The first day I showed up for work at one of the nation’s premier Think Tanks I was totally overawed. So much so that I considered not even taking the job. I would be hanging out daily with people who were extremely mentally agile, people who’d won Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Genius Fellowships, Pulitzers. These were people able to make rapid and far-flung mental connections with lightning speed and often their staccato way of communicating that information made me extremely nervous. Even though I was a member of Mensa and I’d earned the same Ph.D. degree as they did (and even had the CEO of Proquest [where all academic research dissertations go to die] personally call me up and praise my work!), I found their reputations and that manner of thinking and speaking extremely intimidating. This world, so very different than my ordinary one, triggered massive stress hormones in my body, since my own daily brain operated in a much more “Which way did he go, George?” manner.
The Color of Genius
But the people who hired me were warm and welcoming and after only a few weeks up there on top of the hill, I began to settle in. One day, one of the staff members took me aside and offered me this assurance: “One thing you’ll learn up here is – genius isn’t genius all the time.” Not only did I learn the truth of that reality, but I came to directly experience over and over that intellectual genius and emotional genius are not the same thing, and in fact, it’s quite uncommon for both to simultaneously take up residence in a single body.
Since then I’ve come to learn a little bit about the brain’s acquired ability to think fast and talk fast. I’ve also learned something about my inability to feel comfortable in the company of highly regarded academic superstars. As this recent research from Brad Hershbein at the Brookings Institute (another high-level think tank) shows, the college degree that I received is significantly different than the degree academic superstars obtain. Why? Because we each began our careers from very different starting points. Growing up poor, only state colleges and lower income majors had much realistic appeal for me. The people and the surrounding environments were what my neurophysiology felt most comfortable with.
Matching Environment to Brain Function
So, for example, I began my academic career at a small junior college in Southern California (Valley College). I easily fit in, did well and felt comfortable there. As a Junior, I transferred to UCLA. There I felt totally overwhelmed and out of place. The sheer size of the school and the large masses of people proved to be more stimulation than my brain and body could easily integrate. Constantly overstressed, my brain didn’t work well. I finally dropped out and transferred to a small state school in upstate NY (SUNY New Paltz) where I graduated with honors. For graduate school, I tried UCLA again. Again I dropped out in favor of a much smaller startup school in Silicon Valley – The California Institute for Transpersonal Psychology. Total enrollment: 38 students! Guess what. I felt totally at home. It took ten years, but I finally completed a Masters Degree and then a Ph.D.
Thinking Fast and Slow
Each of the schools I felt most at home in had very few fast thinkers or fast talkers, and those few who did show up I shied away from. When think tank fellow Daniel Kahneman published his book, Thinking Fast and Slow several years ago, you can bet I was immediately drawn to it. Here’s a passage that helped me make sense of my think tank experience: “People who are cognitively busy are more likely to make selfish choices, use sexist language, and make superficial judgments in social situations.” In shying away from fast thinkers and talkers, it turns out my brain was most likely exercising unconscious, prudent discernment.
But my exposure to fast thinkers and fast talkers inspired a number of important developments. First of all arose a desire to try and understand what made them tick. This desire inevitably led me to neuroscience. Here’s a recent brief partial explanation of how their brains work: What makes the brain tick so fast?
Meeting the Fast Talker Challenge
An inevitable challenge for me was to learn how to be comfortable around fast thinkers and fast talkers – to not end up either hyper-aroused or feeling totally shut down in their presence. That desire was the initial inspiration for developing “listening practice.” I began reading pieces by people whom I respected on the topic of skillful listening. People like Ram Dass, Joan Halifax, Rodney Smith, and Kathleen Singh. Then one day I got the idea to put them all together into an anthology, since that’s what many of the scholars at the think tank often did. And thus The Wisdom of Listening was born. And now here, 13 years later, to my great delight, it’s remains a useful, steady-selling resource for people of all sorts of thinking and talking styles.