Wisdom from the smartest man in the world

By Rane McDonough

Courtesy of the Idaho National Laboratory/Flickr

Kim Ung-yong has a confirmed IQ of 210, one of the highest ever. He started life as a child prodigy and could read four languages. He began taking  university courses when he was a 3-year-old and was asked to come to the United States to work on pure math problems for NASA as an 8-year-old. When he was 16 years old, he burned out and returned to Korea.

He attended university and eventually settled into a middle management job at a Korean corporation called Chungbuk Development and has not made big headlines since. Upon his return to obscurity in Korea, he was labeled a “failed genius.”

Yet Mr. Kim does not see himself as a failure, citing his happiness as a source of success. Though as a child he did things that were beyond the capabilities of most adults, he was not happy. In a recent interview, he referred to his years at NASA as “the lonely years.”

It is wrong for the Korean media to deride Mr. Kim as a failed genius. He gave much more to society than was required of him, but, despite his impressive gifts, he was, at the end of the day, only human.

Instead of flying too close to the sun, he recognized his human limits and ended up with a nice, happy life. While most of us will not contribute to a better understanding of the inner workings of the universe, what is true for Kim Ung-yong is true for everyone: We are born, we contribute to the betterment of our species and then we die. Once an individual contributes enough to ensure that he can live comfortably, it is his decision how much more he is willing to do.

As Orson Scott Card wrote in “Ender’s Game,” “Individual human beings are all tools, that the others use to help us all survive.”

During Mr. Kim’s early life, he was indeed just a tool, a human supercomputer used by NASA and, by extension, the rest of humanity, to help understand the mathematical nature of the universe. He performed his function until he was no longer able to.

But once he had made a name for himself, once he reached a point in which he could live whatever life he wanted, he had to choose: What kind of life did he want to live?

Instead of choosing glory or power, he chose peace and quiet. In doing so, he followed a tradition of other great men, such as Cincinnatus and George Washington, who quit while they were ahead instead of overextending themselves. For that, I respect Mr. Kim.

While most of us will never be as smart or as useful as Kim, we still have to face the same question that he did: How much? How much of our lives belong to ourselves, and how much belongs to our neighbors, our countrymen, our fellow humans and to posterity?

In my opinion, this is the most important decision you can make. The ability to make this decision and experience the consequences of it without blaming others is the foundation of freedom.

There are those who choose the extremes. There are people who live from day-to-day, who consider only themselves and care nothing for the emptiness of their own lives. They are born, they die and with their passing, nothing remains to show that they were ever here. Then there are those who are so focused on the big picture, and they lose sight of their humanity in the process. There are scientists who conduct illegal and immoral experiments in the name of “progress,” and tyrants who butcher millions of their own people in the pursuit of “the perfect society.”

Finally, there are the rest of us in the middle trying to maintain a delicate balance. We try to live fully, while still remembering our vulnerabilities and imperfections. We should follow Kim’s example and not let others try to dictate our lives for us.

Rane McDonough is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]