I've often wondered how high-IQ individuals feel about the increasing importance placed on emotional intelligence (EQ). Over the past three decades, we've witnessed the exponential rise of EQ as a key to life success. Today, training programs known to increase a person's social and emotional intelligence, such as mindfulness coaching, are in high demand. The bulk of my private practice counselling work boils down to helping my clients improve their EQ by developing insight into human emotions, motivations and behaviours.
So just what does a high-IQ person make of this EQ phenomenon? To satisfy my curiosity, I interviewed Walter O'Brien, who has a reported IQ of 197 (37 points higher than Albert Einstein's). At 41, O'Brien is one of the five smartest people on the planet. He is a successful CEO of Scorpion Computer Services Inc., a think-tank for-hire in the field of information technology, cyber security and strategic problem-solving.
He also executive-produces the popular television show Scorpion, an action-drama loosely based on his life story, currently entering its third season on CBS.
The interview transcript below was edited for clarity and brevity.
Walter, for those of us with average IQs, can you tell me what it's like to be a high-IQ individual in an EQ-focused society?
Let's say you had a friend who was gaining a little bit of weight. You would probably think "what if I asked her to be my gym buddy and come work out with me?"; whereas a prodigy will think "well, technically, she's already in the obese category for her height-to-weight ratio, I should just tell her she looks fat in those jeans because it's technically correct."
If somebody said that to me, it wouldn't bother me at all, because it's technically correct. However, that's how you lose friends and get bullied all the way through high school. You think you're being honest, but you're actually inappropriate. And that's the whole thing with high IQ versus low EQ. The amount of times in business where I had the cheaper, faster, better system, but I had to learn the hard lesson that it doesn't matter. What matters is the other guy played golf with the client, and they're buddies. And that starts the prodigy's isolation from society. They don't get promoted; they don't get invited to events; they don't have many good friends, etc.
When did you start to clue in to the importance of EQ?
It was when I started Scorpion. I was really busy and I had to hire people to help me. The people I trusted were the other prodigies, so I hired them. But when I put two of them on the same project, they often tried to kill each other while insulting the customer. When I started losing business to salespeople who were using used-car salesmen kind of tactics, I realized I can't ignore the EQ thing; it's going to kill sales.
How did you go about increasing your own EQ?
I started looking at other people with great charisma like Bill Clinton, where everyone felt really special when they talked to him for five minutes. I really got analytical about how you shake hands, how you make eye contact, how you sit, how you match the other person's tone and speech, etc. Then I started reading books like The Art of Friendship, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.
As I read each thing, I started to see the same patterns over and over again. I realized that even if I started doing, say, 3% better EQ, I would start having 100% better impact. I would start getting invited to meetings; I would get put on boards and get listened to; people would ask my advice; people would hire me for projects I hadn't even heard about, etc.
How did you begin to coach your staff on increasing their EQ?
Firstly I realized it's the blind leading the blind if I'm the one who teaches it. So I hired people with high EQ. At Scorpion, we call them the Super Nannies because they babysit the geniuses and teach the high IQs to speak human.
How do the Super Nannies coach your prodigies on EQ?
They will do things like rewrite the geniuses' emails. A simple example is, a customer texts "sorry I'll be late for a meeting, my sister just had twins." A prodigy's response to that will be "great, see you at eight"; whereas the Super Nanny will correct that to "Oh my gosh, congratulations! Don't worry about it. See you at eight."
Another thing the Super Nanny will do is go over how the genius performed during presentations with clients. The Super Nanny tells the genius things like "at the beginning of the meeting you told this joke; that was inappropriate, don't do that again." Or "Three times in the meeting, you used this word; it's antagonistic, so change that to this other word." So you're hitting the prodigy with direct, more concrete, feedback rather than "be nicer or softer or friendlier."
Do you think prodigies are actually increasing their EQ with coaching, or are they simulating EQ using their high intelligence?
My nonscientific response is that everybody is either left-brained dominant or right-brained dominant; most people are 60%-40% one way or the other. If there's some right brain there, I think the EQ develops from a root that was already there. For me personally, according to psychologists that I talked to who said that my left brain has all but killed my right brain off, there's no root to grow. So, in my case, I'm using IQ to simulate high EQ, kind of like an actor who is living the role, getting into the character.
Isn't that exhausting though, to go through life acting?
It is exhausting, which is why I formed a group called Extelligence. Once a month, I get together with 15 friends of mine in a private room in a restaurant. They're all popular in their fields - top actor, top athlete, top lawyer, top surgeon, etc. We have three rules at the table: everything we discuss is confidential, one person talks at a time, and nobody is allowed to be politically correct.
This is the one place where we are allowed to be ourselves. We can't talk like this at work; we'd get sued. We can't talk to our wives like this; they'd never talk to us again. We can't talk to our kids like this; we'd scare them away. We now have a room full of people where we can share what we're really thinking honestly.
Do you think it's possible for someone to have both a high IQ and high EQ?
I think it's very rare. I've only twice in my life come across someone with both high IQ and high EQ naturally; and that was because their parents were super high EQ and the parents just EQ'd the hell out of them. They're inevitably very successful because now you've got someone who's sharper than the average person and well-rounded too. Carnegie Mellon University has a out that says 85% of your success is your EQ, while 15% is your IQ. So if you only have IQ, you're screwed. What blows me away is that if EQ is responsible for 85% of our success, why isn't it taught in schools?
One anomaly that I've come across is around identical sets of twins who have grown up together, being around each other all the time. I've noticed an accelerated EQ in them. My only explanation is that they're constantly seeing a mirror image of themselves. So, for example, if you saw your twin screw up, you have that constant reflection in your face, which accelerates the EQ learning.
Why do you think high IQ individuals most often work in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)?
Because of absolutes. When I did my degrees in computer science and artificial intelligence, I always knew what my (homework) score was before I handed it in because it's code; I could write my code, and it either gives me the right output, or it doesn't. If I had studied journalism or history, where I'm writing essays, I don't know if the teacher likes me; I don't know if they agree with my stance on this topic. So now I have no idea what result I'm going to get.
High IQ individuals don't like surprises and are pessimistic, because it's logical. In jobs like sales or marketing, you're crossing your fingers, hoping that your campaign works out. You have no control over it and there's no rhyme or reason to it. A high IQ individual can't deal in an industry that's subjective.
And yet here you are, executive producing the TV show, Scorpion - a hugely subjective venture to take on - in an industry where there's no way to anticipate ratings, etc. What made you take the leap to the television arts?
I think it's partly a credit to my EQ. I know the odds of the script getting picked up are about a million to one; that only five of them get greenlit, and the rest get cancelled. I did all the math. The chances of my not getting cancelled by Season 2 were a million to one. But I already had my company; I'm making money and everything is good.
We did this as a lottery ticket; "if this works, then we will inspire 12 year-olds to believe that there is a place for everyone that never fit in; that every problem has a solution; and that we should celebrate intelligence as something that's cool." From watching the show, geniuses might recognize themselves as having low EQ, or begin to have an awareness of EQ.
But here's the EQ bit. I am not the general public; so if I pick a TV show that I love, it will probably be cancelled because other people won't like it. So, we got the producers of Transformers, Spiderman and Star Trek, the director of The Fast And The Furious, the writers of Sopranos, Prison Break and Hostages, and I sat back. I got the A-team together. We hooked them up with CBS; and all I can do now is sit back and answer questions about technical terminology. If I micromanaged this like I do other projects, it would be at best a documentary on the Discovery Channel that nobody would watch. But if I let go and let them have fun, let them have the romance and car chases, and take my original stories, but add 30% of Hollywood to it, apparently that's what the public wants. Any other prodigy who wasn't aware of their EQ side would have destroyed the project by assuming they had to control it all themselves.
So what have you learned from your experience with the TV show about yourself and about the IQ-EQ debate?
The reaction out there was news to me, reading the letters from single moms of smart kids who don't know what to do with them. Young girls writing me saying, "I didn't know I could be a hacker or cyber professional; no one told me that a girl could do that." And letters from smart kids whose parents aren't supporting them, or who can't afford a laptop. For some of those kids, where we verified they're smart, we sent them Notebook computers. No smart kid should be offline; just get them online and you open them up to the entire universe of knowledge. That alone will change their life. So I guess I felt less alone when I saw so much empathy come back from all the fans going "I feel that way too... I felt like I would commit suicide by 16."
It's interesting that you mention suicide because this topic has been in the back of my mind during our entire conversation. What are your thoughts on depression or suicidality among the genius population?
I did look it up years ago, and the stats I saw were not good, somewhere in the range of 80% divorce rate, 20% suicide rate. If you had a kid and you wanted him to be happy, you don't want him to be a prodigy. The more average they are, the more likely it is that they'll have a normal life with a normal career, and be blissfully happy. Ignorance is bliss. If you're born with an engine in your head with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, and you're bored of everything - of people, of conversations and relationships - it's a horrible way to live your life because you're never satisfied.
The sad part for me is majority rules and we're the minority. The majority of people are going to celebrate basketball and Kim Kardashian, and nobody's going to be celebrating Elon Musk. I could be solving the energy crisis tomorrow, and I will never have the turnout like Justin Bieber would have if he crashes his Lamborghini. The smartest people will be laid off because they're not a team player. And the reason they're not a team player is they are the minority. It's completely unfair the way prodigies are perceived and treated. That's why I see my company as a home for the mentally enabled. It's an orphanage for smart people; the one safe place they be rewarded for being pessimistic rather than penalized for it.