Different Is The Generator, Not A Side Effect

Disclaimer: This may be extremely obvious.

i — The Weird Problem

I’ve seen theories about why smart, genial, creative, and overall high-achieving people are often “atypical”, and even discussions praising atypicality as the capital Q ality for making great discoveries, funding companies, finding everlasting love, leading armies into battle, untying the Gordian knot, and whatnot.

Let me give some examples of this to make it more vivid:

Good discoveries, products, political parties, and such come from the union of, competition between and collaboration among diverse groups of individuals. This is why it’s important to try and foster diversity and equality in matters such as academia (as opposed to construction work or tomato-picking, where affirmative action has been notable in its lack). This is why permissive and diverse cultures end up with the best minds and inventions. This is why when you get even the first hundred women to join scientific fields in the 19th century one of them becomes the first double-noble laureate (in spite of plenty of unfair obstacles). This is why it’s important to get fresh blood into companies at the management level. People that “think different” from the current “consensus” are valuable almost intrinsically.

It’s obvious the “nerds” usually missed some social developmental milestones that their peers achieved. This is your usual socially awkward programmer or mathematician somewhere on the ASD. The explanation goes that, of course, a brain is a balancing act, and people born with skills 5-STDs towards the right in manipulating abstract symbols and rotating shapes might well have skills 2-STDs towards the left in the areas correlated with collecting STDs. This just boils down to “neurodivergence”, people that are good at <insert highly conceptual activity> are not the norm, by definition, they are odd and different, and we’d expect this to manifest in more than a single area.

This is then boiled down in a bunch of “myth of the genius” type narratives that use words like diversity, odd, weird, and different in association with things like creativity, intelligence, and achievement.

While takes like the above may not be wrong, I feel like these narratives might be missing a very obvious causal mechanism that requires no diving down into the history of genius, multi-generational GWASes, or Jungian efforts of parsing and construction socio-mystic-cultural models.

ii — Environmental Constraints Of Being Different

It seems to me that the root cause of why different/odd/weird people might excel in a variety of areas could boil down to communication.

“Being different’ starts out at a fairly early age, as an untangleable combination of randomness, genetics, and environment. It could be that you come from an extremely religiously orthodox and conservative family and attend a school in an oddly liberal and progressive part of the world. It could be that you are raised by ex-van-dwelling-hippies but attend a catholic school in a nationalist-leaning town. It might be that you are a girl in an all-boys class (or the opposite). It may be that some strange myelination patterns in the upper layers of your visual cortex cause vivid hallucinations.

At any rate, since wanting to in some way “fit in” and “be understood” is as close to a primal drive as hunger, this leads to you trying to resolve the resulting conflicts. This might manifest as trying to convey your peers’ world-view and preferences to your family (”But mooom, I can’t wear the Pastafarian hat, everyone at school will laugh at me”), or trying to motivate them to your peers. It might lead to you trying to understand your own thinking better in order to figure out “what’s wrong”, or to try and understand how other people think via conversation in order to figure out “how to do things right”.

Later, it also likely leads to more exploratory behavior for the purpose of “fitting in”. I don’t mean going to orgies and taking a sabbatical to pilgrimage Nyingma monasteries… I mean stuff as simple as literally not getting along with the first 3 kids you sit next to in the school bus, instead having to poke and prod your way until you find a social circle that accepts you.

Finally, this may manifest itself into a lot more “simulating” of the world instead of directly acting upon it. When you just “get” the context you’re in and how to act at an intuitive level, you don’t really think about it, rumination and speculation are unnecessary because the first action that comes to you is usually correct, or at least not fatally embarrassing. Or rather, the kind of “simulation” you will run will be evidence-based, treating people as black-boxes or alien agents that you don’t really “get”, whereas a normal person could just go the empathy route and think that their behavior in a given situation is mostly analogous to anyone else’s.

Again, this needn’t be the result of any of the things that made you “different”, and the definition of “different” here is as relativist as it gets, it’s entirely dependent on the environment you grow up in, rather than on any immutable traits about yourself.

iii — Weirdness Driven Learning

From these adaptation strategies, and a fairly safe assumption that practice-makes-perfect, I think it could be derived that anyone sufficiently different from their peers will become somewhat well-versed at:

  1. “Absorbing” context, knowing how to observe, ask and interpret the unwritten information permeating a given social structure.
  2. Communication in low-context environments.
  3. Openness to experience and ability to integrate foreign/weird/difficult ideas into your thinking.
  4. Abstract thinking, the kind that uses symbols and concepts rather than by just thinking “what would I do in x scenario”

Most of these traits are pretty self-perpetuating. Once you’re out of high school (1) and (2) become highly valued by many of the environments you may go into and that become sufficient to fuel their use and development. (3) is delightfully self-reinforcing, seeing odd things makes you more open to odd things. I think whether or not (4) is self-perpetuating is more subtle, but in many cases (e.g. for programmers, mathematicians, writers, and researchers) the same environmental incentives apply.

This is a rather bare-bones, hand-wavy, fuzzy model. But if the gaps could be filled in, I think it elegantly explains the unreasonable effectiveness of “atypical” people in playing society’s games and figuring out nature’s rules in a self-contained way.

It also seems to motivate failures around trying to obtain improvements by encouraging different thinking and thinkers.

Finally, it relates to the link between stress and learning, but that’s a different keg of worms I’ve tapped into before, and plan to reopen once my conceptual corkscrew is better tuned to the task.

If you enjoyed this article, consider following all of my writing on my blog.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store