Smart Imposter Syndrome

I have a friend. Let’s call her A.

A is an exceptional person; a philosophy graduate and young PhD candidate, a Fulbright scholar, a small business owner and a gifted writer and thinker. She read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, for fun.

Objectively speaking, most would agree that A makes a strong case for being considered intelligent. It’s a trait-claim backed both by anecdote and evidence of achievement, with the only subjectivity being in the degree

But, whenever she enters a room full of people, especially smart people, she feels like an intellectual imposter. Some sort of fraud about to be found out at any moment. So she tends to observe much more than she speaks, and in many cases may even experience a repressive duality, seen by others as only being a half-version of herself, compounding the complex further through measured responses significantly less detailed than her thinking.

A has a subtype of what is commonly known as Imposter Syndrome. Specific to smarts, but also tied loosely to her own version of success.

On Louie CK. Louie grew up in a working class family, moving from Washington to Mexico City, to eventually settle down in suburban Boston when he was 7. His father left a few years later and he and his three older sisters were raised by his mother, Mary, who was a computer software engineer. He’s now considered one of the most popular and respected comedians in history, but for several years after gaining notoriety he suffered what he refers to as “poor person anxiety”; the more money he earned, the more he felt like he was going to screw up and lose it all, or worse, that it wasn’t even real to begin with.

Naturally, the first time he had more than $100,000 in the bank, he was petrified. So much so that he withdrew the entire sum in cash and piled it up in his apartment, in small denominations, just so he could believe that it belonged to him. He needed to see it in physical form to accept that it wasn’t an abstract fantasy, as had been the case for all previous thoughts he’d had about wealth. It lasted a year. Louie is now worth about 15 million dollars, and he uses an ATM card.

I have another friend. Let’s call him B.

B is an exceptional person; a legal academic with degrees in philosophy and law, who scored top marks at Australia’s leading law school and received a scholarship to study at Oxford. Throughout high school he consistently aced his classes, especially mathematics, music and creative writing, and he wrote regionally award-winning stage plays based around philosophical speculations and logical paradoxes. He’s always had a reputation for being smart and academic and humble, and yet, he rarely talks about intelligence (he thinks it’s weird I find geniuses so interesting).

B, like A, also makes a strong case for being considered intelligent. B is aware of this, just as A is in her own case, and yet B doesn’t feel any self-doubt (or conversely, any arrogance), in any sense, irrespective of the setting. He just feels, as it can only be described, normal.

On Terence Tao. Tao has a reputation as the most talented living mathematician in the world. He was able to multiply 4 digit numbers by 4 digit numbers in his head when he was just four years old, he has a Fields Medal (the math equivalent of a Noble prize), a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant, and he’s known by fellow mathematicians as the ‘Mozart of Math’. Basically, he’s a Good Will Hunting-level genius. The curious thing about Tao, though, is that when colleagues discuss his abilities and achievements in interviews, they almost always give equal attention to his personality, and most notably, how much humility he has. In spite of how supremely intelligent he his, he seems totally unimposing. Students find him endlessly helpful and humble and friendly, and if physical demeanour and body language are anything to add, he seems like one of the nicest people you could possibly meet.

On being a human. From what I can tell, there seems to be two primary operating systems available in our heads: the system of self, governed by the superego, and the system of purpose, governed by logic and intention. Things are more complex than that, obviously, but for the sake of understanding something like Imposter Syndrome, broad definitions can be useful.

Function-wise the two systems differ as much as an Xbox and a Macbook; two entirely separate outlooks, operated alternately, by the same user. The user, in this case, representing our consciousness of the present moment: an attention spread outward from the middle of our mind, that becomes awareness.

The difference is due to their differing priorities. In the system of self, for example, an increased value is placed on questions such as ‘Who am I?’ / ‘How am I perceived by other people?’ / ‘How tasty is this taco going to be?’ And then answers to those questions: ‘I am a smart person’ / ‘Other people see me as smart’ / ‘This taco tastes goddamn amazing.

Operating according to purpose, on the other hand, places attention in a mostly external context, with things being more MO-based: ‘What’s the best way to speak to this person so they feel valued and welcome?’ / ‘How can this thing be done more effectively?’ / ‘A letter to the editor on that climate change piece needs to be written’ / ‘Tacos for everyone, fuck yeah!’.

A purpose-based outlook is still concerned with who we are, only much more objectively. My friend B and Terence Tao (particularly Tao) are good examples of purpose-based thinking. Consider this question: How is it possible that the smartest mathematician on the planet lacks any intimidation or sense of entitlement, and in fact emboldens the confidence of the people he speaks to? There can only be two possibilities: 1) He’s projecting false modesty, controlling an impulse for the sake of having a good social perception; 2) He genuinely doesn’t think about being smart. Looking into Tao’s development and upbringing, it’s quite clearly the latter.

So, how is it possible to have a trait as profound as unparalleled intelligence, and not think about it?

The answer, I think, is in the verb difference between what we know to be true and what we are thinking to be true. Imagine your mind as a house with a storage space: A piece of knowledge is like a constructed ornament; once the materials of an idea form into the completed structure, a personally-known and evidence-based truth, it can be placed in your mind’s storage, ready for viewing or dissemination whenever necessary (if Tao were asked about his intelligence in an interview, for example).

The distinction between the experience of friend A and someone like Terence Tao, is that Tao places an awareness of himself in a compartment he places no priority or focus on; A, on the other hand, navigates her house while still carrying her smartness ornament with her.

In terms of the house analogy, Imposter Syndrome is the inherent and precarious fragility of an ornament being carried—a rejection of the idea means it can be easily dropped and broken. It has nothing to do with an absence of truth.

This is extremely common. Imposter Syndrome usually applies to success, but can equally target someone’s sense of attractiveness, their religious beliefs, even a feeling of likability. Smartness is a much envied and defining trait to have, so it’s no surprise that people with talented intellects find themselves more aware of their intelligence than others; consider the kind of feedback they receive from a young age and how that plays into their sense of self-worth as they mature. Unless constructively counterbalanced or locked into a focus-zone from an experience (such as that related to love or trauma), the maturing mind can’t help but think about the traits it knows about itself, especially those that become structural to its sense of self-value.

Thinking of ourselves as smart leaves us particularly open to vulnerability, especially for introverts. Consider these two forms of self-focus: ‘I am smart’ versus ‘I am muscular’. A conviction of physical muscularity finds supporting evidence in the mirror; it’s easy to match the belief with reality. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is that it provides a clear sense of a person’s relative stance in the population. A bodybuilder knows exactly how muscular the biggest lifters in the world are, and exactly how much smaller than them he is. He may walk around like a gorilla while wearing a singlet in the middle of winter, but it’s easy for him to be realistic—he’d never consider himself alongside the biggest.

Unlike traits such as physicality and attractiveness, smartness is pragmatically abstract. It sits in a cloud somewhere governing our weather, and in spite of all the tests available, everyone knows that it’s impossible to really measure properly. It’s something inside that other people sometimes notice if it’s visible enough, but to the smart person it becomes salient; felt and examined in every solved problem and witty one-liner and analytical deduction being made. It follows that the smarter someone is, the greater the regularity of internal validation they receive, the more compounded the condition becomes.

Smart Imposter Syndrome can also be justified. It’s entirely possible—and common—for people to have inflated views of their own intelligence. If we hold a false belief of ourselves that isn’t reflected externally, the balance of the conviction hinges mostly on our own assumption; an idea rather than a reality. Any conviction that balances on internal thinking alone, no matter how convincing it is, is a tenuous one. The superego then overcompensates by ramping up awareness and exaggerating any example that it finds.

The smart introvert, therefore, has a very unique challenge on their hands. Not only are they naturally inhibited from demonstrating enough of their intelligence to gain a confident perspective of themselves, but they are also smart enough to intuit relative truths without much real world application. They know they’re smart, they just have a hard time being confident about it. It’s the reason intelligent people with Imposter Syndrome tend to feel increasingly normal as they mature—real-world evidence accumulates through their living experience.

Someone genuinely smart can also overestimate themselves though. Similar to the flat-out delusional, you have to put yourself out there. The less we say out loud, the more we rely on information learnt within an unchallenged context, the smarter we will appear to ourselves.

How to fix it. The quickest way to feel more comfortable with externalising smart thinking publicly, is to change your operating system. Studying cognitive control and meditation and emotional intelligence, and learning how to shift an awareness away from personal traits to purely pragmatic activities. Being confident the ornament has been built and placing it safely in storage. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were.

It’s self-hypnosis. Engaging your higher mind to examine your thoughts, and being vigilant to any thinking centred around your intelligence. Becoming attuned to even the slightest glance at how smart you are and immediately looking in a different direction; keeping in mind that noticing how smart you are is actually counter-productive. Think about it: if you notice how well you’re writing something or analysing a situation, your mental resources are divided; your focus fractioned to 80% on the task at hand, 20% on ‘What a genius I am!’ And the potential for reaching a zone of super focus—the kind where you can smash out 1,200 essay words in an hour—all but eradicated.

Smartness may be enviable but it’s an incredibly stigmatic thing to talk about, and lacking self-confidence can be a legitimate problem for many people. Society is built by effective individuals working together, and by its nature the smartness trait enables a person to determine how effective in society they can potentially be. This creates pressure, then disappointment. They set an extremely high standard for themselves that they’re unlikely to meet without the benefit of experience. So they become tentative, never fully opening up, only expressing enough to sustain a half-baked belief in themselves.

Salient as smartness may be in the mind, there’s one thing that truly overwhelms any attention to it: a curiosity in something bigger than yourself, and the passion that comes from its inquiry. Back in 2007, Terence Tao posted an answer to a question on his blog, titled: Does one have to be a genius to do maths?

His response:

The answer is an emphatic NO. In order to make good and useful contributions to mathematics, one does need to work hard, learn one’s field well, learn other fields and tools, ask questions, talk to other mathematicians, and think about the “big picture”. And yes, a reasonable amount of intelligence, patience, and maturity is also required. But one does not need some sort of magic “genius gene” that spontaneously generates ex nihilo deep insights, unexpected solutions to problems, or other supernatural abilities.

The popular image of the lone (and possibly slightly mad) genius – who ignores the literature and other conventional wisdom and manages by some inexplicable inspiration (enhanced, perhaps, with a liberal dash of suffering) to come up with a breathtakingly original solution to a problem that confounded all the experts – is a charming and romantic image, but also a wildly inaccurate one, at least in the world of modern mathematics. We do have spectacular, deep and remarkable results and insights in this subject, of course, but they are the hard-won and cumulative achievement of years, decades, or even centuries of steady work and progress of many good and great mathematicians; the advance from one stage of understanding to the next can be highly non-trivial, and sometimes rather unexpected, but still builds upon the foundation of earlier work rather than starting totally anew…

Read the full post here

Tao’s language here is on fire, and a perfect example of a purpose-orientated mindset—he’s engaged with a reality infinitely more fulfilling than the idea of his own prowess. For Tao, and for every other talented yet normal-feeling individual, being smart is just the same as being able to walk, being able to eat, and being able to laugh; all enviable traits if they’re lacking, but when it comes to standard, the reality is, they don’t matter. Outside of effectiveness and attraction, they’re not supposed to; intelligence is just a proxy to thinking. The only thing that matters in the case of thinking, in the context of human value, is what we do with it.


Exploring Genius – Stanley Kubrick

This is the first in a series profiling various geniuses from a regular-Joe-point-of-view. It mostly focuses on their intellectual giftedness and where it has been demonstrated, in turn building a better sense of how their minds function relative to the rest of us. It’s also about getting a sense of how interesting they are as people. As it turns out, recognised geniuses are some of the quirkiest individuals you’re likely to find. Stanley Kubrick happens to be one of them.

This article details certain aspects of Kubrick’s career, briefly covers his youth, provides an overview of directing for context, discusses his innovations and influence, explores examples of his gifted intellect and abilities behind the camera, covers select third-party opinions and anecdotes, and finishes up by joining it all together. Biographical details are loosely covered as a means of context. Hope you enjoy it!

Exploring Genius – Stanley Kubrick

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Stanley Kubrick was born in the Bronx in New York City in 1928, and died of a heart attack in 1999 in his home at St Albans, England. He wrote, produced and directed 12 feature films (as well as directing 3 short documentaries and Spartacus) over a 46-year career—the first being the self-funded Fear and Desire (1953); the last being the uber-mature relationship drama, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He’s revered as one of the greatest film directors of all time, Hollywood or otherwise, and has cast a shadow of influence over directors such as Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, James Cameron and Martin Scorsese; all supremely influential directors in their own right. His best known films include Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining, which were all eventually hailed as masterpieces of their respective genres.

To fully convey Kubrick’s genius it’s important to start by giving some context to his career and define the role of a director. Movies have become market-saturated and synonymous with our culture, but ironically have creative processes that are often totally mysterious to the public. As a director once said: “People don’t care how a soup’s made so long as they like the taste”. More often than not, movie-goers struggle to make a distinction between the cast and the creative team, prejudging their interest in a film based on a lead actor—a phenomenon compounded by the media’s constant reference to films as belonging to their stars. When someone wins an Academy Award for best director it’s a fair assumption that outside of making a great movie, most of the TV audience has no idea why.

The Role of a Film Director

There’s an element of truth to the mystery around what directors do. Depending on dozens of circumstantial factors the role can change drastically from one production to the next, and for that reason it can never be defined as specific to a method. Broadly defined, a film director is literally charged with ‘directing a film project’ using whatever resource, skill and leadership technique they have available to them. It’s the outcome of a project that informs whether they’ve done the job correctly; the challenges they had to overcome and the ingenuity they had to demonstrate is what separates one director from the next. In most cases, the higher the quality of a film, the higher the level of ingenuity and skill that was needed by the director to get there.

Film directing to a high standard on a large scale is perhaps one of the most difficult and overwhelming jobs in the world. A director’s goal is to transpose their vision of a story, whether written by themselves or someone else, from a text-based screenplay to an intricate visual and auditory experience where every elemental nuance of that experience serves to better realise that vision. Between creating a vision and bringing it to the screen there can be an incredible amount of compromise; including, but not limited to: working within budgetary limitations under executive studio pressure; the challenges of shooting on location; the challenges of working with actors (and their emotions); the managerial challenge of overseeing the contributions of numerous departments and hundreds if not thousands of people to ensure they’re aligned and timely and up-to-standard; the need for rewriting the script on the back of any of these things. And that’s just when things are going smoothly. In the filming of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola had to navigate production through Typhoon Olga and several destroyed large-scale set-pieces, problems with casting, the mental breakdown of Martin Sheen, a completely overweight and underprepared Marlon Brando, intense financial pressure, a regional military conflict, and the need to completely reinvent the film’s ending on the fly. Kubrick once said that directing a film is like “trying to write War and Peace, in a bumper car, in an amusement park”.

At its mildest, a director is the conductor of a multi-faceted and unpredictable filmmaking orchestra, unifying it to create an artwork as close to how it was conceptualised as possible. Directors that double as producers immediately have the added responsibilities of planning, hiring, financing and organisation, and auteur directors (such as David Lynch and Kubrick) have additional fingers in every piece of the creative pie; whether it be the film’s soundtrack or the type of fabric being used on a costume. As such, the technique and method of any great director is bound to be markedly different to the next.

Kubrick as a Filmmaker (1)

In terms of the above criteria Kubrick is arguably the greatest director English-speaking earth has ever seen. His control of the medium, especially on larger productions, has never been matched: he steered his figurative ‘bumper cars’ with precision while writing War and Peace in calligraphy, backwards, in Old Latin.

Spielberg called Kubrick the “greatest film craftsman in history”, and in spite of some recalcitrant attitudes towards his micro-management and perfectionism, every cast and crew member he worked with refers to him with exceptional regard, if not awe. His methodology and craftsmanship made him the tallest artistic poppy in Hollywood, but it was also his intellect that elevated him to legend. Arthur C. Clarke himself said Kubrick was “perhaps the most intelligent person [he’d] ever met”. But this isn’t an article about Kubrick the filmmaker; it’s an article about Kubrick the genius, so before delving too deeply into his life as a director, let’s roll back the tape and explore Kubrick before he made his mark on cinema.

Schooling, Chess and Photography

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From a young age Kubrick was bored by the standard schooling curriculum, refusing to commit to study on the basis he “wasn’t interested” (though he didn’t mind physics). His father Jacques, a doctor, was keenly aware of his son’s intellectual prowess and rather than take a disciplinary route, introduced the young Kubrick to chess and then purchased him his first camera. If there’s ever been a case for dynamic and progressive parenting, Kubrick’s life is it.

Kubrick took to the chess board with aptitude, regularly playing his father while studying different techniques, but didn’t take the game seriously until he was 17, when he joined a local chess club. Incidentally, 17 was also the age his photography career took off. He’d taught himself camera assembly and how to develop pictures over the previous few years, taking hundreds of photos of New York City and developing them in his own self-made darkroom. Completely disenfranchised with his schooling—with grades to match—he’d begun networking within the photography industry, in particular the prestigious Look magazine, where he eventually landed a job as a staff photographer. His breakthrough came following the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945. The entire city devastated, Kubrick captured the cultural impact with a single shot:


That a barely 17 year-old high school dropout had the artistic maturity to produce a photo of this calibre is, well, you be the judge. He sold the picture to Look for a decent fee and was working for the magazine full-time by mid 1946, where he stayed until producing his first documentary in 1951. Look had a readership of nearly 3 million people at the time.

It’s clear the young artist had some incredible visual talent, but how good a chess player was he? He claims he was only ‘decent’ and that he wasn’t ranked especially highly at his chess club, which even as a modesty is probably an indication that his cognition was different to the likes of Garry Kasparov. That being said, if Kubrick had been trained from a younger age and practiced with ongoing discipline and training, who knows. He certainly ended up good enough to support himself financially hustling top players in central park, which is renowned as being home to some of the most deceptively competitive players in America. Playing for 12 hours a day while waiting between productions, he earned a reputation as one of the best. He was no patzer that’s for sure (though he was quick to call-out others for the dishonour).

Chess played a central role in the filmmaker’s life. While he never ascended to the standards of the elite on the board, he applied the principles of the game to his working life with staggering effect. He once said “Among a great many other things that chess teaches you is to control the initial excitement you feel when you see something that looks good. It trains you to think before grabbing, and to think just as objectively when you’re in trouble.” That he was able to conceptualise the game philosophically for real-world application, with such awesome success, signifies a mind primed for abstract thinking with a pragmatic benefit. This would become a hallmark of his career.

Kubrick as a Filmmaker (2)

Kubrick’s filmmaking career and its various highlights has been detailed ad nauseam so there won’t be any more biographical description here. If you’re looking for a chronological account of his life and work then it’s well worth checking out Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures. It’s a stellar documentary. Here though, let’s get to the intellectual meat: outside of his finished films, what gave the guy a reputation as being one of the smartest people (if not the smartest) in the industry’s history?

1. Innovation

Aiming to shoot his period drama Barry Lyndon with natural candle light—an apparent impossibility in 1973—and to give it the visual impression of a painting with no visual depth, Kubrick contacted NASA, aware they’d used a specialised ultra high aperture Carl Zeiss lens (the Planer 50mm f/0.7) for the Apollo moon landings. Kubrick was savvy enough to figure out the technical requirements for the pioneering effect, leading to a landmark technique being born (the specifics of which are beyond my meagre comprehension to explain). Take a look:

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The foreground and background can be ascertained, but there’s virtually zero depth of field between them, giving the impression of a two-dimensional painting from the same period. The film industry legally requires an appointed cinematographer on a film production—a requisite that had led to a 27 year-old Kubrick forcibly dominating a 48 year-old Lucien Ballard when he condescendingly defied a request while shooting The Killing—so John Alcott was given credit and awarded an Oscar, but it was all Kubrick. A similar thing happened on the set of Spartacus: Kubrick had been hired mid-shoot by Kirk Douglas when the original director didn’t work out, and the incumbent cinematographer Russell Metty complained that Kubrick had poor camera judgement and was taking over his role, to which he was told by the director to “sit there and do nothing”. Metty was also awarded an Oscar; his first and last. Ironically, Kubrick never won one himself.

Kubrick also conceptualised and pioneered the now done-to-death steady cam technique first seen in The Shining, used most famously in this sequence:


Outside of technical innovations (there are numerous others) he pioneered several filming techniques: from extreme and oblique camera perspective; to ultra wide-angle lenses; to employing slow and brooding, protracted sequences; to extended tracking shots; to framing perfect symmetry mise èn scene:

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2. Cultural Impact

An assessment of the cultural sensitivities of Kubrick’s work could liberally take an essay in its own right, so in keeping with your interest (and awakeness) this article will only explore Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ (1964)

Initially planned as a drama until Kubrick realised how unintentionally funny it was, Dr. Strangelove satirised Cold War tensions so effectively it managed to change the nuclear discourse in America. It’s important to note just how real the threat of nuclear war was back in the 60’s; most Americans genuinely believed an apocalypse to be imminent or precariously balanced on thin diplomacy. Recognising the need for an artistic commentary, Kubrick sought to adapt the novel Two Hours to Doom (aka Red Alert). The book ended up being little more than an inspiration and the movie took on a satirical, stage-like tone that would still be original if released today. It made the political unrest at the time seem socially ridiculous, and by many accounts helped push the public narrative back into the realm of reason, quelling many people’s fear in the process.

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (1968)

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And so it began.

Aside from being a landmark sensory experience in cinema, 2001: A Space Odyssey sparked a whole generation’s interest in space and catapulted science fiction into a new era. Literally every major space-based sci-fi film that followed was directly influenced by it: from Tarkovsky’s Solaris; to Star Wars; to Interstellar—all replicate the same majestic and authentic take on the universe to varying degrees. Prior to 2001 the public had a warped perception of how space looked, and following its release there was a significant social shift towards science and technology, bolstering an adolescent NASA. Spielberg called it his generation’s “big bang” and many commentators (including fellow directors) claimed it annihilated all preconceptions of the genre. It’s highly likely that the ripple-effect of 2001’s influence extended deep into the scientific consciousness, forming the basis of the recent resurgence in scientific interest we’re experiencing today.

It’s also one of the most cerebral mainstream films ever released. The plot imagines a race of alien life-forms that’s evolved beyond physical matter and can harness energy and spacetime at will, that accelerated the evolution of our ancestors to eventually allow the transcendence of our species in similar fashion to their own. When an exploration finds an alien monolith on the moon it communicates to the creatures that our species had evolved enough to take the next step.

In an effort to keep interpretations as organic and broad as possible, Kubrick opted to use a vague narrative and an absorptive, mesmerising tone; triggering public dialogues about the origins of our species and the nature of the cosmos that are still being had today (in some form or another).

3. Cognitive Ability

When Steven Spielberg first saw The Shining he didn’t like it very much. Not long after its release, Kubrick asked him for his opinion over dinner. After Spielberg tried to give a diplomatic answer glossing over the things he did like, Kubrick saw straight through it, and according to Spielberg the conversation went like this:

Kubrick: “Well Steven you obviously didn’t like my picture very much.”

Spielberg: “Well, there’s a lot of things I love about it…”

Kubrick: “But there’s a lot of things you didn’t like, probably more than what you did. Tell me what you didn’t like about it.”

Spielberg: “Well, the thing is, I think Jack Nicholson’s a great actor, and I thought it was a great performance, but it was almost a great kabuki performance. It’s like kabuki theatre.”

Kubrick: “You mean you think Jack went over-the-top?”

Spielberg: “Yeah, yeah I kinda did.”

Kubrick: “Okay. Quickly, without thinking, who are your top five favourite actors of all time, and I don’t want you to think; just name off some names.”

Spielberg: “Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Carey Grant, Clarke Gabel…”

Kubrick: “Stop. Okay, where was James Cagney on that list?”

Spielberg: “Um well he’s up there high…”

Kubrick: “But he’s not in the top five. You don’t consider James Cagney to be one of the five best actors around. You see, I do; this is why Jack Nicholson’s performance is a great one.”

In case you’re unfamiliar: James Cagney was known for his high-energy showman-like performances, much like a ‘good-guy’ version of Nicholson in The Shining, and was one of Hollywood’s leading stars for two generations. He starred in well over 100 films, won an Oscar, and was held in universally high regard by his peers, directors and critics alike. Kubrick knew that if Spielberg didn’t like Nicholson’s performance, he also wouldn’t think that much of Cagney, and that would put him at extreme odds with the majority opinion. By cornering him into admitting Cagney wasn’t on his radar, Kubrick marginalised Spielberg’s opinion on Nicholson to a small minority, rendering his opinion moot. He thought of all this in a split-second.

Spielberg has since watched The Shining over 25 times and now calls it one of his favourite movies.

With the strategy of a winning chess move, Kubrick was immediately able to both answer and influence his fellow director with ease. This kind of razor-sharp-terminal-velocity wit allowed him to consistently influence his actors and crew exactly as he wanted. Can you imagine handling an objection with a layered, strategic and influential line of reasoning so quickly? It’s probably light-years beyond most political and intellectual debates you’ll come across (Christopher Hitchens is the closest I’ve found).

Kubrick’s memory was just as incredible. When he was working on preproduction for the aborted epic Napoleon he had an assistant purchase every available book on the emperor, which ended up being more than 100. He quickly digested them all, and apparently astonished his associates when he was able to recall every detail of them in the planning process, right down to knowing the weather patterns on the day of each battlefield scene based on the sky in paintings he’d looked at.

Not long after the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968, Kubrick gave Playboy the most illuminating and extensive interview of his career. He eventually became notoriously reclusive and refused to do many afterwards—something he’d planned to change following the release of Eyes Wide Shut, but was tragically never given the chance. The interview gave an acute sense of his supreme intellect; he answered the interviewer’s questions with such intricacy and detail it’s hard to imagine they weren’t typed with the benefit of prolonged consideration. Here’s a random example:

Playboy: “Have you ever used LSD or other so-called consciousness expanding drugs?”

Kubrick: “No. I believe that drugs are basically of more use to the audience than to the artist. I think that the illusion of oneness with the universe, and absorption with the significance of every object in your environment, and the pervasive aura of peace and contentment is not the ideal state for an artist. It tranquillises the creative personality, which thrives on conflict and ferment of ideas. The artist’s transcendence must be within his own work; he should not impose any artificial barriers between himself and the mainspring of his subconscious. One of the things that’s turned me against LSD is that all the people I know who use it have a peculiar inability to distinguish between things that are really interesting and stimulating and things that appear so in the state of universal bliss the drug induces on a “good” trip. They seem to completely lose their critical faculties and disengage themselves from some of the most stimulating areas of life. Perhaps when everything is beautiful, nothing is beautiful.”

Closing Thoughts

Stanley Kubrick was never self-conscious about his intellect; he knew he was smart and that he had the ability to make important pictures, but he never showboated his mind unnecessarily. For that reason it’s possible he’s even smarter than this article has indicated. Some have claimed his IQ to be over 200—which is a feasible figure—but given Kubrick’s humble and professional personality, it’s highly unlikely he’d ever have made his IQ known publicly (not that IQ has much to do with genius on the whole anyway). He was an exceptionally organised and hard worker, storing every single planning and preproduction item, fan letter and professional correspondence in hundreds of neatly arranged boxes at his home. He also reportedly slept less than a few hours a night. As he grew older he gradually developed numerous eccentricities and some profoundly obsessive behaviour-patterns; including (but not limited to): extreme perfectionism—some scenes in Eyes Wide Shut took over 100 takes; an irrational fear of flying (though he did try to rationalise it in the Playboy interview); extreme task-mastery of his staff and crew; calling friends and colleagues with bizarre requests irrespective of the time; an extreme attention to detail (Eyes Wide Shut was set in New York but filmed in London; Kubrick had every road sign, window and physical aesthetic made to identically match the real thing, even though the audience would never know the difference had they been less accurate).

His cognitive and creative abilities seem widely spread among many aspects of human functionality. He was equally gifted with information processing as he was with visualisation; equally talented with leadership as he was with broad abstraction. He also had an immense talent for problem solving, something he strongly advocated for in schooling. He made culturally significant films in starkly contrasting genres, and never once produced a failed work—critically or financially.

When we daydream about the world from our homely vantage-points it’s easy to judge the failures of those who rise to society’s upper echelons, believing we’d be able to make better decisions given the chance (Josh Trank’s direction of Fantastic Four, for example). We rarely consider the pressures of the elite in our idealistic fantasies. When it comes to being a film director, the pressures rise like wind-resistance: the larger the scale of a project or ambitious the vision, the more difficult it becomes to accomplish. That’s what made Stanley Kubrick so amazing—he managed to formulate a system and method that allowed him to function in a volatile and pressure-riddled industry with the controlled demeanour of a mindfulness meditation guru. The results speak for themselves. As Martin Scorsese said: “One Kubrick film is worth ten of anyone else’s.”

Towards the end of the Playboy interview the conversation drifted into the prospects of alien life and human existentialism, and Kubrick was asked by the interviewer: “If life is so purposeless, do you feel that it’s worth living?”

Kubrick: Yes, for those of us who manage somehow to cope with our mortality. The very meaningless of life forces man to create his own meaning. Children, of course, begin life with an untarnished sense of wonder, a capacity to experience total joy at something as simple as the greenness of a leaf; but as they grow older, the awareness of death and decay begins to impinge on their consciousness and subtly erode their joie de vivre, their idealism—and their assumption of immortality. As a child matures, he sees death and pain everywhere about him, and begins to lose faith in faith and in the ultimate goodness of man. But if he’s reasonably strong—and lucky—he can emerge from this twilight of the soul into a rebirth of life’s élan. Both because of and in spite of his awareness of the meaninglessness of life, he can forge a fresh of purpose and affirmation. He may not recapture the same pure sense of wonder he was born with, but he can shape something far more enduring and sustaining. The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent; but if we can come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death—however mutable man may be able to make them—our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfilment. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.