22 February 2021

There is Always Someone Smarter – Some Lessons on Self-Comparison


The IQ Test

            As a 12-year-old living in Bakersfield California, I was sent by my Catholic mother to Garces Junior High. Unbeknownst to my parents, the administrators gave all incoming young men an IQ test. There was not room for all 80+ of us in one classroom, so it was made clear to us that the “dummies” would be sent to the “other” classroom. Those of us not included in that group were initially organized in seating according to the IQ results. There were six rows with seven desk-chairs in each. I was initially ranked #2. I didn’t know much, but thought this was sort of cool. The one guy with the same or higher score was named Kenny Larkin, and we became friends. Like me, he hated sports. Unlike him, however, I could outrun everyone else among all 80 young men – except one. This was because as a poor kid I had only a broken-down bike to get from home to school and back. The whole way home, every day, was uphill. And the bike only had a 3rd gear – so I had over-developed leg muscles.

            We were strictly segregated at Garces from the young women, who were taught by another monastic group, this one comprised of black-veiled nuns. We rarely saw any of the girls, and only at a distance. The Christian Brothers were a non-priestly monastic organization running the boys’ side of the school. My mom and stepfather were shocked to learn from me about several horrifically savage beatings* that Brother Gerald and Brother Remy inflicted on us boys. Mindful of this, and of that IQ test, my new stepfather cajoled my Mom over a year and a half into letting me attend a public high school, Bakersfield High. He knew this school also had a nascent version of AP classes called the “0.5 program.” Every class was numbered, like English 9.4 for freshman college prep, English 9.3 for kids expected to go into business or auto-mechanics, and English 9.1 for special ed. English 9.5 was the much harder class intended for the smarties in the school. I learned it was designed to encourage talent. It is the reason I ended up attending the University of California at Berkeley and, ultimately, earning a PhD. 

* My best friend in elementary and junior high was Marcus Espitia, whose father was Mexican and whose mother was African American. We had defended each other against bullies in Saint Joseph elementary school for years, and started Garces together. One day in seventh grade Brother Gerald was pacing back and forth in front of the class, declining Latin nouns out loud from a book he held. Brother Gerald was a huge man – 240 lbs./110 kg. My friend Marcus had lifted the lid of his desk above where his books were kept, blocking Brother Gerald’s view. From there he was shooting spitballs at the guy sitting across the aisle from him. I watched as Brother Gerald slipped down into that aisle without changing his monotonous repetition. Suddenly he leaned hard on the top of Marcus’ desk, trapping his head inside the desk, cutting off his air. I can still vividly recall Marcus’ arms and legs thrashing around, his head locked in the desk as he tried to free it. Then – still intoning the Latin – Brother Gerald lifted the lid with the hand holding the book, and with his open right hand hit Marcus in the side of the face so hard it physically lifted him out of his seat. Marcus hit the adjacent wall, then slid to the ground, stunned. Still droning on, Brother Gerald proceeded to pick up each book in the desk and throw it – as hard as he could – at Marcus’s face. One. Two. Three. Four. Marcus finally got up off the floor and ran to the door to escape… with books bouncing off him several times before he reached it and exited. Brother Gerald then strolled back to the front of the class and continued reading out the Latin declinations to us – without any vocal interruption through this entire process.

            We all just sat there, frozen in our seats.

            Through much of the rest of my life, however, I wondered about what this IQ partitioning did to all of those boys mentally? Especially, what did it do to those left in the “dummies” class?


“Old 160”

            Fast forward a decade and a half. I had a PhD and was traveling for work with the US Geological Survey. I’d just finished a training course in science management in Monterey, CA, and on my way home to my family in Virginia I stopped in Long Beach to see my sister. Barb had arranged for a float plane to pick me up and take me to Santa Catalina Island off the coast. She was on a 32-ft sailboat with her boyfriend, surnamed Rogers. My mother had warned me that “Rog” was a successful attorney and proud of the fact that his IQ was tested at 160. He boasted of this frequently enough that Mom referred to him as “Old 160.” The amphibious plane landed in Catalina Harbor and Barb met me at the dock. She took me and my suitcase to an inflatable Zodiac and drove me out to the sailboat. For the next two days we motored around the island while Barb and Rog dived for “bugs” – illegally harvested lobsters. My job was to stand at the side of the boat to receive the grab-bag as they would bring one up every so often. We raised sails only for the traverse back to Santa Barbara at the end of the trip. Rog seemed to be probing me – and watching me closely – the entire time; I sensed a weird vibe but didn’t know what to do about it except answer his questions. I later gathered two things from Barb: (1) She and Rog had already decided to part company as a couple, and (2) Rog had somehow gotten the impression that I was super smart. A PhD does seem to fool some people. He also understood that I was an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ – and he had difficulty reconciling these things. Finally, as we were docking back in Santa Barbara, Rog looked over to me and said this: “Jeff, I admire you. In 30 years, I will be a lonely alcoholic, surviving until I die on this very boat – if I’m lucky. You, on the other hand, will be happy and surrounded by grandchildren.”

            The lesson here seems obvious to me, as it was to Rog.


3-D Chess

            My first three years in the US Geological Survey were spent in the Denver field office. I was part of three geophysics branches of the USGS, all centered in rented office space on Colfax Avenue. I was the last young PhD hired in a huge hiring spurt that lasted from 1971 to 1975. One of those other newly minted PhDs I will call Gary. Gary was super smart, and made sure that everyone knew it. After three years in Denver, I was invited to move to the USGS National Center in northern Virginia, to become a deputy science office chief. This apparently led several of my former colleagues to feel jealous. (I was na├»ve enough that I didn’t learn this until later.) Once, while I was back in Denver for a technical meeting, Gary invited me over to his house for dinner, and I accepted. As soon as dinner was over, he pulled out an interesting game – a 3-D form of chess. Gary’s wife immediately started to complain to him about mistreating his guest (this must have happened before). The game had multiple vertical levels and different pieces than traditional chess, with different movement rules – which he quickly explained to me, the novice. One could move a piece horizontally, vertically, and on diagonals. “Let’s play,” said Gary. His wife again told him that this was inappropriate, but Gary insisted. After about 30 minutes, I said “I think that’s checkmate.” Gary stared at the boards for almost 20 seconds. Then he stared at me, without saying a word. I felt increasingly uncomfortable, and suggested that I should leave because I had an early technical meeting the next morning. Gary, wordlessly but still staring at me, just walked me to the door. I was never invited to dinner there again. I learned later that he and his wife divorced soon after.

            But here’s the thing: I’m not smart enough to beat anyone at chess. My high-school best friend once beat me at chess 24 games in a row. However, this time I had help in the form of inspiration, guidance that I listened to and followed. After no contact for ~20 years I learned that Gary had retired because he had developed Parkinson’s Disease. I called to express my concern and sympathy, and we talked for a long while. Our earlier friendship was renewed with just that call. Gary was a humbler person, and I hope I was also.


“This Man is GUILELESS!

            In 2002 I received two phone calls at my office in the USGS National Center. By this time, I had returned from two mission chief assignments in Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. Both calls were from colleagues to notify me that the position for chief scientist for volcano hazards had opened up. “You should apply for this,” both told me. I talked with Louise, who was working on Capitol Hill at the time, and whose work-week-with-commute was 63 hours (we counted them). “By all means,” she said. It would require relocating to the Pacific Northwest, but we had visited Washington State during our obligatory, State-Department-required Home Leave from Saudi Arabia years earlier – and we both loved it. I applied… and then forgot about it. Two months later the selecting official suddenly called, said he was in Reston, and wanted to interview me. What I thought would be a 15-minute conversation lasted more than two hours. He said that quite a few people had applied, and the list had been whittled down to just three short-list applicants. A week later I got a call telling me that I was selected. I called Louise. “By all means,” she answered. There followed a horrific six weeks, where I had to wind down four separate research projects, pack up an office and a laboratory, prepare and sell our house in Virginia, find a house in Washington, and move with one of our sons and several birds across the continent… while the DC Shooter was still at large. (He was caught, just 7 miles from our daughter’s house, when we were passing through Indiana.)

            There were two other applicants for that job, however. One was selected later for another management position in Denver. The other had been the chief of a science team in the National Center, but had left that position under mysterious circumstances. He was later selected to be the volcano program coordinator. One of my senior scientists, who knew him well, remarked that this new program coordinator was the smartest man he (Carl) had ever encountered. At the time the USGS was experimenting with a misbegotten thing called “matrix management.” In this system I had line authority over about 120 scientists and support staff – but the program coordinator held the purse-strings, and had a say in how the financial allocations were spent. The Golden Rule is “Him what got the gold, rules.” Initially we worked together equably enough, but he apparently decided that I didn’t have enough smarts for the chief scientist job. He decided this because I would not follow Machiavelli’s “The Prince” as my guiding management philosophy. I’m not joking here – that really was the issue.

            So… why had I been selected over him for the chief scientist position? He began to try to manage behind my back, confusing the heck out of everyone in my office. I confronted him several times, and he would back off with some excuse like “I’m just trying to help you!” I tried hard to think the best of him, and went out of my way to be open with all my information. At one program council meeting I passed something to him privately. He stared at me, then turning to the rest of the people present said in a loud voice and with a nasty smile, “This man is guileless!” He did not mean it as a compliment. As I thought about this, however, I concluded that I would not want to be any other kind of man. Machiavellian game-playing at other people’s expense is not something I would ever want for my legacy. To do nasty things – like force people into directed reassignment moves to drive them out of the USGS just to make a point – was something he recommended. “If they don’t fear you, they won’t obey you,” he told me several times. I’m not making this up.

            Eventually I talked with my own senior executive supervisor, as this was causing increasingly serious confusion among my staff. They were getting orders from the program coordinator to stop whatever they were doing, and do a task for him… without bothering to notify either me or my subordinate scientists-in-charge. I was surprised to learn that my senior executive manager knew all sorts of interesting things about this program coordinator – like, why he had been forced out of that chief scientist job earlier. Eventually, with the intervention of several senior executive managers, rules governing and limiting the program coordinator’s behavior were written and signed – to his transparent chagrin. Interestingly, and only surprising because it took so long, a few years later the USGS abandoned matrix management as “unworkable.”

            The program coordinator by this time found himself “glass-ceilinged” – he had been forced out as a chief scientist by misbehavior once before, and now was being spanked by senior executives again. He was fearful of rotating back to a scientist position, certain that people he had abused before would want to get even with him. (He was right – I got quite an earful after he left.) The man left the USGS for a dean position at a small distant university. On the last day we were together, he sat across from me at the conference table in my office to discuss some funding issue. As he was preparing to leave, I mentioned to him that I was resigning my chief scientist position and returning to research; I didn’t say why. We both knew that my job was a rotational management position, and that I had done my five years of 55-84-hour weeks; Louise had repeatedly suggested to me that I might want to consider getting a life for a change. He stared at me for a full half-minute, trying to fathom what I meant by this – what was the strategic move I was pulling here? Finally, as someone who had coveted my position for five years, and thinking I was somehow "gaming" him, he ground out, “Why are you telling me this?” I responded, “Professional courtesy, I suppose.” He stared at me icily for another very long time, then without another word put his notepad in his briefcase and walked out. I never saw him again.

            This man was extremely intelligent. But he based his personal management style, the way he dealt with other human beings, on all the wrong principles. I won the years-long management fight with him, but not because I was smarter than he was. Many people had ferociously negative opinions of him as a manager and as a human being. I just happened to be the last one in a long line of people he had tried (and often succeeded) to hurt.


Where is this Going?

            Several times during my initial years with the USGS, Louise’s brother told her I must be secretly working for the CIA, because, he said, a job requiring me to travel all over Saudi Arabia, Europe, the Far East, Australia, and South America – was the perfect cover for a spy. When other people have asked me if I’m a spy, I’ve just said no. Because I’ve never been one.

            There is some reasonable basis for this thought, however. Once in Saudi Arabia a non-descript man walked into my office, flashed his US Consulate badge at me, and asked if he could ask me some questions. “Sure,” I said.

            “We have heard rumors that there was a gun-battle in Hail, in the central Arabian Peninsula. My colleagues and I cannot find meaningful information about this, but we are aware that you travel all over the country for your work. Have you heard anything?” In fact, I had – two of my staff who came from Hail told me that the ‘Amir’s office there was abandoned and covered with bullet holes. He took notes and thanked me – and did not leave a business card.

            Something like this happened to me when I first got to Venezuela. The ambassador at the time told me that a person on his staff wanted to talk to me. Again, a very nondescript individual came into the ambassador’s office. He said that he understood that I would be traveling all over Venezuela in my job as USGS mission chief, leading the mapping project for the jungle-covered, roadless southern half of the country. He reminded me that there are "alcabalas" – Guardia Nacional checkpoints – on all roads between major cities in Venezuela. As diplomats, they did not have paperwork that would get them through those checkpoints. One had to have a reason to pass through them, especially a non-Venezuelan. “Yes, this is correct,” I replied. “Would you please take photos of roads and bridges and checkpoints in your travels, and share them with us?” he asked. I stared at him. Sure, I thought – poison the trust that our host agency, the C.V.G., had for the US Geological Survey? Huh. No, I said. And, BTW, I never saw that man again. He was not a bad man, of course – just trying to do a job.

            A year later, after we had seen several deaths up-close in both Puerto Ordaz and the jungle, as well as having had a number of close calls, a USGS colleague in the USGS National Center sent down several programable “Fly-Away” HF radio transceivers. I had no idea at that time how to use them. I asked around in the embassy in Caracas, where I picked the units up (Venezuelan postal service being so corrupt) and was told to go to the offices of the “Political Section.” However, it was made clear to me that I should go the Political Section offices on the sixth floor, not the fifth floor (which is behind a gold-leaf-lettered, fancy glass door). The Economics Section that I was vetted to (I was a formal State Department employee with Ambassador-grade of FS-12 during the three years I was there) was on the fourth floor, and the Commerce Section was in the third. I took the elevator to the sixth floor, and when it opened, I found myself facing only a blank wall with a steel door in it. The door handle had a cipher lock. A man came out, said he understood I needed some help with a radio, and took me downstairs to the secluded little park on the embassy grounds. After looking around carefully, he showed me how to set up an HF antenna, and how to program a frequency into the 25-kg radio. He then gave me a small, torn piece of paper, with a 10-meter-band frequency penciled in on it, and told me to call him at that frequency when I got home. I flew home to Puerto Ordaz, 700 km away, and set up the radio on my apartment terrace. I called the frequency he had given me, and he answered. “Okay, it works. Please lose that piece of paper now. Good luck in the jungle.” And then he hung up. I never learned his name. He took a personal risk to help another human being who was at serious risk working in the jungle.

            So, OK, I’m not CIA, as I’ll tell anyone. However, I do not tell anyone (except Louise) what my IQ is. I got that number from a high school counselor’s folder with my name on it as she discussed potential scholarships with me. I’ve given lectures at annual MENSA meetings, but no, I am not a member of MENSA. And here’s the thing: that IQ number is not important. My wealth is not important. Comparing yourself to another person – read those stories above – leads to nothing good. There is always someone smarter than you, someone wealthier than you. Just try to do good things for other people; compete with yourself if that floats your boat. If you live your life right, you will do just fine when you are forced to go toe-to-toe against the guys who think they are smarter, or better, or tougher.

            You don’t need to buy into their problem.

            And 100 years from now, it won’t matter anyway.