable) math ability rather than mine.

But I’m good with languages.

When I tried to do two mafia games at once, both made up of mostly the same people. Had to drop shamefacedly out of one (the offboard one).

A. I took a philosophy course in symbolic logic, which I dropped immediately in an attempt to salvage my GPA;


B. After reading Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential novel Nausea for a class, I bought Being and Nothingness and honestly believed I had a chance in hell of understanding it on my own. I was sorely mistaken.

You may notice a recurring theme. I almost was a philosophy major in college but it was too painful to keep smacking into the brick wall of my own stupidity. I like a challenge, which is why I went with Spanish literature instead of English. What I don’t like is consistently feeling like a damned idiot.


So far all I have noticed is that I am getting a little slower on the uptake.

One of my anthropology prof’s called me " a Renaissance man with out a period"…

“Does that make me pregnant with a new time?”, I asked him.

I really haven’t met my own limits yet… If something interests me, I find out about it… In depth… to the point of questioning it, if need be. My interests currently include: n-dimensional topology, articulation limits in linguistics, and the doodles of Richard feynman.

Although the self depricating comments from many of the dopers in this thread so far have been humourous, they basically belay a social discomfort with the fact that they are faster learners/retainers/creators of knowledge

Go ahead and be smarter, faster, more clever than the rest of the mutated plains apes… sheesh… its not like they are gonna be able to catch you at it!


When I started working in central government. There are some phenominally intelligent people who work here, and I’ll quite happily admit that I’m just not as bright as a lot of them. I know I’m on the right side of average and can comfortably hold my own even against a lot of the fast streamers, but working here has definitely shown me the gulf that exists between me and real brilliance.

If we’re talking pure intelligence it was when I started my post-grad degree at Cambridge Uni… some of the intellects there were frighteningly good, and were researching subjects I’d never have a hope of understanding.

Heck, I lived next-door to a chap called Prof Stephen Hawking, so if anything’s gonna highlight one’s relative lack of intelligence it’s that!!

Having said that, a lot of the cleverest people I came across were utter dicks when you spoke with them… some could barely operate in the world outside their college rooms, others had zero social skills and would struggle to hold down a relationship.

It made me realise that I’m more than happy being “pretty smart” but also having the social/emotional intelligence to enjoy the rest of what the world has to offer.

I second this.


For me, it was high school physics, high school calc. and college science. At the time, I just thought I wasn’t working hard enough at them, but looking back almost twenty years later, no, I just wasn’t as bright as I thought.

In the end, I got closure. I wound up teaching myself a little basic calculus after reteaching myself algebra. It’s interesting, but definitely not where my talents lie.

At times I think about what would have happened if I’d started math earlier in life and worked through it on my own. I like to think that I would have been a genius, but the truth is that I probably would have turned into one of those people in Wallenstein’s post, and most likely I would not even have been that good. I’m happy with what I have now. Not satisfied, mind you, but happy.

Another one who met his Waterloo at Organic Chemistry.

If that wasn’t proof enough, there was the sudden realization at roughly the same time that I simply didn’t “get” Integral Calculus, at any kind of fundamental level, and that since my major was Chemical Engineering I might want to re-think my career plans.

I switched to Molecular Biology, which to my great relief I did “get” at the fundamental level, and things got much easier.

As I have gotten older though it is certainly true that at least in the circles I move in the most succesful people are not purely the smartest. Ambition, people skills and determination count for far more (none of which are really strong points for me).

I haven’t found them yet, and don’t intend to. It would be too much work.

I am always pleasantly surprised when I grasp new concepts and their applications, or follow difficult logical constructs. When I can’t, typically the math is beyond my education, or there is a fundamental flaw in the theory or the presentation*. (I’m not saying I’m a perfect genius, just that I’m smart ‘enough’ and lazy. I suspect I just have no interest in things beyond my capabilities.)

However, I am truly humble about my ambition to learn. The breadth, depth, or both, of so many people’s knowledge astonish me. Don’t they ever read a cheap novel, or muck about in the garden, or kick back with a beer and a cheap Sci-Fi movie? Don’t they ever stop thinking and learning? Aren’t they willing to just believe something, and not have to prove it to themselves?

I once worked with a man who could answer any random question I might muse about aloud. If he didn’t know, he would have an answer the next time I saw him, and could always explain things to exactly my level of education and understanding. I wish I were that ambitious to learn, and that good with people.

  • This really isn’t as arrogant as it sounds; the sciences are full of astonishingly smart people who are astonishingly bad teachers, and in introductory courses basic concepts are often overly simplified.

I don’t recall when the exact moment was that I realized that my level of intelligence didn’t matter because it was overcome by my level of laziness and lack of interest. If I don’t have an interest in it, my intelligence (or lack thereof) becomes immaterial. Even if I do have an interest in it, sometimes my brain starts to melt when it’s overwhelmed which become more the older I get.

I try to look at new things in bites or pieces. (How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…) Still, sometimes I feel like I just cannot swallow anymore. There are simply some things I will absolutely never, ever in this lifetime, grasp. Math and everything remotely associated (including numbers) with it will never make it into my brain. However, I finally accepted that and now do not do anything without a calculator. 9 x 7? Calculator. Seriously. The stress of not knowing is so overwhelming that I will not even attempt it anymore.

I am, however, very good with communications and “reading” people.

“Specilization is for insects” Robert A. Hienlien

Many of you have commented upon the idea that although you realized at some point you couldn’t understand “everything about everything”, you also indicated that you were specialists in fields that demanded a huge general understanding to simply reach that level.

On the other hand, others of you have commented upon the idea that extraordinary level of acumen in individual skill does not gaurentee an equivelent level of emotional or social ability/intellegence.

What I note is the mutated plains apes have given us a worldwide network of direct, instantanious, interaction. Sure “they” use it for porn and goatse, but the facility it represents in the exchange and growth of thought is akin in its signifigance to the development of chipped stone tools.

The internet is not the reinvention of the printing press; it is, potentially the reinvention of writing. This essentially puts the lie to the concern of over specialization in any discipline, because if you want to find out how cryogenic super fuildity flow in liquid helium relates to self organizing systems in cloud formation, or why Larch trees formd a diatrimetric branching patterns, you can do so easily. Look at the history of chaos theory…

So… Understanding shit like this, and having grown tired of dealing with mutated plains apes obscessed with accademic dominance, I moved from the field of museum science, and now work in sales.

I am very good at it and now make about four times what I made as a museum curator.

But I am getting tired of that too… I have gathered enough bananas.


I never did due to some good luck. When I was the token “genius” in high school I tutored a few of my mates in stuff they were struggling with. It soon became apparent to me that no matter how much more slowly they picked up stuff, once I had taught them a concept they knew it as well as I did. The fact that I had understood it immediately and they had needed me to explain it didn’t matter once they had got it - they knew as much as me about it. And they all knew stuff that I didn’t know - about cars and girls and all sorts of stuff.

But I do know the limits of my interest and I think that is what most people are talking about here. A friend gave me a copy of someone’s PhD thesis to critique last week. I read a few pages and gave up. I told my friend that had I not known the guy was studying philosophy, I wouldn’t have been able to know what he was talking about, or what the subject was, or what the subject area was.

As I told the student, if some idea can’t be expressed in a way that the average intelligent person can understand it, it isn’t worth expression.

“Analytical Mechanics” - it’s was a physics class and the title of the book we used. I’m the guy that always got the top percentile in “spatial reasoning” (never knew what that meant either. I always did well in math and this class wasn’t really the toughest math there is.
Somehow it never clicked and I just watched as other sailed by me.

Some really bright people sometimes seem like dicks when they’re really not. Sometimes they seem quite arrogant, but (this is a theory of mine) I think that they’ve spent their whole lives knowing more than anyone else, and they just haven’t built up the emotional machinery to accept the idea that they might be wrong about something. I call it “The Sanjay Effect.”

I have to say I pretty much agree with this post. I don’t think for a minute that I’m the cleverest person that I know, because I can name a lot who are smarter than me. But if I put my mind to it I can understand most things given time.

I have a laziness problem, plus I dislike maths. I basically gave up doing higher maths after my physics degree and am now doing an experimental PhD in organic solar cells. This involves some organic chemistry, which I’m not keen on but am persevering with as I need to learn it to do my job (damn those pi orbitals).

String theory is another thing, I understand the principles from a non mathematical point of view, but can’t be motivated to learn the maths necessary to fully understand it. Plus I think something else will be along soon that is better (triply special relativity for example).

Freshman college Calculus. Whipped me completely. Chemistry did, too, but at I got something higher than a 65 on one of the exams.
Any conversation with a particular advisor from grad school. He is exceedingly sharp and makes me feel like a moron, but that he thinks I’m somewhat clever is a huge ego boost, but I feel painfully inferior.

Want to feel dumb? Start taking actuarial exams.

For me, it was when a friend of mine from high school wanted me to help her with a math class she was taking many years later.

Keep in mind that I was on the math team in high school and won most of the regional competitions we entered. Also, keep in mind that I didn’t just apply the formulas and go through the motions – I had a grasp of the derivations and the stuff just made sense to me.

Anyway, it was several years later, and Mary needed me to help her, so I went to her place, we had dinner, then we looked at her assignments. At that point, I realized that I could make no sense of it any more. I could vaguely remember some of it, but most of it was just hieroglyphics.

You could put that down to non-use – and I did – but it still seems like I should have been able to puzzle it out. It really hurt, too, that she needed the help and I let her down.

Now that I really think about the OP, though, maybe my first real problems with learning something came in college: optics and electromagnetic fields both were pretty difficult. Attending class might have helped that, though.*

*Note: If you’re in college, go to class. It’s no major deal to skip homework and such, but I would have been a lot better off to go to class. Not everything is in the book, and if it is, it’s boring.

It was when I realized that while I love biology, physiology, pathology, toxicology, cell biology, and all that jazz, I could never ever manage to do any meaningful research in those fields. I don’t have the spark, the insight to know what to start with. I can be a part of a team, and I’d probably make a great research assistant, but I could never ever run a lab.

Oh well. That’s why I work in a hospital lab now, instead of research. Being around those brilliant people would eventually make me feel inadequate. In this lab, all my results matter to someone’s life, and that’s important, and I feel good about what I’m doing. And I still need to be smart!