Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Sometimes I get triggered by certain phrases that other people take for granted and use almost on a daily basis. For example, my toes curl whenever I hear someone using the phrase “Oh he / she is very bright!” Why is this?

Those who know me will know that I have a creative side. I’ve been playing guitar for 54 years and have been told that I can hold a tune. But those same people will also know that I can also be quite pedantic in my thinking. So please indulge me in some pedantic, but simple and logical thinking.

One of the implications of suggesting that someone is “bright” is that other people must be “not so bright” – that there is a single, meaningful “brightness” scale against each one of us can be compared. If we have what it takes, we might be considered “bright”. But if we fail to make the grade, we must resign ourselves to lower abilities and expectations. I suspect that most of us have met people who we have judged to behave stupidly. In fact if we have learned anything at all in our lives, we must all have taken risks, made mistakes and, at times, acted stupidly.

At school, I was regarded as exceptionally “bright”. I grew up in a world in which I believed you could make pretty much anything. I could draw in 3D perspective at the age of five. I built my first radio and fixed our families TV at the age of 10.  And by 13, I was designing and building illegal short wave radio transmitters. At 16 I came within a gnat’s whisker of being expelled from grammar school after discovering how to make powerful explosives using simple household ingredients. Many of my school-friends and I were astonished at the sheer magnificence of the mushroom cloud which rose slowly and majestically above the school playing field and was directly responsible for me getting caught. I’ll never forget witnessing the bulldog deputy head Dicky Durant exploding at me in purple faced rage during a French lesson. He had worked in a munitions factory during the second world war and had good reasons to be extremely angry with me. Less impressive were the painful burns and blistered skin that I endured after spectacularly disposing of the remaining explosive materials. (Well it would have been such a waste to flush them down the loo, wouldn’t it?) I am quite sure that if I did now what I did in back in 1972, I would be arrested and charged with some terrorism offence. Was I “bright” or simply autistic? You decide.

So what’s the real problem here?

The problem is that I do not ever find it constructive or useful to think of people that I meet in terms of whether they are “bright” or “dim” (or whatever, by implication, you consider to be the opposite of “bright”). In my work as a psychotherapist I have met hundreds of different people and enjoyed the rare privilege of having them share their most intimate hopes and fears with me. I have found that the best way to help my varied clients is to assume that every single person that I meet is a genius in their own unique way. Yes, it is true that some use their genius to become experts at worrying – but in my experience, there is something astonishingly unique and vibrant at the core of every human being. The Quakers have a quaint, old fashioned phrase for this. They talk about “That of God in every man / woman”. Whatever your understanding or beliefs about God, I hope you get the gist of this essential life-force within each and every one of us.

I suspect that recognising this in each person is what Carl Rogers, the father of humanistic psychology, had in mind when he described the attitude of having “unconditional positive regard” for our clients.

No matter how dysfunctional our actions might appear, most of us are doing the very best we can, often with limited information, understanding and experience. When I help my clients to recognise their own innate genius, then they make progress, they find ways to overcome whatever challenges they face, and they rediscover a life that works. In these situations, how “bright” they are is utterly irrelevant.

You may have heard the quotation, often attributed to Albert Einstein that goes: “Everyone is a genius, But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, then it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. Measuring people’s ability as if there is a single scale with which to evaluate anyone’s level of intelligence just isn’t very useful or meaningful – and as my personal story clearly illustrates, it tells us absolutely nothing about wisdom.

Sir Kenneth Robinson puts it clearly in his famous Ted talk:

Now, I’m not denying that there is a recognised measurement of people’s problem-solving abilities – generally known as “IQ”. But I believe that our unthinking worship of this single measure of ability is one of the reasons that we have got ourselves and our planet into the current mess. There are countless ways that people can excel – and many of them have little to do with what we currently regard as “being bright”. So years ago, after immersing myself in the study of the givens of human nature, I chose to remove this way of judging people from my vocabulary.

So next time you hear anyone using the phrase: “Oh, he / she is very bright”, take a moment to consider what this actually means. Is it telling you something relevant about the person being discussed? Or is it telling you more about the assumptions of the person who is speaking?

Please post a comment below to share where you stand on this issue. If we disagree, I promise I will not judge you as stupid.