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.


Short Rant On Weak Ego

Practically every human quality exists due to some sort of evolutionary benefit. Most of the feelings we experience have a utility in maintaining the family unit (love, jealousy) or in ensuring our survival (fear, aggression). The same logic extends to the core property of our personalities, applying to our sense of self, our id and our ego.

‘Superego’ refers to the moral umbrella at the core of our person: A set of moral standards that govern the functionality the ego, or the me part of our personality.

Ego has obvious importance to our survival. Without a sense of self we wouldn’t be the most personable bunch to be around, that’s for sure. And all of this is fine by me; no-one is ranting at anyone for simply being human. I just feel the need for an unfiltered vent, and my blog seems like a good place.

So anyway, fuck the ego. Specifically the weak one.

It is blind to itself and blaring to everything else, an acrid acne totally invisible to the host. A megaphone broadcasting ‘Accept me!’ from mental mantels with fuck-all foundation. The first-world-problem meme’d pretender preaching unfairness to an indifferent screen. The duck-faced diamante diva with a suburban portfolio. The normalisation of the exaggerated. The pervasion of the normal. The abjection of anything even remotely authentic. The facebook flag-bearing hipsters; the white knights; the social media saviours selling their disfigured shadows of a half-baked kindness. And especially the pretentious and the pedestaled, the pontificating bloggers with their self-important little rants like this one.

If the luxuries available to the working class today existed a hundred years ago, what would the public perception of them have been? Or to put it differently: If today’s working class were given the option to swap their lifestyle with the wealthy 19th century aristocracy, would they want to? The answer, of course, would be a resounding no. Most of the developed world sleeps and dresses with far superior comfort to the Kings of the past: Our beds are better, our homes are warmer, and our diets are as diverse as the world itself. And that’s not even touching on the entertainment and vehicles and modern gadgetry we have available to us. So why isn’t everyone acting with the contentment of royalty?

It happens, I think, because the nature of the ego is such that it constantly maps a sense of potential possession over everything it comes into contact with. Once something is experienced, a level of desirability is established, as is the case for a child trying chocolate for the first time. Children aren’t born crying over chocolate they aren’t eating; it’s a conditioned response to something sensory that their ego has stamped a value and potential ownership on. Before the chocolate first touched their tongue it was something that didn’t exist, afterwards it was something they did not have. It’s exactly the same for every upgrade you’ve ever gotten that you didn’t need, and why some people spend $5000 on a table when literally 5 pieces of cheap wood would serve the same practical function.

At the centre of all of this lunacy, is the ego.

I don’t hate the ego entirely—it’s the core part of being a person after all—but lately I can’t help but see it everywhere like the plague. And not just in terms of prolificness; it has the same apparentness as an illness, albeit a mostly benign one. A well-harnessed and solid ego is such a rare thing these days (or I just have a warped perception at the moment). Maybe this is just me making another in-road into reducing my own. Who knows, but I think things are a lot better for people without any need of their reflection.


Exploring Genius – Terence Tao

Each Exploring Genius article profiles an accomplished and recognised genius, details parts of their life and career, how they’ve influenced society, and what they’re like as people. The previous entry was on Stanley Kubrick.

Genius appears in all fields of human accomplishment so these articles are naturally varied in style, length and approach. Terence Tao works in pioneering-level pure mathematics and I’m about as proficient with mathematics as a salamander, so this entry is coming from a particularly laymen (nay, idiot’s) point of view. It provides a generalised overview of Tao’s life, briefly covers the origins and significance of mathematics for context (which is actually pretty damn interesting), gives rough insight into the significance of his work, explores his giftedness growing up and how it was developed, and ends with an overview of his personality—which is exceptionally kind and humble—and how it all fits together.


The term ‘genius’ is more related to accomplishment than ability, and can be equally applied to painting as it can be to theoretical physics. It has very little to do with IQ (though some take having an IQ above 140 to also qualify a person as a genius). There may be a correlation with IQ scores in many cases, but an IQ score is only indicative of isolated aptitudes (such as memory and logical reasoning). Genius-level accomplishment comes from the interplay between cognitive control and creativity; it’s raw intelligence multiplied by open-minded imagination and wonder. Certain fields display a stronger correlation than others, and from what I can tell it appears strongest in mathematics and physics. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is notoriously used as an example of the irrelevancy of IQ testing, with a tested score of only 125 and a clearly genius-level intellect, but closer inspection reveals that to be a likely product of the specific test he took, which was heavily language-focused. IQ tests are largely irrelevant, by Feynman isn’t the best example.

The kind of thinking required for mathematics and physics is pure logical reasoning and abstraction, with processing speed, braveness (yep, braveness) and imagination being key bonuses. Terence Tao has a tested IQ score of over 220, and by many accounts demonstrates those attributes better than any mathematician alive today. He’s known as the “Mozart of math” and in the classical sense of the term, he may well be the smartest guy on the planet.

What is Mathematics?


For a better appreciation of Tao it helps to understand the broader significance of his field, so without deviating too much, here’s a basic rundown:

We don’t exactly know when it ended, but there was a time in human history when we had no concept of counting. We intuitively understood the concepts of ‘more’ and ‘less’—generalised quantity—but couldn’t differentiate anything in abstract terms. Seeing two antelope and recognising them as more than one antelope was one thing, recognising their quantity as an abstract concept equally applicable to fingers and days on a calendar—the concept of the number 2—was a quantum leap in human thought. The first person to achieve this may well be the most important genius in our ancestry. But we have no idea who it was, or how it came about. Anthropologists theorise that counting started as the tallying of single units, seen as vertical lines drawn on a wall, and that symbols were eventually incorporated to represent larger groups of tallies. In ancient Sumerian culture for example, a small clay cone was used to denote ‘1’, a clay sphere ’10’ and a large clay cone was ’60’. Many different systems of symbols were used across the world before the establishment of 0 – 9, which came out of India after 300BC.

The formation of symbols to represent groups of single units created a new dynamic between each symbol, and with each new dynamic came further symbol sub-systems (like algebra) with their own unique interplay, so that complexity grew exponentially from a mathematical big bang—an outward explosion of theory from the use of the first single unit.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell makes the case in The Principles of Mathematics (1903; not to be confused with his Principia Mathematica released in 1928) that mathematics and logic are the same thing (or at least, come from the same place), which becomes easier to comprehend when we consider that numbers are only representative—different systems (such as roman numerals and binary) yield different kinds of patterns, puzzles and insights, but all are bound by logic to the parameters of the system they belong to. Whether or not logic and mathematics are considered the same is a matter of definition, but thinking of logic as being fundamental to math at least helps us understand its nature from a deeper perspective and ponder the question: what exactly is mathematics? Is it something we’ve discovered, or is it something we’ve created?

I think it makes sense to view logic as a core property of the universe, intrinsic to the way everything exists and functions, and that mathematical theory is a form of logical structuring—an interaction of human concepts with the order of the universe. I have nil expertise and may be way off, but it seems like the 0-9 number system could potentially be replaced by something much more complex; it’s just that it works broadly for our population and is complex enough to describe reality to the level we’re capable of being curious.

So is mathematics just a way to describe reality? The physicist Max Tegmark makes the case in his book Our Mathematical Universe that mathematics not only describes reality, but that reality itself is mathematical in nature:

“The idea that everything is, in some sense, mathematical goes back at least to the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece and has spawned centuries of discussion among physicists and philosophers. In the 17th century, Galileo famously stated that our universe is a “grand book” written in the language of mathematics. More recently, the Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner argued in the 1960s that “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” demanded an explanation.

We humans have gradually discovered many additional recurring shapes and patterns in nature, involving not only motion and gravity, but also electricity, magnetism, light, heat, chemistry, radioactivity and subatomic particles. These patterns are summarized by what we call our laws of physics. Just like the shape of an ellipse, all these laws can be described using mathematical equations.

Equations aren’t the only hints of mathematics that are built into nature: There are also numbers. As opposed to human creations like the page numbers in this book, I’m now talking about numbers that are basic properties of our physical reality.

For example, how many pencils can you arrange so that they’re all perpendicular (at 90 degrees) to each other? The answer is 3, by placing them along the three edges emanating from a corner of your room. Where did that number 3 come sailing in from? We call this number the dimensionality of our space, but why are there three dimensions rather than four or two or 42?”

The example Tegmark gives is a good illustration of the symbolic nature of numbers, showing there to be a fundamental truth of the universe beneath their representation, but whether or not reality is mathematical in nature is mostly redundant to the field; it’s just helpful when trying to understand why it’s all so important, and therefore, the importance of the work being done by someone like Terence Tao. There may be conjecture around the philosophical nature of mathematics but there’s little debate over the benefit. Without it, our cultural and technological evolution wouldn’t have progressed beyond the spear—every scientific and technological advancement involves mathematics to some degree.

The paradigm shift available through understanding mathematics at a deeper level is also about mathematicians. Where once they appeared as number technicians, it now seems talented mathematicians are actually more tuned-in to the universe than anyone else (especially those making that kind of claim). Like a child who develops language early and is therefore at an advantage with interpersonal relationships, the gifted mathematician has an aptitude with the language of the universe, becoming the core force behind the progression of our species within it.

If Tao really is the world’s most gifted mathematician, he’s more than just a guy who solves hard problems: he’s more fluent with universal language than anyone else alive.

The Child Prodigy 


Terence Tao was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1975 to Billy and Grace, both Chinese natives who had emigrated to Australia in 1972. They’d met a few years previously at Hong Kong university; Billy there to complete a doctorate in paediatrics while Grace became an honours-roll mathematics and physics graduate. They had three sons within a few years of arriving: Terence (known to his friends as Terry), Nigel and Trevor—their westernised names chosen to reflect the culture of the couple’s new home country. All three brothers would eventually become standout intellectuals, with Nigel scoring a 180 IQ and winning bronze at two international mathematics olympiads, and Trevor becoming a national chess champion at age 14 while winning numerous prizes for his classical music compositions; broad achievements made all the more impressive by the fact he has autism.

Tao’s precocity became evident before the age of two, when his parents noticed him arranging an older child’s letter blocks alphabetically; a skill he’d learnt through watching Sesame Street. Things didn’t slow down: when he was 4 he was able to multiply two-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in his head. It was soon decided that regular schooling wouldn’t be suitable, and so he was placed into accelerated learning, which was eventually monitored by the Davidson Institute (Australia’s centre for the development of gifted children). The institute’s Miraca Gross writes:

“A few months after Terry’s second birthday, the Taos found him using a portable typewriter which stood in Dr. Tao’s office; he had copied a whole page of a children’s book laboriously with one finger! At this stage his parents decided that, although they did not want to ‘push’ their brilliant son, it would be foolish to hold him back. They began to borrow and buy books for him and, indeed, found it hard to keep pace with the boy. They encouraged Terry to read and explore but were careful not to introduce him to highly abstract subjects, believing, rather, that their task was to help him develop basic literacy and numerical skills so that he could learn from books by himself and thus develop at his own rate. “Looking back,” says Dr. Tao, “we are sure that it was this capacity for individual learning which helped Terry to progress so fast without ever becoming bogged down by the inability to find a suitable tutor at a crucial time.” By the age of 3, Terry was displaying the reading, writing and mathematical ability of a 6-year-old.”

Research has shown the likelihood of a child prodigy transitioning into an adult genius to be extremely rare. Genius-level intellect isn’t just about talent; it’s about creativity, inventiveness and open-minded intrigue. Tiger mothers forcing a discipline on a child may eventually produce a fantastically able technician in line with the best of a field, but geniuses are generally made through self-interested goals; at the core of true genius is one defining characteristic: self-propelled passion.

Billy and Grace Tao are exceptional parents. Instead of marshalling their son’s progression forcibly, it was Tao’s own interest and maturity that informed each incremental step in his education. His father explains:

“Firstly we realised that no matter how advanced a child’s intellectual development, he is not ready for formal schooling until he has reached a certain level of maturity, and it is folly to try to expose him to this type of education before he has reached that stage. This experience has made us monitor Terry’s educational progress very carefully. Certainly, he has been radically accelerated, but we have been careful to ensure, at each stage, that he is both ready and eager to move on, and that we are not exposing him to social experiences which could be harmful.

Secondly, we have become aware that it is not enough for a school to have a fine reputation and even a principal who is perceptive and supportive of gifted education. The teacher who actually works with the gifted student must be a very flexible type of person who can facilitate and guide the gifted child’s development and who will herself model creative thinking and the love of intellectual activity.

Also, and possibly most importantly, we learned that education cannot be the responsibility of the school alone. Probably for most children, but certain for the highly gifted, the educational program should be designed by the teachers and parents working together, sharing their knowledge of the child’s intellectual growth, his social and emotional development, his relationships with family and friends, his particular needs and interests… that is, all the aspects of his cognitive and affective development. This did not happen during Terry’s first school experience but I am convinced that the subsequent success of his academic program from the age of 5 onwards has been largely due to the quality of the relationships my wife and I have had with his teachers and mentors.”

Contrasting this approach to other accelerated prodigies, the Taos seem to have viewed their son as his own person rather than as an extension of themselves. They cultivated an environment of deep caring and unconditional support around the interests of their children, allowing the spark of internal genius to ignite without the repressive force of projected self-expectation. The Davidson Institute’s Marica Gross continues:

“In November of 1983, at the age of 8 years 3 months, Terry informally took the South Australian Matriculation (university entrance) examination in Mathematics 1 and 2 and passed with scores of 90% and 85%, respectively. In February the following year, on the advice of both his primary and secondary teachers, who felt he was emotionally, as well as academically ready, the Taos agreed that he should begin to attend high school full time. He was based in Grade 8 so that he could be with friends with whom he had undertaken some Grade 7 work the year before, and at this level he took English, French, general studies, art, and physical education. Continuing his integration pattern, however, he also studied Grade 12 physics, Grade 11 chemistry, and Grade 10 geography. He also began studying first-year university mathematics, initially by himself and then, after a few months, with help from a professor of mathematics at the nearby Flinders University of South Australia. In September that year he began to attend tutorials in first-year physics at the university, and 2 months later he passed university entrance physics with a score in the upper 90s. In the same month, finding that he had some time on his hands after the matriculation and internal exams, he started Latin at high school.”

Though Tao’s education was governed by his parents and teachers, the trajectory was entirely driven by himself and was aided dramatically by an attention to his emotional and social maturity. In many respects he was actually held back. He was moved into high school at aged 10, but as noted above, he’d nearly aced university entrance exams two years previously (in Australia high school goes up to grade 12). He spent two thirds of his time with grade 11 and 12 students and the remainder attending 1st and 2nd year university maths and physics classes. This was all down to his parents, who felt strongly about not doing anything simply for appearances sake, and only taking steps when it was in their son’s best interests:

“There is no need for him to rush ahead now. If he were to enter full-time now, just for the sake of being the youngest child to graduate, or indeed for the sake of doing anything ‘first,’ that would simply be a stunt. Much more important is the opportunity to consolidate his education, to build a broader base.

If Terry entered university now he would certainly be able to handle the work but he would have little time to indulge in original exploration. Attending part-time, as he is now, he can progress at a more leisurely rate and more emphasis can be placed on creativity, original thinking, and broader knowledge. Later, when he does enter full time, he will have much more time for research or anything else he finds interesting. He may be a few years older when he graduates but he will be much better prepared for the more rigorous graduate and post-doctoral work.”

Sitting among students nearly twice his age, the young Terry Tao became known for his humble and friendly nature, and by all accounts, was universally liked by teachers, mentors and peers alike. This may be his nature, but being as precocious as he was, his personality was undoubtedly benefited by the unwillingness of his parents to treat him any differently to his brothers (and other children of a similar age in ‘regular’ families). Modesty was a virtue in the Tao household; show-boating and arrogance made as much sense as a clown at a librarian convention. He didn’t care about winning prizes or being the best at anything; he just really loved doing maths, and received the perfect balance of encouragement and structure to reach his full potential without ever feeling superior. He knew he was different, but had no value placed on that difference: everyone else was viewed as a human equal. When the 10 year-old Tao was offered a prize for scoring the highest mark ever on the American SAT for a child of his age, he chose a chocolate bar, and when it was handed to him, broke it in half and shared it with his father!

Professional Career


Tao’s work has achieved everything from progressing prime number and infinity theory to advancing MRI scanning technology—rapidly improving the detection rate of tumours and spinal injuries across the globe. Professor of mathematics at Princeton University Charles Fefferman said in an interview:

“Such is Tao’s reputation that mathematicians now compete to interest him in their problems, and he is becoming a kind of Mr Fix-it for frustrated researchers. If you’re stuck on a problem, then one way out is to interest Terence Tao”

The influence of mathematical advancement on society is almost entirely indirect: it usually functions as a basis to the advancement of other sciences, especially physics, so drawing a clear line between Tao and the broader value of his work quickly becomes convoluted by additional theory and speculation. Not to mention, explaining pure mathematics in laymen’s terms is extremely difficult. The concepts being used are comprised of other concepts that themselves require their own multi-conceptual explanations, all of which are already well beyond the learning level of the average person (myself included). What I do understand though, is that mathematics at an advanced level can be a truly beautiful and creative phenomenon, and for many, an emotional one as well.

It’s been said that most people don’t enjoy math because the schooling curriculum gives a vastly incomplete picture of the subject, analogous to an art class only teaching how to paint a single-coloured wall and never showing a Picasso or Rembrandt. For most of us it’s easy to recognise artistic and social talents as we have our own abilities as a point of reference, allowing us to perceive a distance between our own output and that of the great masters. In the case of mathematics it’s usually a case of viewing some kind of alien language. For example, here’s what Tao has been working on most recently:

“I’ve been meaning to return to fluids for some time now, in order to build upon my construction two years ago of a solution to an averaged Navier-Stokes equation that exhibited finite time blowup.

One of the biggest deficiencies with my previous result is the fact that the averaged Navier-Stokes equation does not enjoy any good equation for the vorticity {\omega = \nabla \times u}, in contrast to the true Navier-Stokes equations which, when written in vorticity-stream formulation, become

\displaystyle \partial_t \omega + (u \cdot \nabla) \omega = (\omega \cdot \nabla) u + \nu \Delta \omega

\displaystyle u = (-\Delta)^{-1} (\nabla \times \omega).

(Throughout this post we will be working in three spatial dimensions {{\bf R}^3}.) So one of my main near-term goals in this area is to exhibit an equation resembling Navier-Stokes as much as possible which enjoys a vorticity equation, and for which there is finite time blowup.

Heuristically, this task should be easier for the Euler equations (i.e. the zero viscosity case {\nu=0} of Navier-Stokes) than the viscous Navier-Stokes equation, as one expects the viscosity to only make it easier for the solution to stay regular. Indeed, morally speaking, the assertion that finite time blowup solutions of Navier-Stokes exist should be roughly equivalent to the assertion that finite time blowup solutions of Euler exist which are “Type I” in the sense that all Navier-Stokes-critical and Navier-Stokes-subcritical norms of this solution go to infinity…”

I don’t know about you, but I almost need a lay-down after reading that.

It’s my goal over the next 12 months to both increase my own base understanding of mathematics and to source mathematicians capable of providing effective metaphors to better illustrate the work they’re doing for the rest of us. I’ll post more specifically on the subject then, and will potentially revisit this section to give it some greater context.


It’s no accident that Tao became passionate about mathematics, and it’s not just a matter of encouragement. His parents instilled him with a positive and compassionate outlook and supported him, but it was ultimately the conscious absence of his parents that helped him the most. The common sense fact is, if someone is good at anything, they’re much more inclined towards it over other activities, especially without there being any pressure around their achievements. The brain naturally releases higher dopamine levels when the mind perceives self-accomplishment easily relative to a common standard, which in Tao’s case, came very early when he was teaching children twice his age how to count before turning 3. His aptitude then went on to connect his developing interest to higher-concept (more elegant and interesting) mathematics much sooner than most professionals in the field, thereby giving him an enormous hook. The message for parents here is a clear one: for a child’s potential to be reached, their talent needs guidance without any pressure and expectation.

The choices and direction of Tao’s parents were paramount to his development. They worked tirelessly in the background to create new and nurturing environments for him to grow in, and in terms of his personal experience, they were largely invisible. They recognised the importance of balance in the growth of modest self-confidence, a concept equally important to all avenues of his life—whether it be at school, at home or among friends.

Most importantly, Tao’s parents understood his genius. His father sums it up:

“I have seen too many situations where the parents did the wrong thing. A brilliant mind is not just a cluster of neurons crunching numbers but a deep pool of creativity, originality, experience and imagination. This is the difference between genius and people who are just bright. The genius will look at things, try things, do things, totally unexpectedly. It’s higher-order thinking. Genius is beyond talent. It’s something very original, very hard to fathom.”

Terence Tao is more than a mathematical genius; he’s a role model for human conduct, a rare example of supreme talent and supreme humility existing in side-by-side unison. We may not be able to learn much directly from his work, or even understand the first thing about it, but I think most of us can learn from his outlook on the world: no matter who you are or how good at something you are, be humble, let your work speak for itself, and be a good and genuine person without motive.

If you haven’t seen him before, here’s a brief interview he had on the Colbert Report a couple of years ago. Note his demeanour and the speed of his brain compared to his speech. He’s one of a kind.

If you’re interested in learning more about the ‘Navier-Stokes’ equation or checking out more of his work, Tao runs his own WordPress blog here.

The Self-Enamoured Narcissist

Narcissism has taken centre-stage in the past couple of years, appearing in psych articles and newsfeeds more than any other personality problem (with the exception of sociopathy). Investigations into things like “When your boss is a narcissist” and “What’s it like to date a narcissist?” are shared and chronicled as much as anything else remotely medical. Which all makes sense; narcissists can be giant assholes, and we’re naturally curious about the mental mechanics behind asshole behaviour. I’m reading a book at the moment that makes a strong case for differentiating between assholes and narcissists (literally called Assholes: A Theory), but only in the sense that you can be an asshole and not be a narcissist; most narcissists are still assholes.

The thing about narcissism, is that it’s so heavily defined by a lack of empathy and regard for the feelings of others that the other traits within the definition often go unchecked when uncoupled from the rest. There’s obviously a strong correlation between ego and a lack of empathy in most cases, ergo the pervasiveness of NPD, but I think most of us intuit there to be another group separate from the personality disorder: those who are simply up themselves. Vain individuals self-enamoured to the point of it defocusing and inhibiting the very traits and talent they’re enamoured by. We all know one (or dozens), and as teenagers, most of us probably went through a period of it ourselves.

I don’t think this group has had as much attention as it should have. It’s fair enough to assume that a problem benign to the outside world and invisible to the person with it has less broader social imperative, though. It’s not pervasive, just repulsive. It also tends to be non-persistent. By virtue of it’s benign nature, pronounced vanity tends to promote immediate feedback from close friends more than most faux pas do; an important cog in the necessary filtration of bullshit from our personalities. The vanity itself may be irrational or rational in nature (but always rationalised), but it always looks the same: conceited, self-indulged, self-aggrandised. Sometimes arrogant, sometimes disinterested, and at the far end of the spectrum, when it escalates to egomania, always a spectacle.

The pervasion of vanity is mostly internal. Self-indulgence denotes self-focus, in turn denoting a division of focus between self and whatever task is at hand. When the egotistical person does anything, they’re self-consciously aware (or disillusioned) of their own prowess at doing it (especially if there’s any to begin with). The moment said prowess is perceived in motion, the egotistical person becomes conscious to it,  fragmenting their focus and slowing their cognitive momentum to a halt. It becomes self-defeating behaviour, and it can be triggered by everything from genuine accomplishment, to excessive drug use, to false feedback, to trauma.

For someone vain to be more congenial and socially egalitarian, I think the change needs to be at the atomic level. It isn’t enough to simply mask feelings of self-enamouration; to feign modesty when you really think you’re king shit: these feelings have to be eradicated to the core. They’re nothing more than weedy vines wrapped around a person’s personality, that choke the organic growth of abilities through experience.

Inflated ego is all about unnecessary advocacy, whether to ourselves or to the outside world. It’s often correlated with a low self-esteem (in pretty much the exact same way ‘small dog barking syndrome’ exists) but it can be seen in people of all varied levels of mental and emotional stability. Correlations in the data exist, but point is, vanity’s up in our grill constantly, from all kinds of different people.

To transition from an unhealthy level of egotism to a regular sense and response around merit isn’t difficult in theory—it’s simply not thinking some things after all—but like any meaningful personal growth, the practical application can be pretty cumbersome at first. It primarily requires one thing: plain old curiosity. That’s the hook; the force propelling our interest and attention towards stuff existing outside of ourselves. Self-awareness of having a problem is also paramount, but it’s penultimate in importance to curiosity: without feeling curious about the world and other people, there’s little left for a pure and undivided attention to be drawn to. Thoughts can compound and potentially lead our minds into mild-psychosis. We need to find something else in the universe more interesting than ourselves.

Key to marshalling this kind of change within a person is a developed sense of moment-to-moment mindfulness. To pull out a weedy thinking pattern, being objective and observant, and non-reactive about our emotions, is the first step; the point when a second thought starts appearing in succession that makes an observation about the first. “Looks like I’m getting irrational and anxious, better slow down…” etc.  We’ve all had them; being mindful is just having them all of the time. It’s an entire cognitive faculty unto itself, but unlike most others, has an extremely high uptake for growth and development. Meditation—the right kind—is tailored to building mindfulness with the precision of a heat-seeking missile, and with the effectiveness of training a muscle group at the gym. It’s literally a work-out for the mind, and functions as a crucial tool in the journey from vanity to humility.

At the Inception level of egotistical thinking—where the idea that we’re a special person exists—change is also key. Being genuinely curious involves subtracting the human value scale and beginning to see other people as equal vessels of experience to our own, by not even considering them as equal or otherwise to begin with. And besides, I’m pretty sure there’s no philosophical argument for being special that doesn’t, in some way,  imply that all people are special. Calling anything special immediately implies a spectrum of qualification, and no matter how mild the ‘specialness’ of a person is, they will always be, in some way, special relative to the rest of the population. It’s such an insanely subjective word, the very lack of special in a person could in itself be special enough to make them special.

I think ‘special’ applies better to acts of character than character itself. We’re a fundamentally communal species, that functions on the back of our performance as people. Who we are makes no difference: it’s what we do that matters (which you’ve probably read and heard enough times for it to be physically imprinted on your hippocampus). There’s no point getting wasted all day thinking we can do something; a hundred million other people won’t have any hesitation in surpassing our tangible achievements when we falter. Thinking we’re special not only has zero value, but it also stifles our thirst for betterment by making us excessively satisfied—enamoured—with our present selves, rendering us partly impotent to the allure of achieving goals and supporting other people.

Vipassana meditation teaches us to let go of ego entirely. It translates to, “to see things as they really are”; it’s pure mindfulness meditation, Buddhist-influenced but secular, that focuses the attention on unregulated breathing and isolated body sensations irrespective of sensations elsewhere on the body, even hardcore physical pain. It trains balance in the mind by giving it the tools to avoid the natural impulse to reaction, by teaching it to observe thoughts and emotions rather than jump at them. When committed to and practiced with discipline, it makes a person selfless, clearer-minded, more centred and balanced, relaxed, compassionate, focused and purpose-driven. It’s easily the best practical remedy for problems of vanity, and even if these things tend to get better on their own over time (in most cases), taking control of it and becoming the person we want to be—someone, at least, who doesn’t have their head up their ass—through nothing more than our own grit and determination, makes the change infinitely more likely to remain.

Today’s blog was written by a guy who’s booked in for another 10 day Vipassana course, starting in a couple of weeks.

Facebook: Blurring Friendship Lines?

Facebook cops a lot of flack in the blogosphere. It’s an easy target, heavily influencing social interactions while giving users the opportunity for optimal self-representation among their peer group. Things rarely sound so Orwellian. It’s been vaguely linked to issues of envy, obsessiveness, narcissism, social angst, insomnia and addiction, and yet with 1.5 billion users and little evidence of a broad problem, the pandemic seems to be a fairly benign one.

There has been an undoubtable cultural shift around socialising in the past 10 years, something discernible to anyone living through the 90s and 00s, but I don’t buy the idea Facebook’s the only party to blame (or thank). It could be just as related to smartphones and the internet/media cross-pollination and the advent of Psy; cultural change is as certain as winter and as multi-faceted as a mosaic. There’s too much happening in the world to pin change down to any one thing.

The phrase “change is inevitable” is perhaps one of the most over-used platitudes on the planet (hence my shameless rewording of it above), but the vast majority of us don’t pay it more than a passing thought. When it actually happens, many of us lose our shit—most of all when it pertains to human behaviour.

The change around friend associations is an interesting one. Unlike the broader shift towards the instantaneous and constantly connected, which can be tied to public WiFi as much as Snapchat, it’s a specific symptom of Facebook. You know the drill: you can connect with anyone you want, then categorise them into friends, close friends, restricted, or acquaintances. Helps to keep things private and as close-to-life as possible while still maintaining some form of friendly connection. But is this level of Facebook sophistication always mutual? Can Facebook make passing associations seem more meaningful than they are?

I’ve worked in call-centre environments with hundreds of people (literally) who I’ve come to know by name, and many of them have become FB friendly. For a large part I wouldn’t even call them acquaintances—they’re nice folk who I worked around for a while. I may have barely interacted with them aside from working matters, or barely at all. Yet there’s this ongoing sense of them being there. Being a vague part of whatever aspect of my life I’m inclined to share.

Is this a problem? Generally, no; unless you’re a cantankerous people-hating hermit, networking with more and more individuals in a controlled manner has the potential to open up opportunity and experience in ways we’ve never had before. In those terms, I think it’s excellent. On the other hand though, it has the potential to create degrees of false intimacy.

There was a story on the radio the other day about a girl (let’s call her Lucy) who met another girl (Jane) through some mutual friends at a party, who then swapped last names to do the FB thing. They hit it off pretty well in person (as pals, cool your jets) but only interacted for a few hours. Typical situation these days. Within a week, Lucy started to share memes and articles on Jane’s wall, routinely, every several days. It wasn’t reciprocated beyond the polite acknowledgement of the ‘like’ button, and Jane began feeling uneasy. She didn’t know Lucy at all beyond having the first friendly conversation, and yet here Lucy was assuming a connection strong enough to be an ongoing presence in Jane’s consciousness.

Lucy’s behaviour may seem a product of a kooky personality, but to me she’s just representative of a shift in social etiquette (albeit a very earnest one). When Facebook is both the primary social domain and the most passive and easy form of multi-media sharing available, of course there’s a greater propensity for interaction without much foundation. It’s nearly half a generation old already, and as it becomes more intrinsic to our society—more normal to us—over time, the barriers of casual intimacy may become radically different to what they have been in the past.

I’d like to think that irrespective of human invention, human drivers remain relatively unchanged. Invention isn’t a deviation from humanity after all; it’s just an exponent and enhancement of it. All Facebook’s really doing, as far as I can tell, is changing the social throttle. It’s a tool, and as with all tools, there will be tools that abuse it.

Today’s unfocused blog was written by guest contributor, Mark Zuckerberg.

Idealising & Procrastination (Quora)

Quora question asked by Anonymous: Why don’t I make the right thing, even if I know what to do in order to become the person I want to be?

“I know I have to study and work hard in order to be a successful person. Still, I procrastinate. Another example: I’m reading a beautiful book, Wittgenstein’s Lectures. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year. Still I keep on playing video games. How can I overcome this self-destructing process?”

I think this is a fairly common, certainly something I’ve experienced at times in my own life, so thought I’d post my response here as well:

Mental stimulation of any kind has a relationship with the reward system in the brain—where dopamine and other pleasure-associated chemicals are produced. The reward system exists to reinforce healthy and productive human behaviour by (basically) creating a pleasurable association with it. This association is built in part by the perceived reward of the behaviour in the mind, and in part by the chemical interaction in the brain.

Having an inbuilt reinforcement system is crucial because it structures human behaviour around social requirements, tying people to whatever role they’re suited to by literally making it feel better than doing something else. Only thing is, the reward system wasn’t evolved for modern society; it was evolved to suit the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which were a helluva lot more manual in nature than our own. Healthy and rewarding behaviour in a small tribe would be much easier to perceive than it is today—nutrition, ritual, shelter and security were clearly defined requirements with simple roles needed to maintain them.

Compared to our ancestors, modern society is covered by a thick layer of luxury, entertainment, technology, systems and automation. There’s a negative correlation between advances in technology and human requirement, and human requirement is directly tied to our sense of social value—something key when it comes to making conscious choices about what we do with ourselves. You may enjoy doing a particular task, but chances are, there’s very little social imperative that you complete it. Many gifted people (and narcissists) feel they have talent they are responsible for developing and disseminating into the world, but most of us, deep down, know our value is self-propelled. Which is fine by the way; it means we have infinitely greater choice with our lives than ever before.

The lessening human requirement means an increased need for human distraction, which has been increasingly provided by things like  entertainment, socialising and personal indulgence. These are all pleasure-riddled arenas that directly target the reward system, causing strong positive associations with activities that were really just intended to fill our existential void. In your situation I believe this may be playing a foundational role; atop this is plain-old idealism.

Rewarding behaviour doesn’t just exist in the physical world; mental simulation can be equally as strong, especially if we haven’t bonded with productive external activities thanks to having an Xbox. We can be as entertained and lazy as we like but the vast majority of us will still have positive and socially beneficial interests, so no matter how immobile we become, our minds still need to satisfy urges to accomplish meaningful goals. The reward system is finite—it can only go so far—so if there’s already been a huge allocation given to marijuana or World of Warcraft, you’re much more likely to relegate the ambition to an idealistic fantasy, simulating the journey of development and success in your head. This then becomes a habit pattern itself, which is where I believe you may find yourself based on your circumstance.

I’ve been there too, and it’s theoretically very easy to overcome. Mindfulness, discipline, support and routine are all crucial to becoming more behaviourally aligned with your ambitions, and these are all very developable.

Best of luck :-)

Learned Helplessness and a reply from Steven Pinker

I sent Steven Pinker some fan mail not long ago, and Great Scotts, he actually replied. I’d been reading How the Mind Works and the compulsion hit me: I had to email him to explain the benefit I was getting. I figured, so what if he gets hundreds of letters and emails; he’s still a human being who would surely appreciate knowing he’s helped someone. Turns out he did, and the below reply came within 24 hours. To put it in perspective, the guy’s one of the world’s leading public intellectuals and I’m a huge fan of his, so it may as well have come from Elvis.


The reason I’m posting it here, is that it broke through a thick ceiling of learned helplessness in my life — a pop-psychological term that’s gained a lot of social traction over the past year or so. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s explained pretty well in this video:

My background is several dimensions away from the likes of the Ivy league elite and the sophistication of The New Yorker, to the point it’s all seemed fantastical and otherworldly. As it turns out, we happen to inhabit the same planet, and there’s nothing separating our worlds but geography and a mouse-click.

This isn’t at all about talent; it’s about perception. Lower socio-economic backgrounds can be an incubator for self-doubt; marginalising personal goals and imposing intimidatingly high walls of uncertainty throughout our social landscape. Many people don’t experience this, but to varying degrees, billions do. Statistically speaking there must be millions of talented people who never achieve their most suitable social role for that reason; causing society’s leadership to be somewhat nepotistic in appearance. But it doesn’t need to be.

The only thing preventing any of us from achieving our potential level of success and communal value, is our mindset. The unchecked attitude of a poor-man corrodes talent like pissing on a growing rose bush: it may mature in size, but it’ll end up deformed and flowerless. (Don’t ask how I know that).

I’m obviously no-where near as talented as Steven Pinker (or anyone close to the same oxygen supply as him), but until this year I didn’t even think I was talented enough for university. I’d already made the connection before receiving his gracious reply, but let me tell you, it’s been a boost I never expected; giving me the confidence to seek-out mentorship and advice in places I’d never have considered otherwise.

If you’re an aspiring filmmaker or writer or computer programmer—an aspiring anything—why not engage with the best? Reaching for the stars doesn’t require a skyrocket, it just needs an email address.

Wittgenstein on death

Ludwig-Wittgenstein-Quotes-5 black

Thoughts: death has a dictatorial relationship with the vast majority of us, affecting our lives with imposing finality, causing us to construct meaning and superstition in our existence relative to its ending. The fear of the eternity of non-existence has shaped the beliefs and cultures of the living, yet if we understand non-existence to be timeless, then the fear of being forever non-existent quickly evaporates. So long as we are consciously alive, our sense of being alive is never ending; fearing something we can’t sense, makes no sense.

Source: The Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, 6.4311