Vanity, Ambition and Intelligence

By | 14/03/2016

I was always intrigued by the fact that most of the smart people I’ve met tend to be vainer that everyone else. Of course, this is a subjective, possibly flawed assessment, because I obviously have no way to measure vanity (and quantifying intelligence is not always very precise, either).

Ambition always seems to be somewhat linked to intelligence; smarter people dream of more for themselves, because they believe they are good enough to try for the best, and because they seem to need this to feed their vanity.

Smarter and more ambitious people, the ones who spare no effort, and might even act in ethically dubious ways to reach their goals are the elite, the ones that stand out from the rest, and who should hold the responsibility of guiding life in society. They should act for the common good, but as we all know, they only care about what is beneficial to themselves.

They don’t even care about the good of the other members of their “caste,” as successful people compete with each other over everything. The members of a yacht club don’t support each other; all of them just want to own the largest boat.

People who live in working class neighborhoods tend to be more supportive of each other than those who live in expensive zip codes. Obviously, the elite is not homogenous. Some are businesspeople, successful professionals, artists or famous sports players; then there are those who stand out because of their intellectual activities, like professors, scientists or actors. They compete among themselves. The intellectuals tend to consider themselves more enlightened, more concerned about the fate of the world, and like to flaunt their superior knowledge.

The rich can’t bear to feel inferior, and neither can intellectuals.

So, rich people compete against each other and against intellectuals. Intellectuals do they same, and fight back throwing quotes with the same virulence that the rich use money.

Among the members of the elite there are almost no friends. The most successful sell an image of happiness, but that’s not true. An accurate assessment shows that they are people who, during their childhood, understood they did not have all the innate qualities they’d like and, as such, would remain in the shadows.

So their brains convinced themselves they were the underdogs, as they wanted to have everything that’s considered the best. Some were short; others, bad at sports. Others yet had an inadequate nose–so long and so forth. They used their potential and turned it into accomplishments that would attract attention and help them overcome their bitter resentment.

This is more or less how it goes: it starts with children (and then adults) whose vanity was hurt because they felt inconsequential, unlike the popular kids. Their brains refuse to accept their own limitations and imperfections, and they become resentful for not being as gifted as they would have liked to be. They decide to work hard, some ethically and others not, to change their situation. This is called ambition, a highly valued characteristic in our culture, which pays little attention to its problematic motivations.

Ambitious people are also competitive; their efforts to stand out make them happy when they see others are jealous or have been humiliated by them. Consequently, ambition might be the conductor for our worst emotions, and the motivator of some of the most contemptible actions we seen in society. It would be worth studying and understanding vanity just for this reason, but as I have written about extensively, it is much more far-reaching.

Tradução: Amanda Morris