Intellectual Stimulation in Life and Romance

A stab at clarifying my thinking on this topic:

1. Many smart people with high IQs are not intellectually stimulating.

2. What makes someone stimulating and not just smart? For starters, curiosity and interdisciplinary thinking.

3. There is a difference between someone who intellectually stimulates you and someone who intellectually challenges you. I know someone is stimulating me if I am developing new theories or evolving current ones. I know someone is challenging me if I must stand corrected with some frequency.

4. The most rewarding form of stimulation is when you are pushed and challenged on topics of strength. Sure, I know nothing about cooking, and could probably be stimulated on that topic, along with a million other topics for which I posses zero knowledge. But that wouldn't as exciting as being pushed on a topic where I am already ahead of the curve.

5. In romantic partners, I seek a woman who's stimulatable — someone who is interested. I will be happy if I marry a woman who is very interested in the world, interested in my ideas, and has ideas of her own. Plus all that other (more) important stuff. I do not feel like she has to intellectually challenge me per se on my points of strength; complementary strengths, or non-overlapping strengths, seems like the most workable romantic arrangement. After all, many "power couples" who challenge each other in the same way on the same things do not last very long.

6. Intellectual stimulation is not the be all end all. Other things matter more in relationships and in life. The question, "Do I have fun when I'm with this person?" to me matters more than anything in both friendship and romance, and the fun litmus-test is paramount in life more generally.

(thanks to Steve Dodson for helping me think this through)

8 comments on “Intellectual Stimulation in Life and Romance
  • I am consistently entertained, tickled and left thoughtful on your blog, Ben. Points 5 and 6 are spot on. Mostly because a long-term relationship is, to employ a management cliché, a team of skills that cover a lot of ground. The couple could over-specialise in some areas and not know much in others which means most conversations are one-sided and above all, leave no surprises. And there is the crux of the existence of those who use the word “intellectual” in most of their lives’ considerations: no surprises = no stimulation = boredom = end of relationship (not necessarily in legal terms but definitely in real terms).

  • Ben,

    This post makes me grin – we are generally on the same page.

    A couple of thoughts:
    It is interesting that you separate challenge & stimulus, then immediately follow this with a claim that the most rewarding stimulus is rife with challenge.

    Thinking about that, one of the biggest differentiators between those who challenge versus those that stimulate is the capacity to push, as compared with negate. I tend to think of the best conversations as explorations (which may help explain the adrenaline rush I get from them *grin*) And, in an exploration, by very nature, we are dependent on each other for input & direction. A challenge, conversely, I see as a battle, where there are more clearly defined winners & losers.

    For me, being very curious by nature, I think finding an exploration partner – in subjects of all manners – is the key to a successful relationship.

    Congruently, considering that you (and I) think that that most rewarding stimulus is that which enables growth in an area of strength, I find it interesting that you wouldn’t want a romantic partner to share it. Personally, my single biggest turn on is someone who can push me at one of my strengths. It might be a gender thing, but I think that having someone to consistently help me grow in an area of strength is fun, exciting and passionate in a manner that is very hard to replicate in a non-strength area. That’s not to say that I am looking for a carbon copy — by virtue of them being an interesting person, we will have many diverse & complimentary skills, but, none the less, I crave at least one area of true strength compatibility.

    I so enjoy your writing. Thanks.

  • Thanks Rebecca. My thinking is that I have tons of friends, colleagues, co-workers, etc etc who can challenge on strengths. I’d rather get pushed in different directions in romance.

  • Very interesting – the stimulating kind 😉 – set of thoughts. Now I’m wondering what sort of people are likely to be intellectually challenging vs intellectually stimulating.

    It seems to me the key is the type of differences between individuals:

    1. Differences between life experiences – i.e. the stock of knowledge. Here you’re likely to get someone with a different spread of strengths, but possibly someone who will grow more and more similar to you as your relationship continues (good thing or bad thing?). I’d suspect that this sort of person could be both stimulating (in that they provide you with completely unique points of information) and challenging (in that his or her background knowledge & assumptions lead to wildly different conclusions on topics you’re both interested in).

    2. Differences between interests – i.e. the flow of knowledge. If you’re interested in different things – or at least consume different streams of information – then you’re likely to be continuously stimulated by this person. I want my RSS friends to share items that are dissimilar to what I see in my own feed. However, you run the risk here of failing to be fully challenged. But the relationship may still be incredibly comfortable, especially if you share a similar background or can just have fun together.

    3. Differences in cognitive styles (I still need to read Cowen’s book!). These are the people who are always going to be challenging you if you share some common interests, but it’s unlikely that the relationship will be a very comfortable one.

  • From Facebook:

    Complementary strengths are key – & I say this as flaky artsy writer type who seems to keep ending up with structured entrepreneurial types even when seeking other flaky artsy types — & makes sense from evolutionary standpoint why we’re driven to form such partnerships…I’d add ‘intellectually stimulating’ ranges across all things: thinking & … Read Moreapproach to life, ability to process & communicate experiences, be passionate, involved with the world….Difficulty I see for successful workaholics: in traditional arrangement, woman runs domestic sphere but man gets bored & lonely, can’t relate. But if woman bright & passionate & adventurous, she tends not to want traditional.

    For best friend element to relationship, I rate intellectual compatibility as important as kindness — connecting intellectually as well as emotionally & physically. To have fun over a long period of time requires that…Sorry, Ben, you might have to find someone who’s hot *and* really smart. 🙂

  • One of my male psychiatrist acquaintances believes that males are always on the make for one or more of the following in a woman: sex, emotional support, intellectual stimulation. They vary in priority. I went for sex first in a woman, but found rather early on–thankfully–that I was far more interested in a woman with smarts. On occasion, though, emotional support meant more. That’s not to say sex wasn’t important.

    That, of course, is a male response, and it can be spun a lot of different directions, but the psychiatrist’s views have always been conversational fodder. I look at this from 30,000 feet, in contrast to how I looked at it in my twenties.

  • Okay, time to shake the dew off the lily.

    I’ve always been amused by, and a little contemptuous of, the attitude that one’s life is not complete without romantic love. I’ve experienced it several times and I have to say that life generally is better without it.

    Is it a challenge to say that these Tim Ferrisesque (ugh) ‘litmus tests’ are unnecessary to peace and happiness in one’s personal life? Fuggedaboutit.

    A real marriage is a contract between two persons, not a “Love Story”, and that’s the root of the problem with divorce rates in this country. No one takes their wedding vows seriously, except for Christian fundamentalists who pretend they’re marrying either Jesus or the Virgin Mary.

    But they’re not really serious either, because their divorce rates are just as high as, or higher than, everyone else’s. I would be shocked if it developed that Todd Palin had never had his way with one of his sled dogs (poor things).

    But if you insist on having ‘romance’ in your life– practically speaking, I’d have to agree with Amy Gahran that polyamory (having more than one loving, intimate relationship at a time with the full knowledge and free consent of everyone involved- wikipedia) is the way to go.

    So, in that spirit, Ben, will you marry me?;-)

  • You make some fair points, Vince. Romance is, well, romanticized. And it’s certainly possible I think to be in a polygamous marriage or just stay single your whole life. But I think there’s a reason so many try to shack up in a monogamous relationship.

    Todd Palin / sled dog comment is hilarious….

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