The Curse of the Midwit

One of the worst things to be is a midwit. And I am one.

Let me explain what I mean by “midwit.” I have seen the term used many ways, and they boil down to these six points:

  1. Someone who is not as smart as the truly intelligent, but is of above-average intelligence,
  2. Who wants other people to think they are actually more intelligent than they are, so they,
  3. Ape positions and mannerisms they think intelligent people espouse, without,
  4. Doing their own research or,
  5. Amending their positions when provided with compelling contrary evidence, and most fatally,
  6. Don’t realize that they are not as smart as they think they are

Point six is the one that causes trouble. And here’s where I like to think I differ from most midwits: I always try to acknowledge when I don’t know something, which happens quite a bit.

I recently finished listening to a podcast where Dave Rubin spoke with Bret and Eric Weinstein. Now those guys are smart, on a level I could never hope to approach. One thing that struck me was not their encyclopedic knowledge of a variety of topics, but how they approached the world:

  • They fully admitted when they didn’t have enough expertise to make anything other than an educated assumption based upon what they did understand
  • They were fully aware of what they didn’t know or understand
  • They were able to articulate the opposite position of what they personally thought or believed
  • They very incredibly careful with their language
  • They thought conceptually
  • They saw the potential flaws in their own positions
  • They made connections between various disciplines, and had interests and intellectual pursuits outside of their stated, credentialed areas of expertise

Eric Weinstein said something that stuck with me. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was essentially that the idea “jack of all trades, master of none,” is both incorrect and harmful. He they said “specialist in one trade, connector of none.”

Connector of none . . . 

Wow.

One hallmark of both high intelligence and creativity is the ability to make connections between various unconnected, or seemingly unconnected, things. In business school, we discussed this aspect of linking disparate threads together to create something new.

A classmate said to me, “Alex, you’re sort of a Renaissance man.” She said this as though I were the only one in that class who had myriad interests–music, history, law, sports, religion. The whole class was full of interesting people: One guy was an inactive Marine who wood-worked and designed stuff on a 3-D printer. Another was an engineer who specialized in mining equipment that also sand and played guitar. One of my best buddies was a sound engineer who was also a technology buff, had an encyclopedic knowledge of automobile history and wine, and also was a damn good photographer. Yet another student ran her own PR firm, was a fitness instructor, and had been a top-level dancer in her home country.

It was, in short, a room full of Renaissance men and women.

“I’m either a Renaissance man or a dilettante, depending on who you ask,” I told her.

A dilettante is typically someone who dabbles in many things in an unserious manner. And quite honestly, in my life I’ve always felt somewhat scattershot. However, although it might not look it to many, I do take what I do seriously. Usually.

The Weinstein brother came across as guys who are interested in pretty much everything that life has to offer, including stuff outside of their areas of specialization. I wonder sometimes if this desire to force everyone to become a specialist is crippling us through the loss of critical skills and critical thinking skills.

In other words, maybe there is something to that hoary old idea bout a well-rounded liberal arts education.

Anyway, back to the curse of midwittery. A lot of it is driven by resentment that the midwit-in-question will never be as smart as he wants to be, or as smart as he wants other people to think they are. So there is a lot of shouting down of others, suppression of contrary evidence, and other ways to preserve the midwit’s personal identity as a smart person that the actual truth becomes a casualty.

The problem, as I see it, is that many of our systems are run by midwits.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes midwits as “Intellectuals Yet Idiots,” or IYIs. I find this quote instructive:

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited.

It’s a question of self-awareness. If you’re not that smart, or at least not a super-intellect, the best thing you can do is admit that you’re not a super-intellect and that you always have something to learn from nearly everyone.

There is no shame in this. People are not laughing at you if you don’t know everything about everything. Remember: Those with actual astronomical IQs are acutely aware of their own deficiencies in knowledge and understanding. Why shouldn’t you be, too?

After all, it’s better to be judged and get where you are based on what you actually are than be some kind of imposter.

It’s worked for me. Usually.

3 comments

  1. This was well said. I’m chuckling here, but take it from someone who is pretty darn smart. The best thing in the whole world to be is a self-aware midwit and a Renaissance man. That is like, the goal, the prime, that is what we want to see more of in the world. In my neck of the woods we would call that, “being the salt of the earth,” the people who have the most value in our culture. I sometimes like to quip about how intelligence is really nothing more than the ability to think yourself into a great deal of trouble. It isn’t wisdom, it isn’t kindness, it isn’t beauty, and it’s not what’s valuable about us as people. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the piece; thanks as always for the insightful comment!

      One word I didn’t discuss in the post that I really should have is “humility.” That seems to be the missing ingredient among so many resentful people. And I know I definitely used to be resentful of others when I was younger and fundamentally incapable of seeing my own flaws and defects in reasoning and virtue.

      There is no shame in not being THE SMARTEST or the best at whatever. We each have our own role to play in making the world better. Though small, in the aggregate, they have an effect. That’s the hope, at least.

      Like

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