Mental Hopscotch — if I’m so smart, why is my brain so dumb?

Wil Wheaton
Jul 11, 2016 · 23 min read

This is a slightly edited copy of my prepared remarks for the Mensa Annual Gathering. These remarks are meant to be heard and performed, so some of the nuance may be lost in the text.

Mental Hopscotch
If I’m so smart, why is my brain so dumb?

When Mensa invited me to speak to you tonight, it was easy to say yes. Though I am not a member — and I’ll get to that in a minute — my son is. In fact, he took and passed the test when he was 16, the youngest in his group. Joining Mensa was something he’d wanted to do since he was in sixth grade, and because I am a loving and supportive father, I thought that I’d help him prepare. I was in GATE, then AP, then honors, then Starfleet, so I figured that I could be a useful resource for him … and holy shit was I wrong. It was a humbling moment for me, eleven years ago, when I discovered that not only did my son not need my help, but I was wholly unable to give it. Like, I’m a smart guy, but as far as I am concerned, the Mensa test may as well be administered in Aramaic to subjects who are blindfolded and underwater. On Europa.

What I remember from the practice tests I looked at and then quickly ran terrified away from was that they tested my ability to reason and extrapolate the solutions to problems both complex and relatively simple, often from incomplete information. I didn’t have too much trouble with that part of it, but it was the math that killed me, because even though I’ve tried over and over again since I was in third grade, when it comes to math, I am talking Malibu Stacy.

Still, I accepted this invitation to speak tonight because one of my fundamental rules for living a successful and happy life is: don’t be the smartest person in the room, its corollary is: if you look around and see that you are the smartest person in the room, find a new room. This is the only way you keep growing and challenging yourself to be the most interesting human you can be.

The thing about that is … well, when you’re literally put on a pedestal in front of that room? It’s … really fucking terrifying to stand here. What could I possibly tell a room full of people who are smarter than me? Something geeky? Okay, that’s … well … right. Something geeky. Talk about something geeky that’s going to be relevant to a massively diverse group of people who probably aren’t judging me, but I’ll just proceed as if they are because that’s how my stupid brain works.

Okay … something geeky … something geeky …

I’m a geek! Everything in my life is geeky!

It’s going to be okay, Wheaton. Just sit down, and write about what you know.

Okay. I’ll do that … later.

And that’s what I did for months, you have not experienced procrastination in its purest, most distilled form, until you’ve been asked to give a speech to a room full of people who are MENSA members. On paper, it sounds like a wonderful opportunity! Here is the chance to talk about ANYTHING I want to talk about to a group of smart people! But I have to tell you — trying to choose what that topic should be evokes the same kind of anxiety that walking into a hardware store or art supply store can induce. All that straight up, raw potential — it’s exhilarating! It’s exciting! It’s enervating — it’s –massively terrifying and overwhelming.

I want you to imagine that you’re an explorer, hundreds of years ago. You are standing on the deck of your ship, and your crew is waiting for you to tell them where you want to go next. You look out toward the horizon and there is nothing but ocean in every direction. Now, you’re an explorer, so this is EPIC. No land masses, no birds, just uncharted sea that as far as you know eventually pours off the back of the turtle we’re on, and down onto the backs of all the other turtles that hold up our world, all the way down, because science.

If you’re an explorer, this is awesome, because you can just let the wind fill your sails and then you get to explore that vast, blank expanse of water until you find something. You get to make the map.

For me, this is terrifying, because I don’t want to make the map. I want the map to show me where I can go, and what I can expect to find when I get there. So it’s like I have this beautiful work of cartography with some land masses on it, a compass that’s really a butt if you look at it the right way, and, where I’m going, written in the most gorgeous calligraphy you’ve ever seen, the phrase “HERE THERE BE GEEKY THINGS.”

As recently as ten years ago, “something geeky” would have been easy to define, because those of us who self-identified as geeks or nerds — and who solidified our membership in our culture by arguing what it meant to be a geek or a nerd, and why you were one but not the other because the other was weird — we were all part of a relatively small subculture, and we found our way to the things that we loved (and continue to love) because we weren’t particularly welcome anywhere else … or at least we didn’t feel very comfortable there.

And, right now, it is delightfully and magnificently difficult to choose one geeky thing to talk about, because the thing is … we won, you guys. The geeks have absolutely inherited the Earth, and all the people who tormented us in our lives because we were smart and weird and couldn’t catch a football will be first against the wall when the revolution comes!

Yeah! Nerds rule! Good night!

[TRANSITION]

I eventually figured out what I was going to talk to you about tonight, and I hope you like it, but before I get there, you have been promised SOMETHING GEEKY, so I’m going to briefly go through some of the things that have been instrumental in making me the person I am today, all of them geeky.

Let’s start with science fiction, specifically in books.

In third or fourth grade, part of our curriculum was a monthly trip to a local library in Tujunga, California. One of the librarians would read us a short story, give a short talk about a literacy-related topic, and then let us pick a book off a table of paperbacks that we could keep. We were also allowed — no, encouraged — to check out up to three books, which we would have a month to read.

I was a nerdy, shy, awkward kid who was scared of everything, and the library intimidated me; I never knew where to start, I was afraid I’d pick a book that the Cool Kids would tease me about reading, and I always felt lost in the stacks. This librarian, though, reached out to me. She asked me what sort of things I liked on TV and in the movies, and recommended a few different books based on my answers, including the first real SciFi book I can recall reading, Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien. I loved it so much, when I went back the next month, she taught me how to use the card catalog to find other books like it, entirely on my own. On that day, the library was transformed from a confusing and intimidating collection of books into a thousand different portals through time and space to fantastic worlds for me to explore.

I don’t remember her name, but I do remember that she was in her fifties, wore epic 1970s polyester pantsuits, huge glasses that hung from a long gold chain around her neck, and had a hairdo that was ten miles high. She was friendly and helpful, and when she reached out to that nerdy little kid, she changed his life. If you’re a librarian today, you probably don’t hear this very often, but thank you. Thank you for making a difference in people’s lives.

I didn’t know it then, but one of the things that drew me to science fiction and then into fantasy was how it rewarded me for using my imagination. And it wasn’t just using my imagination to picture myself on a space station or riding a dragon; it was using my imagination to visualize and believe in a world where the things that made me weird and awkward would actually make me cool and valuable. And in using my imagination to experience that reality, I was inspired to work hard to create that reality. I know that I’m not alone in that. Over the last 25ish years, I’ve met engineers, chemists, scientists, astronauts, doctors, and professors who all chose their fields because they loved science fiction, specifically Star Trek, and even more specifically, the character I played on The Next Generation. Whether they are male or female, whether they were kids who watched our show when it was first on in the 80s, or if they are the children of those kids, they all tell a similar story of being inspired by a young person who could use his intelligence to be valuable to the adults around him.

To digress into that for just a moment: My character on Star Trek, Wesley Crusher, wasn’t beloved by everyone. In fact, while he inspired many people to challenge themselves to do great things with their lives, he also inspired some people to develop complex Rube Goldberg machines that resulted in his gruesome death and dismemberment, in ways that I have to admit are pretty creative and clever. I hope that at least some of those people went onto careers designing courses for American Ninja Warrior.

I bring this up because over the years, I’ve determined that the writers on Next Generation missed a huge opportunity to portray something that was happening to me at the time, something that I have learned is really common when extremely intelligent young people are put into an environment like mine: See, I was the only kid among a group of adults, and we were together five days a week, ten hours a day, and while I loved them and they loved me and we were very much a family, there was always a generation gap between us, because I was a kid and they were adults. When work was finished, they could all go out for dinner and drinks, and I went home to do homework. When Depeche Mode came to town for a concert, I couldn’t get them excited about it any more than they could get me excited about the Tower of Power show they were going to see, together, without me. And this created a tremendous amount of angst in me, because I so desperately wanted their approval, and I so desperately wanted them to think that I was as cool as I thought they were. I was very good at my job. I knew my lines … most of the time … and I got to work on time every day. I was present as an actor in the scenes we had together, and when it was time to shoot a scene, I was focused and professional. I could relate to the adults around me on that professional level, but it was impossible for us to have a similar personal relationship, because I was not just a teenager, but an awkward, nerdy, frequently obnoxious teenager who was too smart for his own good. For years, I’ve wondered what could have been, if the writers of The Next Generation had incorporated that kind of emotional conflict into my character. I wonder if that would have made him less of an idea and plot device, and more of a person, who screws up even when he’s trying his best, and then is so embarrassed by it that he can’t bring himself to apologize.

Epilogue to that whole thing, by the way: as I grew up, the generation gap got smaller and smaller and eventually closed entirely. Now, the rest of the cast and I are all just adults, some of them are my fellow parents, and we all hang out. Sadly, I was never able to help them understand why Black Celebration is superior to Violator, but it’s an imperfect world; screws fall out all the time.

So to go back to the pre-TNG years: my imagination was where I was most comfortable, and not just because I got to be the hero of every story I told, but because I was good at imagining things. I couldn’t look at anything and take it at face value. I was compelled to think, “yeah, that’s fine, but what if…?” and then I’d tell a story about it. This is not always awesome. Sometimes, my imagination gets away from me. I’ll look at a tide pool, and then glance up at the ocean beyond it, and completely freak myself out imagining that we are right now in something similar to that tide pool, and who knows that the hell is in the ocean beyond our perception.

I know I’m not alone in this. One of my favorite smart people in the world, the physicist Michio Kaku, wrote a book that changed my life called Hyperspace. At the beginning of it, he tells a story about how his parents took him to a botanical garden when he was small, and while looking at koi fish in a pond, he wondered what would happen if one of those fish was a scientist, and that fish scientist was pulled out of the pond by a human, then put back. That fish scientist would tell its colleagues that it had seen this amazing other part of the world that was just beyond the limits of their perception, and while it was in that world, it could even look back and see their world. Then, just as quickly as it was taken out of its world, it was put right back in … and no, it can’t replicate the experience because it has no idea how it happened and why are all of you other fish scientists looking at me like I’m nuts.

That story blew my mind when I was 17 and first read it. It fired up my imagination in a way that hadn’t ever happened before. It made a lot of sense to me. Nature likes to replicate tiny, simple things into incredibly complex things — like the basic, fractal patterns that you can’t unsee once you know how to look for them in everything from sand dunes to oak trees — so it stands to reason that we are in something like that pond, and there’s something just beyond the surface of the water that we can’t perceive, or even prove is there … and holy shit that’s awesome and terrifying all at once, and TO SERVE MAN IS A COOKBOOK.

That is one of the things that binds all of us geeks together, I think. We all have vivid and active imaginations, and we all, in our own way, look at the world around us and say, “yeah, but what if…?” For me, as an entertainer, I write and tell and perform stories that answer that question. For someone who is a physicist or a doctor or an engineer, they actually do something about it. And when everything works out, one of those smart people sees something that an entertainer like me did, and an entire generation takes for granted that they grew up with a phone in their pocket, the least interesting thing about it being that it makes phone calls. I mean, it’s really distracting when my camera rings, or I get a text message in the middle of a game of Carcassonne, and it can be catastrophic to get an email popup notification when I’m in a timed challenge playing Alphabear.

So I guess this is a good time to talk about that other geeky thing that was instrumental in shaping my human existence: gaming. Specifically, Tabletop gaming.

[There’s a big edit here. I cut about 2500 words that come from The Happiest Days of Our Lives.]

Of all the things I do that make me a geek, nothing brings me as much joy as gaming. It all started with the D&D Basic Set, and today, it takes an entire room in my house to contain all of my books, boxes, and dice.

That time in my life I talked about a few minutes ago, when I was feeling weird and confused and frustrated and my awkwardness was set to maximum? That’s when tabletop gaming became the foundation of the best friendships I’ve ever had, and it’s the mortar that has held my group of friends together for almost 30 years.

And like science fiction, gaming inspires my imagination, because when we play a game — any game — we are using our imagination to bring a world to life, and that’s truly special, because while all destruction is essentially the same, when you create something, it’s different every single time. When you create something together, you’re building bonds with your fellow gamers that could last for your entire lives. The Venn Diagram of my best friends, my gaming group, and people from high school I still hang out with is one perfect circle. And the whole reason I created my show, Tabletop, was because I wanted to help other people find the same joy, the same friendships, the same enduring relationships that I found, because of gaming.

[TRANSITION]

The last geeky thing I wanted to talk about before I get to what I’m actually going to talk about is what it means to be a geek, or a nerd.

When I was young, and those magical pocket phones I spoke of only existed in speculative fiction, I privately mocked jocks for their tribalistic football rituals the exact same way that they openly mocked me for playing D&D, never realizing until very recently that though we loved very different things, we loved them the same way, and that’s when I started talking about how being a geek isn’t about what you love; it’s about the way that you love it. My friend John Rogers once observed that Fantasy Sports is D&D for jocks, and I love that, because it means that everything is geeky if you do it right. (Parenthetically, I won my Fantasy Baseball league year after year by drafting overvalued fan favorites early, and then trading them to people who didn’t understand sabermetrics. Because, you know, game theory and stuff.)

I mean, that’s the really great part about being a nerd, isn’t it?

A normal person just turns on their computer, and is happy that it works. A normal person can’t understand why you’d want to compile your own linux kernel on a slackware installation that you’re running on a virtual machine, but I wonder why youwouldn’t want to do that.

A normal person sees a movie and enjoys it. They maybe even talk about it a little bit afterward. But we see a movie as source material for our fan fiction, headcanon, and thousands of hours of … lively … discussion about our fan theories.

A normal person turns on a light bulb, and never even stops to think for a second about how much Edison screwed over Tesla, and they probably don’t even want to attempt to build their own Van de Graaf Generator or Tesla Coil.

Where a normal person sees something like … a slice of sourdough bread, a baking geek sees a starter that’s been carefully fed for years, wonders how long the dough was allowed to rise, and was it folded? Or was it punched and kneaded? Or maybe it’s no-knead! Maybe I can get some of that starter, grow my own starter from it, and then do a side by side comparison of my own loaves, accounting for humidity, ambient temperature and oh god I forgot that there are fifteen people in line behind me and I haven’t ordered my sandwich, yet. In my defense, he did ask me if I wanted to try their new sourdough bread.

So when I think about what it means to be one of us, when I think about what it means to be a geek or a nerd or a dweeb or a dork or a doofus or a weirdo, I think that it means that we love things in a uniquely enthusiastic way. And we get so excited about the things that we love, that we can’t help but share them with other people, long after they’ve lost interest and really just want us to tell them if we want the sandwich toasted or not.

And while our enthusiasm for our the things that make up what we tend to think of as “geek culture”, is awesome, I have to say something about that:

We don’t get to decide what the right way is to be a geek about a thing. We don’t get to decide who gets to buy a ticket to Comicon any more than a baseball fan gets to decide who gets to buy a ticket to see the Dodgers (oh, side note: fuck you, Time Warner Cable. Give me my goddamn Dodgers back on television you scabby bawface dobbers).

And I can go on and on about how those of us who are elder geeks probably feel like it’s just so damn easy to be a geek right now, the damn kids today don’t know how good they have it! And if everything is geeky, maybe nothing is geeky, and that means that gatekeeping in geek and nerd culture is a pointless waste of time. So when someone tells you that they love X-Men, or Game of Thrones, or Star Wars, or learning to program in Python, the best way to respond is with a high five (or sci-five), not a pop quiz and a summary judgement. Because every single one of us, when we were protonerds, we met someone who said, Oh, you like this thing that I like? Cool! Let’s like it together, and meet some other people who will like it with us. And, BOOM: the first Star Trek convention happened. And it was awesome, and then there were conventions everywhere for everything nerds loved, and it gave us a place where we could be who we were without being afraid of the cool kids making fun of us

HASHTAG PRIDE

And when shitty corporations tried to turn conventions into an efficient way to separate fans from their money, it was people like us, who shared our passions and enthusiasm, who stopped them, and made conventions about celebrating the things we love.

So, if I may: it isn’t enough to be kind and welcoming to the people who want to join us in celebrating all the amazing things that we love. When we see someone being a gatekeeper, we have to walk right up to them, say “don’t be a dick,” and bring that person they were trying to keep out right into our clubhouse. Because the next Joss Whedon or Elon Musk or Kelly Sue Deconnick is just discovering nerd culture for the first time, and I promise you that we want them to be part of it.

[TRANSITION]

Okay, we have talked about some geeky things, as promised. I am now going to talk to you about something that I think is the geekiest thing of all, a thing that most of us have in common, regardless of which particular part of geek culture we hold closest to our hearts: anxiety.

I have this thing called Imposter Syndrome, and I guess it’s fairly common among creative people. The way it works is this part of my brain that’s supposed to be on my side but is really a dick about everything goes, “You know, you suck at everything and you don’t deserve to be here and nobody likes you because you suck. Boy do you suck. You are the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked.”

This voice is relentless, even though I’m supposed to be successful enough to ignore it and show it physical evidence of its bullshit in the form of awards and a happy marriage and two awesome kids, it never, ever, ever shuts up. But while I was preparing for tonight, it overplayed its hand. It filled me with so much anxiety, it reminded me of an article I read about a study which indicated that highly intelligent people tend to have generalized anxiety and other mental health issues at a rate that is significantly greater than a control group.

And when I read that, I knew that I wanted to talk about it. because it doesn’t matter if I’m just a writer or just an actor or just a geek or just any of the things my stupid brain tells me I “just” am. All of us here, at one time or another in our lives, have had a hard time relating to people who just don’t get us. We are constantly surrounded by people who just see a loaf of bread, or don’t care how things work, as long as they work. They don’t stay up at night, unable to sleep, because they can’t stop thinking about how thin our atmosphere is, relative to the size of our planet, and how terrifying it is that we’re basically these tiny little things on a giant hunk of rock speeding through space at like 30 kilometers per second and what the hell is space, anyway? And if we really are in a computer simulation, what’s the computer running it in? And can I somehow break out of the program to find out? Wait. If I can think that, it’s just part of my programming so does that mean that free will is oh hey the sun is coming up and I haven’t slept at all.

And it’s not that we want to do this, right? It’s that we can’t help it. It doesn’t matter if you’re an engineer, an artist, an athlete, or a blacksmith. Look around you — everyone here has their own internal monologue. It’s what separates us from animals, that constant conversation going on in all our heads. And when we feel nervous about something — that voice is what helps us rise above the fight or flight instinct of animals — it can soothe us, talk us down, talk us up — or in some cases — blather on and make things worse. When you’re smart, and faced with a problem, this voice starts to break things down, so you can solve it. “Here is the problem. Here are its individual pieces. Now, how do we solve this rationally and logically.” It is not unreasonable to expect that by breaking down a problem into pieces, we should be able to make those pieces follow rules. And rules are comfortable and comforting and make us feel safe.

But anyone who has ever tried to reason with an unreasonable person knows that more frequently than we’d like, the pieces just will NOT follow the rules, even though they should follow the rules, because that’s the simplest and most efficient and most logical way to get things done. And here comes that voice again, only this time it’s telling us that everything is terrible and nothing will ever follow the rules and we’re all going to die and the frogurt is also cursed.

That voice speaks to me almost every day, and if I could just make it stop, I would, but I have mental illness. I have anxiety and depression, and I want you to know that if you do, too, you are not alone. If you’re like me, you get frustrated that the thing that makes you special, your big beautiful brain that is so smart and capable of so much more than some muggle’s brain is, actively fucks with you every day.

And it makes you wonder: If I’m so smart, why is my brain so dumb? Why can’t my brain just get with the program, and stop worrying about everything all the time? My life is great! I love my job. I love my family. I love my home and my pets. I love everything I get to do in this amazing world, and I haven’t even scratched the surface of what there is to explore on this planet! I make art that matters and I inspire people to do cool stuff … so why do I feel so terrible about myself all the time?

Oh, right. Because my brain is broken. There’s all sorts of interesting medical and neurochemical reasons for it, and I’ve learned everything I can about them, but knowing all of that isn’t enough to make my brain magically start processing serotonin and norepinephrine and dopamine in a balanced way, so that I won’t feel like my career is over when I’m not cast in The Dark Tower or Ready Player One,and feel like nothing is worth doing for days at a time, even though I know how irrational that is.

This is where being really smart is kind of the worst. All the skills that we’ve learned over the course of our lives, the things that set us apart from average people, they really don’t help. In fact, the frustration that we feel when those skills don’t work can actually make it all worse, because it’s not only unfair, it’s irrational! It isn’t following the rules, and this isn’t Vietnam, Dude.

And it makes you feel really, really alone. Like, you are the only person who has ever felt this way, and the only person who ever will feel this way, and if you just tried a little harder, you wouldn’t feel this way. But you do feel this way, because you’re alone. Yep, you’re alone and nobody can help you. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprised if you’re the only one with this infernal internal monologue. Look around you — nobody else seems to have this problem. It’s just you.

But that’s not true. Even when it feels like it’s the most truthful thing in the history of human existence, it’s a lie. I know this, because I have depression, and I know that depression lies. It lied to me for months while I was trying to put this talk together, tag teaming with its best friend, Anxiety, so I reached out to some of my friends, and asked them for help. And it took a little while, but they helped me find my way out of that terrifying darkness and back into the sunshine, where I was able to put this whole thing together.

And I know that this doesn’t apply to all of you in this room, but statistics and personal experience tell me that it applies to enough of you that it’s worth saying: you’re the only one with your point of view, and the voice in your head is unique to you — so when that voice starts being negative or irrational, it can feel super weird to reach out and ask for help — how can anyone else understand what’s going on, or what you’re feeling if they cannot get in your head?

But you must. And I’m not using the second person plural as a generality — I am really talking to YOU. ALL OF YOU sitting out there. YOU must ask for help when anxiety makes you feel out of control. Because we need you. We need you to be well and whole and taking care of yourselves. I know that the prevailing rise of anti-intellectualism that’s plaguing our world right now can be unbelievably depressing. I know that it’s hard not to go to bed forever when you read about people googling “what happens if the UK leaves the EU” AFTER they’ve voted to, you know, leave the EU. Or hear that people are “sick of experts.” But, and I have to believe this, or I may just be the one who goes to bed forever — but eventually the pendulum will swing back. The world needs smart people, because smart people are the ones who figure shit out. Smart people are the ones that don’t throw away the petri dishes because some mold got on them. Smart people don’t cut down apple trees in anger because the damn apples keep falling on their heads. Smart people — look, YOU guys are the SMART people, I don’t need to keep giving you examples.

Here’s what I need you guys to do. I need this entire room of people to make a pact. It’s just us, so what happens here in beautiful downtown San Diego, stays in beautiful downtown San Diego. So here it goes. You are the superheroes we need. But the world doesn’t know it yet. But they will. And something cataclysmic will occur, and the world will cry out, “who will save us?” And I need you to be ready to burst out of the crowd, rip open your shirt to expose your true identity and say proudly, “I’m ready! I am the SUPERHERO YOU NEED!”

But you won’t be ready for the day we need you if you don’t take care of yourself. I’m not saying go all Dark Knight on us and build an industrial bunker underneath your house or physically train like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance, which I know seems like a reference out of left field, but that’s my go to movie montage of someone working hard at being physically fit, because of reasons.

What I mean is, if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your internal monologue, and the voice delivering it is no longer a friendly one — please — don’t be afraid to ask for help. One of the most insidious lies mental illness tells us is that asking for help, or taking medication to get better means that we are weak. It means that we are a failure, and we somehow deserve to suffer.

This. Is bullshit. You don’t deserve to suffer. You are not weak. You are not a failure. Your brain, like mine, needs help to keep its profoundly complicated machinery working. Depression lies, and when it tells you these lies, you can look right back into its stupid face and say, “Shut up. Wil Wheaton told me that it’s okay to get help, and he pretended to live in outer space, so he outranks you.”

I love being a nerd, and I love having the tremendous privilege to occasionally stand up in front of other nerds, and talk about what it’s like when you’re us, and if you’ve heard something useful or even inspirational tonight, I hope that you will be me to someone else. Because we’re all we’ve got, and in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep because I can’t stop thinking about how rapidly our species is destroying our planet, and how many stupid and dangerous people have the ability to wipe us out in the blink of an eye, it helps to know that there are smart, compassionate, empathetic nerds in the world to stop them.

We need you. So please take care of yourselves.

And play more games.

Thank you for listening to me.

Wil Wheaton

Written by

Wizard. Time Lord. Fake geek girl. On a good day I am charming as fuck.