The most intelligent two percent of people in the world. These are the people who qualify for membership in Mensa, an exclusive international society open only to people who score at or above the 98th percentile on an IQ or other standardized intelligence test. Mensa’s mission remains the same as when it was founded in Oxford, England, in 1946: To identify and nurture human intelligence for humanity’s benefit, to foster research in the nature of intelligence, and to provide social and other opportunities for its members.
Nautilus spoke with five present and former members of the society: Richard Hunter, a retired finance director at a drinks distributor; journalist Jack Williams; Bikram Rana, a director at a business consulting firm; LaRae Bakerink, a business consultant; and clinical hypnotist John Sheehan.
Together, they reflect on the meaning of genius, whether it can be measured, and what IQ has to do with it.
(RH = Richard Hunter, JW= Jack Williams, LB = LaRae Bakerink, BR = Bikram Rana, JS = John Sheehan)
Let’s start with the basics: Are you a genius?
RH: Ha! If you pass that test, all it proves is that you have a certain IQ. That is not the same as making you an intelligent person, never mind a genius. You can have a very high IQ and be a complete idiot.
BR: No! How different could I be from the 97th percentile? I think hard work is what really separates you from others. I don’t think you can be a genius without achievement. You know people at the very top work doubly as hard as 90 percent of people in the same profession. Take somebody like Cristiano Ronaldo. He probably works 20 hours more than someone who is outside the top-20 soccer players.
JW: I think being a Mensan means I’m good at logic, but that’s it. I don’t think I am worthy of the same term used to describe Einstein. Genius is moving something forward. Evolving.
JS: I don’t know. I’m not comfortable with saying I am a genius. I knew that the scores on my tests, very early in life, identified me as gifted. I finished high school at 14, and finished my undergraduate and graduate degree in college at 19.
LB: No. I think that’s kind of arrogant. I consider myself smarter than the average bear. I don’t look at myself as a genius. I think that’s because I see things other people have done, things they have created, discovered, or invented, and I look at those people in awe, because that’s not a capability I have. I have a really good memory and really excellent organizational ability, but I don’t consider those things genius. I see genius as creativity.
Is Mensa an organization for geniuses?
RH: I think it’s a very narrow definition of genius.
BR: I think it’s for people with high IQs. I think genius is more complex: You need to have intelligence, but you need to put that to the test. I think it is for people who are aware of how well they are doing at that point. And who also want to see whether they can join any other organizations where they will find more like them.
JS: I think people view it as a place where intelligence is valued, and understood, where they are valued and understood. Our society is an extroverted society. In Mensa the reverse is true. The more gifted you are the more likely to be an introvert. People who all of their lives have felt socially marginalized and uncomfortable because of their gifts are suddenly in a place where that won’t happen.
LB: I think what sets Mensans apart is that they are willing to join, rather than anything else. Some people take the test and never join. One in 50 people qualifies to be a member, so we could have millions of members. But we only have 56,000, I think. It is a social club.
Can you describe a typical member of Mensa to me?
JW: You see the same people in any place of social gathering, like a bar. It just so happens that all those people have high IQs. You’re more likely to find someone who is interested in black holes than you are reality TV. There are definitely people who have that social awkwardness you expect to come with this sort of thing, but once you get past that, it’s just like chatting to different people in a bar—or at least, in 9 out of 10 cases.
JS: Can you describe a member of the general population to me? When I joined Mensa I really wondered if I would meet anyone like me, and the fact is that I came to realize, bar that one exception of giftedness, which we all have, that’s pretty much the only common denominator. We have judges, lawyers, artists, musicians, first-responders… That’s what is so great about Mensa.
LB: It is such a diverse organization though. You would have no idea what anyone’s occupation is unless you asked. A Mensa member wants to belong to a community like them.
Can you define “genius” for me, or describe what a genius is?
RH: An exceptional ability perhaps? That would satisfy if you were a member of Mensa—you know you have an exceptional ability in IQ if you get in to it. It is one type of genius, but genius takes many forms. An example would be Dave Johnson. He was a famous decathlete in the 80s and 90s. He was clearly a genius athlete: He ran, he could throw javelin, he could do all these things, and he won the Olympic gold decathlon. That must be genius in the sporting field. I am nothing like Dave Johnson—it is far more complicated than one thing or another.
BR: It’s something that you see and you know it when you see it. I think a modern-day genius would be someone like Steve Jobs. It’s someone who has captured the imagination, done something groundbreaking.
JW: Oh god. I have no idea. I actually couldn’t. It comes in different forms. I don’t think being a Mensan makes you a genius, as I prove on a weekly basis on a Saturday night. I think there is a creative, innovative element there as well. Genius pushes the boundaries.
JS: I don’t think you can say there is a “typical” genius. There isn’t a typicalness to it, bar that one exception: Great intellectual ability. Genius has gone from “having a [kind of] genius” to “being” one. I think the word genius now comes from the popular press, it’s easy to say, it’s got a cachet to it. It’s easy, but among the people whose careers are invested in giftedness, high intelligence, then the word “genius” is not often used. It is something I was born with, and that I have had all my life. I don’t think about it until someone asks me, because it is all I know. I think about this a lot though.
LB: It is what you do with your life that defines whether you are a genius. A genius is someone who can create something new.
Can genius be measured?
RH: I think some types of genius can be measured and some other types of genius can only be assessed by other people’s judgment. If you are mathematical genius, you can measure that, but if you are an artistic genius, you can’t measure that. If you are a genius footballer, can you measure that by how much somebody will pay for you in transfer? Possibly, but I don’t know.
JW: I don’t think you can certify genius, I certainly don’t think Mensa does that. It certifies your logic ability—you either have it or you don’t.
JS: The test scores say that I am gifted, but it was something I was born with. I think that having a high IQ is one thing, but the other element is the effect of using it over a period of time.
LB: I think genius is in the eye of the beholder. Things that are amazing to me will not impress someone else.
Do you think genius carries negative connotations?
BR: Yes. If you think about someone like Kanye West who is considered a genius, but then some of that sheen is taken away from him when he talks about himself so highly. I think it’s only in very select cases where calling yourself a genius doesn’t take away from the sheen of it.
JS: I’ll give you an example. I was just about finished with high school, and I was accused of cheating at math because I didn’t have any work papers. They had the headmaster come, and I was young and very angry about it. So I said, “Give me a test. Make up the questions, and ask me them orally, I will answer you orally.” I think that was a lesson to me to not be so open with what I was able to do.
LB: It was difficult growing up gifted. You get teased a lot. And especially being a girl, you get teased a little more. We make fun of these people because usually there are quirks that go along with it. I mean, look at the show we all watch right now, Big Bang Theory. While they do celebrate their genius, they make fun of it. But on the other hand, they make them appear human. Geniuses have not always been portrayed that way.
Are you glad you took the Mensa test?
RH: It was like a great golf shot. As if I’d given myself a difficult golf shot to play and it worked. You feel good about it, but really, nothing more than that. If Facebook had existed at the time, I would not have put it on Facebook.
BR: It was good reassurance, more than anything else. Now if you come across something that’s challenging, you think maybe I am not really that smart, and then I can say no, actually I am. It gives belief in that ability.
JS: The thing I hear most is that it’s like coming home. And it’s true.
LB: Absolutely. It was a fun thing to do, and the challenge was part of the fun. I joined cause my mom really wanted me to, but when I started attending meetings it wasn’t what I had thought at all. It was people being relaxed and comfortable around each other, and that is the part I like the best.
Claire Cameron is Spectrum’s engagement editor. Follow her on Twitter @clarabell8.
Watch: David Krakauer, the president of the Santa Fe Institute, has a “favorite” way of distinguishing genius from intelligence.
This classic Facts So Romantic post was originally published in October 2014.