I used to think I was a pretty smart guy. That was because I knew what an imaginary number was and I remembered the difference between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. I didn’t think I was a genius, mind you—just pretty smart. I now realize something though. Yes, I’m fairly smart, but no, it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.

We have this idea that exceptionally smart people are on top of the world, but I think that’s false. We don’t generally embrace the geniuses among us and reward them with charming tidbits. Say on one hand you have a woman who engineers bridges so that they don’t fall down, and on the other hand you have a guy who bats .372 in the playoffs. Which one of them has a fan club and a Lamborghini for each day of the week?

Please don’t misunderstand me, I think that raw intelligence is a wonderful thing. If I need open heart surgery, I don’t want a surgeon who’s sitting around watching Jackass II before the operation. And smart people have helped us a lot throughout history. Isaac Newton, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein didn’t exactly spend their time counting on their toes and eating paste.

On the other hand, just last month I met the dumbest guy with a 160 IQ I ever ran across. Have you met this guy? He’s obviously brilliant, but he understands so little about the world he lives in that he’s unable to accomplish a single damned thing. If he wore barbed wire briefs to dampen his intellectual prowess, he might be better off.

Raw intellectual power is like a keyhole saw. If you need to cut a hole for a doorknob, a keyhole saw is invaluable. For a slew of specialized jobs, if you don’t have a keyhole saw you are practically paralyzed. If you don’t have a keyhole saw and instead use a different tool, like a rubber mallet, things are not going to go well.

But the great majority of jobs in your garage are not keyhole saw jobs. For example, if you try to re-wire a chandelier with your keyhole saw, no fun will be involved in the process. If you are lucky enough to have a keyhole saw, by all means keep it in your toolbox, but realize that you’ll only need it for special jobs. As any handyman knows, most of your jobs in life are best handled with duct tape and WD-40. With them you can do just about anything (doorknob installation notwithstanding).

So if raw intellect is like a keyhole saw, then what qualities are like duct tape and WD-40? Well, I’m sure everybody has their own theories about that. I personally try to understand them in terms of our distant ancestors. Considering those ancestors, I think that duct tape is the skill of working nicely with the rest of the clan so that they don’t throw you out of the cave into the snow to die. And WD-40 is paying close enough attention to the world around you so that you can hide from the saber-tooth tiger before it eats your ass.

This kind of thing is useful every day. How often do you need to conjugate a verb or interpolate a logarithmic function? (painting and photo by Cyn McCurry)