Crazy Is Better Than Stupid

Something I’ve observed in the corporate world is that most people lose intelligence and creativity after 5 to 10 years. Sometimes they burn out even faster. The flame goes out; a robot stands where a person once was.

A few of us don’t go that way; we’re the rebellious ones who refuse to turn stupid. We rarely rise up the ranks. On the contrary, our self-protection often gets us disliked, excluded, and even fired.

This midlife cognitive decline is far from inevitable; it’s not biological. Our society romanticizes youth and exception, as if it were the norm to know everything at 25, but people who surround themselves with intelligent company, who continue to read and learn, and who find opportunities meaningful contribution to the world around them, will continue to grow, quite late in life. It’s true that Keats and Galois peaked young; they also died young. The norm is to peak after 40, even in mathematics, which is notable (more in romance than truth) for its early blossoming. Writers, on average, seem to peak after 50. Some of the great ones started after 50.

In other words, people who specialize at getting smart continue to get smarter as they grow older. People who specialize in climbing organizational ladders were probably the smartest when they were in school.

My suspicion is that the midlife cognitive decline one observes in Corporate America is, in addition, a low-grade and otherwise subclinical variety of depression. Is it the severe depression that requires electroconvulsive therapy and leads to catatonia and literal bed-shitting? No, of course not. It’s a rational adaptation to defeat. Though I imagine that major depression was always pathological, its milder cousin might be an adaptive, life-preserving response to transient low social status. Archaeological evidence and present-day observation suggest that violence related to social status killed about 1-in-5 adult men in the primitive world. Mild depression would keep one out of conflict. That dimming and shutting down saved lives. Is it useful now? I doubt it. It seems to have left us with a sleepy, bored, corporate-dominated society that can barely keep its own lights on.

In the business world, we see midlife cognitive decline both among the vast majority who lose, but we also in the small number of winners. Power gets to them and, though it has different effects, it seems just as capable of rendering formerly smart people stupid.

The rebels stay smart. The people who recognize the corporate game as pointless bullshit, who know that even if they get rich it’ll come with a sacrifice of identity that’s hardly worth it because the part of the person that matters will have died, they’re the ones who hit 30, 45, 60, and can still hold an interesting conversation. They’re not immune to depression, but they seem built to fight it. They don’t get stupid. Morose? Yeah. Anxious? Sure. Miserable? Sometimes.

If these rebels speak out, they’ll be labelled crazy. I shan’t unpack that word, nor shall I discuss mental illness and how poorly most people understand what it is and is not. There isn’t time for that, today. The accusation of craziness hurts us, not because we are insecure about our mental health, but because we are moralistic and self-critical, and our negative experiences pile on– that is the essence of any fight, and rebellion is no exception– and this causes a divergence between what we want to be and what we are.

We aren’t, in general, crazy. I’ll talk about that some other time. If we were, though, it’d still be better than turning stupid.


5 thoughts on “Crazy Is Better Than Stupid

  1. Ok, so say you left a corporate job about 4 years ago to do consulting. Suddenly, you start programming for the fun of it. Suddenly, you don’t punch tickets, you don’t have to give status updates, you don’t have to show up, you don’t have to listen to vicious gossip, you don’t have to “deliver”. Really, your only focus is to keep your clients happy, which is not easy, but much easier than having to satisfy your clients, your boss, your soulless coworkers, their boss, HR, etc. Suddenly, you have a burst of energy that you can put into your work. You get your soul back, because what “soul” is, I think, is the ability to focus your energy on a finite number of things.

    Soon, you have some serious projects under your belt, you have a github repo, you contribute to OS projects, you’re at maximum creativity. But you decide to sniff around the job market again.

    You get on the phone with some insecure 24-year-old, you tell him about the things you built, the things that are being used, and he dings you for saying “uh” too many times when you reverse a linked list. Ok, so he’s an asshole. But then it happens again, and again, and again. You’re too old, you’re too creative, too smart, too not normal, too mathematical, too this, too that. They’re reacting to you logically – they’re not any of these things, and they know you will be in conflict with everyone else. You’ve earned your “soul” but lost any semblance of a career and you face the very real possibility of being poor for the rest of your life.

    What do you do?

  2. Convergence to mediocrity is the price of having a social life. Social networks search homeostasis: if a member is below the norm they push him up (the ex homeless bourgeois trope) , if one is above they pull him down (the crazy inventor). Would two standard deviations suffice to describe the problem?

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