***Note that a few details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Sometimes great wisdom comes easily, when we put little effort into it. I seek and seek, through travels, research, and deep discussion with people of all kinds. This can be exhilarating. And yet, fairly often, wonderful insights come when I’m not even pursuing them… when I’m having a lazy day, not putting much energy in or consciously seeking any great prize.
Just last week, I was kind of bumming around my apartment, rolling a little ball across my table and watching it spin, when I should have been grading papers. I was in a sluggish, unproductive state. Rather than taking my usual long walk before lunch, I felt drawn to the Chinese restaurant right in my building. So I headed down there, feeling a bit guilty that I wasn’t taking a walk even though the day was bright and I had the time. I tried something new: the sautéed Shanghai greens lunch special, with fried rice and a spring roll. It was delicious, and only $8.50. I had never tried the Shanghai greens, and that restaurant had been there for years. It had just never called to me before. I had a small but delightful adventure, despite my seeming inertia, which happens fairly often.
But, though food is generally the centerpiece of my day and virtually always the centerpiece of my life, something even more exciting happened at that restaurant. My fortune cookie came, and, when I pulled out my fortune, I smiled, then laughed, then put it carefully in my wallet to consider again when I was feeling more productive. “People are not persuaded by what we say but rather by what they understand,” the little rectangular piece of paper said.
My immediate reaction was simple, easy resonance: Yes! That’s it! I almost felt like crying; that’s how strongly it hit me.
This is an issue I’ve frequently considered. Fairly often, I’ll publish a piece of writing and get responses that feel bizarre to me, because readers took something from it that I never intended or even thought of. People read emotions into the pieces that have no relationship to what I actually felt as I was writing. I can see how that might happen. We bring our own emotions into everything we face, whether through reading or through in-the-flesh experience. In a way, it’s glorious to consider that something I write in one emotional state could inspire someone else to feel something entirely different. It’s an unintended collaboration: a symphony combining my words and someone else’s perceptions and feelings.
Sometimes, though, it’s more of a horrific clang than a symphony. A reader takes something I never intended — or even remotely considered — from my words…. and anger or stress results. About a month ago, someone was sure an essay of mine was talking about a birthday dinner that happened over a decade ago. The essay never mentioned anything about a birthday dinner, and I was not even thinking about this dinner when I was writing. The conversation I wrote about happened with a small group at a café, not at a birthday celebration. I changed details so no one would have known who was involved… except the people who were there, if they happened to recognize their own words. And yet, somehow, this reader was sure I had written about a birthday dinner that, frankly, had made very little long-term impression on me.
And, OK, misunderstandings happen all the time. The problem here was that the misunderstanding caused great dissension. My writing about the birthday dinner caused an interpersonal uproar, even though, as far as I saw it, I never even wrote about this event. Someone else understood that I had written about it, and that was all that mattered for this interaction.
Some people write mainly for themselves: to remind themselves of thoughts or feelings they had at various times, or to hone their creativity as a private exercise. They don’t have to worry about communication. If their writing makes sense to them, they are all set.
Once writers shoot for communication with other people, their concerns and risks skyrocket. They have to make sense within other minds, other ways of understanding, other levels and habits of processing information and emotion. If I write about the color green and someone reads a story about 17 clowns into it, I have to ask why this story jumped out to this reader…. even if, as far as I’m concerned, not one word I wrote had anything to do with clowns.
That example may sound crazy, but I find again and again that each mind is a separate universe… and each mental universe processes the same piece of writing in a unique way. I try to be at peace with my writing inspiring reactions that I never intended, but that can be tricky when interpersonal stress or deep misconstruing of my intentions results from something I’ve written.
So what can a writer do to maximize odds of communication with readers? I happen to know several people with extremely precocious children — or who were extremely precocious themselves as kids — and the social problems they’ve sometimes faced seem relevant here. Many people assume that intelligence and odds of standard success in the larger world are correlated in an easy, perfect way. The more intelligent you are, the higher your odds of understanding the world and manipulating your surroundings in ways that serve you well.
But, in fact, many argue that this isn’t quite how it works. In circles focusing on intellectually gifted people’s lives, the term “socially optimal intelligence” sometimes comes up. Of course, there is no agreement on what, exactly, constitutes intelligence, but, as with so many situations, we’ll have to do the best we can to think about these questions while realizing that different people will have different conceptions. The central idea is that, up to a certain point, the brighter the better, but people with extraordinarily rare levels of intelligence typically have trouble relating to their peers. Despite their deep, nuanced take on many issues, their ideas tend not to take hold among influential circles in the world at large. They don’t tend to wind up in leadership positions in business, politics, or other powerful fields… which are often dominated by people who are brighter than average, but not intellectually extraordinary.
In other words, the very highest levels of intelligence are often not socially optimal. The ideal range for social and career success tends to be a bit lower. If we could take a random sample of 10,000 people and rank their pure intellectual ability, the very most intelligent person is likely not to relate easily to most of the others. Meanwhile, numbers 50-1000 from the top might make perfect leaders: other people are impressed with their mental quickness and ability to understand issues, but their thoughts and ways of communicating are not radically different from more average people’s tendencies.
Why do those with the very highest levels of pure intellectual ability tend to lack broad influence? The question is complex, but surely part of it stems from an inability to communicate with and relate to most people out there. No matter how useful your ideas are, if they’re too complex for most of us to grasp, you won’t touch us or get us to alter our current ways of thinking. If your thoughts in an essay are groping towards a philosophy of the fifth dimension but most readers can’t begin even to try to understand what you mean, you have not shared your thoughts widely.
The most socially successful among the extraordinarily intelligent seem to have honed one vital skill: communicating with minds that work in radically different ways from their own. They may be holding 10 strands of thought at once, but they understand that most cannot follow that level of complexity, so they simplify their ideas when they speak or write. Some parents complain when their incredibly bright children simplify their thoughts to get along with their peers, saying that they’re hiding essential aspects of their minds in order to fit in. But, on some level, this seems necessary if they want their intellectual talents to have any impact on their classmates and friends. For a thought to influence someone effectively, it must be understood.
The daunting challenge these super bright minds face is similar, in some ways, to the one all writers face, even those of us who are not shockingly intelligent based on typical measures. Each one of us has unique expertise and insight when it comes to our own minds. I know the contours of my own thought process, and you know the contours of yours. If we each want to share something fundamental about our minds with each other through our writing, we need to be careful. We need to ask whether the words on the page will truly convey what we’re thinking to someone who is not us, and whose thought process almost surely differs radically from ours.
I teach college classes that include a lot of writing, and I often remind my students to do this before handing in final versions of their work. Before any due date, I ask them to share their work with classmates to get advice, and the need to make sure they are communicating with minds other than their own is key among the reasons for this requirement. I also request that they read their own work over with the goal of reaching out to minds that work differently from their own. With each sentence, writers should ask themselves: “Would someone other than me understand this idea and take from it something along the lines of my intentions?”
This advice applies to speech as well, though of course, few, if any of us consider our spoken words before uttering them as carefully as many consider their written words before putting them out into the world. I’m a fan of free, open speech that allows people to get to know each other easily. At the same time, it’s good to consider our words for just a bit before speaking, to be sure they won’t be misconstrued. I’d say at least 60% of my interpersonal problems have stemmed from misconstrued words: someone misunderstood someone else’s intended meaning or message.
I’m often a bit careless with my spoken words, but I’m working towards improvement there. In writing, despite my efforts to communicate with all kinds of minds, misunderstanding happens far more often than I’d like. Sometimes, unintended interpretations are glorious. Someone is galvanized and feels a thrill from a poem that I saw as depressing. Someone else takes great spiritual energy from an essay that I wrote while in the midst of spiritual lethargy.
Occasionally, misunderstanding leads to disaster: anger, fighting, etc. I suppose I need to accept this as well. When you create something and put it out into the world, you can’t control everything that stems from this act. Millions of people roam this earth. One of them is you. One other of them is me. The others out there span a mind-blowing diversity of opinion, psychological state, intellectual tendencies and abilities, and life experiences. We should take great care when sharing our thoughts far beyond our intimate circles. We should also let our thoughts go with a sense of excitement and mystery, ready to see what will happen when others engage with them. It may not all be good, but, when viewed from a vantage point of openness and curiosity, it’s all fascinating.
My current plan with published writing is to try as hard as I can to communicate what I want with readers before sending something into the world. And then, once it’s sent… sit back and watch the show, accepting and learning from it, even when the drama gets rough. I can’t control everything, but I can always keep my mind open to growing, exploring, and paying attention to whatever might be happening, gleaning lessons and mental adventures along the way.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.