Just Because You’re Good At Something Doesn’t Mean You Can Be A Dick

Boys of all ages, including over-grown ones, often mistake technical abilities for the whole of intelligence. Possessing specialized information and narrow analytical skills, like playing complicated guitar riffs, building a tricked-out sports car, or humiliating an opponent in a vicious political debate, are perhaps the weakest measure of how “smart” a person may be.

No, technical skill, too often practiced selfishly and blindly, is not the whole of intelligence. Getting along with other people is the greater measure.

At most, activities like these require opportunity and labor: first you see someone else shred on his guitar, then you get your own an axe and practice, practice, practice. Exposure, time, and effort: these are the requirements of becoming deeply knowledgeable and highly skilled in the technical sense.

Some may argue that “talent” is important too. Far less so than opportunity and labor, I would argue. Certainly, people have natural strengths. Some guys have an easier time throwing a football or solving math problems, for instance. But imagining that “talent” exempts you from doing the work that others require for mastery is a boyish mistake.

You can coast on talent no further than high school, at most. There and beyond, you will encounter people with little natural talent who nonetheless work harder than you, and they will achieve more as a result. You will also encounter people with talent and a willingness to toil. They will develop their natural abilities far beyond the raw state of yours, unless you get crackin’ too.

You can coast on talent no further than high school, at most.

Learning how to work through tasks that do not come easily, persevering through the discomfort of your initial fumblings and failures, is even more predictive of success in the long term. No one has the luxury of confronting only the tasks that came to him naturally as a child throughout the rest of his life.

Boys of all ages desperately want to become top-level technicians. At the deepest level, our genes probably have something to do with this desire. Displays of skill that exceed what is simply necessary for day-to-day survival — you don’t need a tricked-out sports car to drive to the grocery store, for example– may provide important information to females about the male brains that perform them.

In other words, males concerned with technical prowess impress females who are evaluating potential mates for their brains as much as their brawn. Technical ability helps sort out the male hierarchy among the dudes themselves and the ladies eyeballing them. These genetic drives may operate without our being aware of them consciously.

And here things may go terribly wrong: males obsessed with demonstrating their technical powers to the world may do so in horrible ways. They become eager to belittle others, especially publicly:

“You don’t know anything! You suck at this!”

Threats or actual violence may follow. They do not question the rightness of their actions; “I’m the best” is all that matters. This kind of thinking is common in certain sectors of the business world, for instance, where climbing the ladder means stepping on the hands of those below, whether they be colleagues or customers.

The foulest historical example perhaps comes from Nazi Germany, where a long tradition of excellence in mechanical and civil engineering warped itself into the most efficient death camps for Jews, homosexuals, and other “undesirables.”

No, technical skill, too often practiced selfishly and blindly, is not the whole of intelligence. Getting along with other people is the greater measure. Learning to examine one’s own thoughts and feelings carefully, to communicate them effectively, to empathize with others, to compromise and collaborate — all of the skills mistakenly dismissed by boys, especially the most technically skilled, as “gay” or “for girls” — are essential for a happy and healthy life within a community of fellow humans.

Developing these abilities is far more difficult than mastering the electric guitar, or building a sports car, or crushing your opponent in an argument. In addition to expending your own time and effort in pursuit of your own desires, you must engage with the differing minds and needs of other people. Doing so does not make you less smart or less of a man; it is the only activity that gives you claim to either term.

About Tait Colberg

Tait Colberg teaches language, history, and art at a small, progressive middle and high school in Washington, DC. He's been drawing pictures and riding a skateboard forever, giving rise to his book The Skateboarding Art. He is regularly appalled at the state of the American male, himself most of all.

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