Social class amongst the intellectually gifted

Some­thing that I’ve come to re­al­ize is that as a prac­ti­cal mat­ter, in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted peo­ple who haven’t de­vel­oped very strong abil­ity in a quan­ti­ta­tive sub­ject tend to be at a ma­jor dis­ad­van­tage rel­a­tive to those who have. The quan­ti­ta­tive sub­jects that I have in mind as “quan­ti­ta­tive sub­jects” are pri­mar­ily math, physics, the­o­ret­i­cal com­puter sci­ence and statis­tics, though oth­ers such as elec­tri­cal en­g­ineer­ing may qual­ify. [1]

This point is usu­ally masked over by the fact that peo­ple who don’t have very strong tech­ni­cal abil­ity are of­ten rea­son­able func­tional by the stan­dards of main­stream so­ciety, and don’t re­al­ize how far they’re fal­ling short of their ge­netic po­ten­tial. They tend to have jobs that don’t fully use their strengths, and ex­pe­rience cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance around be­ing aware on some level of far they are from uti­liz­ing their core com­pe­ten­cies.

Con­sider the fol­low­ing:

  • The Google co-founders met as com­puter sci­ence grad­u­ate stu­dents at Stan­ford. Sergei Brin dou­ble ma­jored in math and physics and was an NSF grad­u­ate fel­low. He comes from a math­e­mat­i­cal fam­ily: his father was a math pro­fes­sor at Univer­sity of Mary­land.

  • Bill Gates took Math 55 as a fresh­man at Har­vard, which is the class de­signed for the most math­e­mat­i­cally tal­ented stu­dents at Har­vard. Dur­ing his sopho­more year he did re­search which he later pub­lished a pa­per on with well known the­o­ret­i­cal com­puter sci­ence pro­fes­sor Chris­tos Pa­padimitriou.

  • James Si­mons comes close to be­ing the only elite math­e­mat­i­cian to leave academia for the busi­ness world. He founded the hedge fund Re­nais­sance Tech­nolo­gies and made ~$12.5 billion.

  • Charles Munger, the Vice-Chair­man of Berk­shire Hath­away (net worth ~$1.3 billion) of­ten quotes the maxim of the 19th cen­tury math­e­mat­i­cian Carl Gus­tav Ja­cob Ja­cobi In­vert, Always In­vert, and char­ac­ter­izes him us­ing that con­cept to solve difficult busi­ness prob­lems

I can’t give a brief jus­tifi­ca­tion for this, but I have good rea­son to be­lieve that the ~10000x+ differ­en­tial in net worth comes in large part from the peo­ple hav­ing had un­usu­ally good op­por­tu­ni­ties to con­ducive to be­com­ing very tech­ni­cally profi­cient, that re­sulted in them de­vel­op­ing trans­fer­able rea­son­ing abil­ities and hav­ing had an in­tel­lec­tu­ally elite peer group to learn from.

I know a fair num­ber of brilli­ant peo­ple who didn’t have such ad­van­tages. The situ­a­tion ac­tu­ally seems to me like one in which amongst in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted peo­ple, there’s an “up­per­class” of peo­ple who had op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­velop very strong tech­ni­cal abil­ity and an “un­der­class” of peo­ple who who could have de­vel­oped them un­der more fa­vor­able en­vi­ron­men­tal cir­cum­stances, but haven’t. Many in­tel­lec­tu­ally gifted peo­ple who didn’t have the chance to de­velop the abil­ities mis­tak­enly be­lieve that they lack the in­nate abil­ity to do so. And peo­ple who did have the op­por­tu­ni­ties to de­velop them of­ten look down on those who didn’t, un­aware of how much of their own rel­a­tive suc­cess is due to hav­ing had en­vi­ron­men­tal ad­van­tages ear­lier in their lives.


[1] James Miller points out that grad­u­ates of elite law schools may have analo­gous ad­van­tages – that’s a pop­u­la­tion that I haven’t had ex­po­sure to.