I think we use what we are good and not good at as standards for intelligence and laziness all the time, whether we realize it or not. I remember years ago when we were visiting Korea when the kids were small, the kids were at a playground and when other kids and parents heard them speaking perfect English, they made comments about how brilliant they were. They weren’t; it’s just that for most Koreans, English is difficult, so seeing kids speaking English so effortlessly automatically makes them seem intelligent. When people can easily do what’s hard for us, they seem smart.
When I find myself thinking that someone is brilliant, a large percentage of the time it’s because they’re good at something I am terrible at and could not be good at no matter how hard I tried. It’s not that I don’t also recognize people who are much better at things I know how to do, but for those, I feel like it’s at least understandable how to reach that level. Like, I know some genius level programmers, and I know that I am not that, but I do have an understanding of how they’re good and how they got there. Whereas someone who’s good at languages, who can speak multiple ones without accents (I kind of went down this rabbit hole learning about how Viggo Mortensen speaks 7 languages, with little to no accent in each) seems near miraculous to me – I cannot understand it, so it feels like genius. Or a really good writer – I just find it incredible.
The language thing is on my mind a lot because it comes up in our marriage. I find Jieun’s skill with languages mind-blowing, and when she busts out fluency – not just with Korean, but also with languages like Japanese or Spanish – she looks brilliant to me. On the flip side, because she is naturally good with language, Jieun simply cannot believe that I am not, that my inability to speak Korean well is anything but a lack of effort. It may be partly that, and I could get better. But I’ll never be great; I just don’t have that language skill. For someone who’s good at something, it’s hard to understand how someone who’s reasonably intelligent can not be good at that thing. But that’s what we do. If someone’s good at something we can’t do, they seem smart. If someone can’t do something that comes completely naturally to us, we think they’re just not trying hard enough.