Mind Games: The Mensa Club

With potted plants, sliding glass doors and wall-to-wall carpet, this South Side apartment complex clubhouse seems a more appropriate setting for a Tupperware party than a brain trust. But a brain trust it is this Friday night, when the Richmond, Virginia Mensa club holds its monthly meeting.Mensa is officially known as the International High IQ Society. It was founded in England 50 years ago by two lawyers who had the bright idea to start a society for smart people. They envisioned a group that was nonpolitical and free from all racial and religious distinctions; an exceptional IQ would be the only membership qualification. Today, the Mensa Society maintains its neutral status, though individual members often have strong opinions about anything under the sun.The term IQ stands for intelligence quotient. It is one way of measuring an individual's intelligence against a cross-section of their peers. Getting together in the name of high IQ may seem a little odd, even pretentious. And the question arises: Why would anyone do such a thing?"Sometimes it's a burden to be bright," Mensan Adele Klien, says, laughing. "I guess it's a burden to be stupid, too, but if I had to choose my burden I guess I'd rather be bright."And it can be a burden, Mensans say, when you're in the narrow wedge of society endowed with a super-high IQ. Those who soar in the intellectual stratosphere sometimes have a difficult time connecting with the rest of the world puttering along in a lower flight path. And it can be frustrating and painful to live in a society that at best ignores intellectual achievement and often ridicules it. (Who had the better social life in high school -- captain of the football team or president of the math club?) Like anyone else, Mensans want to be themselves with other people. For a genius, that's often easiest around other geniuses.There are many definitions of genius; traditionally a person with an IQ of 141 or higher has been considered a genius. Those who test such things consider anyone who scores in the 98th percentile or above on an intelligence test a genius. That top 2 percent also happens to be Mensa's standard for membership.Mensa member and newsletter editor Klien has been a Mensa member for 15 years. She learned about Mensa 35 years ago but had reservations about taking the entrance test. "I knew I was smart," she says, "and I was interested in taking a Mensa test, but suppose I failed? I was happy thinking I was smart, and I didn't want some test suddenly telling me I wasn't."It wasn't until she was 50 that a friend convinced her to take the test. "I've had a marvelous time ever since," she says.Among her fellow Mensans, Klien, who looks more like a Mary Kay representative than a stereotypical genius, has found it much easier to be social. "I find I'm much more extroverted when I'm among Mensans," she says, "because invariably I meet people I find to be a lot of fun. Some people are quiet, some are more talkative; regardless, we feel comfortable with each other."Klien recalls a conversation she had with a young man who attended a Mensa meeting while traveling through town. "For hours we talked about Napoleon's exile on St. Helena," she says. "If I live a thousand years I'll probably never meet another person who'd be interested in talking about that again," she says.Under the blanket of the organization, Mensans who take particular interest in a specific topic -- such as Napoleon's final years -- might form what they call a SIG, or Special Interest Group. There are countless SIGs throughout the country that gather in the name of anything from sci-fi to gardening to filmmaking. There is even a group called Sinistral SIG that admits only left-handed Mensa members.Jerry Bryson, who since retiring from state government has been working on sci-fi space opera, found out about Mensa through a SIG that revolved around Esperanto, the invented international language that saw its heyday in the 70s and is still practiced by pockets of devotees.Bryson's passion for Esperanto eventually waned, but his interest in Mensa did not. "I find that there is quite a camaraderie among Mensans," he says. "It's like family." The character of Mensa meetings differs from place to place depending on the number of active members and level of activity in the area. In big cities such as New York, some Mensa event takes place every night. In Richmond, Virginia, they happen but once or twice a month. Primarily the members gather to share dinner, to hold meetings and to stage "game nights."One game is called "Past Lives." The object of this non-competitive game is to travel through many lives, eventually being reincarnated as a famous historical figure. Mensans say this type of game sparks lively conversation and is a more intellectual experience than standard games.Occasionally they invite speakers to address the group about a common interest. The Richmond area Mensa -- which comprises the areas of Fredericksburg, Williamsburg and Petersburg -- has about 190 members.Mensa meetings are loosely organized around the principles instilled by the founding members. "Mensa" is the Latin word for table, and the idea was that Mensans would figuratively "sit around the table" hashing out important issues. Jerry Bryson finds the atmosphere of meetings engaging. "There's no party line to tow," he says. "You can have arguments that you might not be able to have at other venues. It's expected that we'll stay civil and yet say what we think."Klien adds: "If someone is speaking and uses a word that I don't understand, I don't feel threatened by it. I have no problem asking what the word means." What she's getting at is that by being there in the first place, everybody knows she's no dummy.Indeed, a Mensa meeting does at first appear to be an eclectic group.Two men with long hair and beards chat on one side of the room and look as though they may have arrived on Harleys. There is an elderly woman, carefully groomed sitting on a sofa speaking to the various individuals who come to share the sitting area.A young, pixielike woman sits in a corner reading a book. Although several people address her by name, she speaks to no one. Only when it is time for the speaker, does she mark her page and put her book down.Invited speaker Ken Wilson, Director of Astronomy and Electronic Outreach at the Science Museum of Virginia, begins his talk about life on Mars. According to several Mensans, the turnout at this meeting is better than most.One young woman, the wife of a Mensan and not a member herself, says she loves to come to the meetings because no matter what the topic of discussion, or the nature of the meeting, there is an intellectual intensity that she feels is missing from other social affairs. She also says that "Mensa is a way for people who may not feel connected in the more typical Richmond social circles to find a niche."To some, the name Mensa carries with it a certain stereotype -- the nerd who entertains himself by plunging into heated games of three-dimensional chess -- hardly a typical social circle in Richmond."I haven't yet seen that one," Bryson says. "You'll hear slightly deeper jokes and play some mind games. But we usually play Scrabble and Pictionary just like everybody else.It's true that, initially, all we have in common is this number," he says. "After that we're just a cross section of the population."Nine-year-old Matt Pinsker actually likes to play chess, but the young Pinsker is anything but a stereotypical nerd. He plays soccer and other sports, Mensa is just another extracurricular activity. Like his sister Hillary, he tested into the group when he was 4.After his brother Matt and sister Hillary tested into the group as youngsters, Scott, the oldest of the three Pinsker children, didn't want to be the only kid in the family without a membership. So in a flash, he went out and passed the test.A recent graduate of James Madison University, Scott is working for Affiliated Attorneys Inc. while he sends out law school applications. "The Mensa membership is a great resume builder," he says. "It certainly hasn't shut any doors for me." Nor will his real-world experience. At James Madison University, Scott became very active in Young Republicans and attended the 1994 Republican convention as the vice chairman of the group for the state of Virginia. The role landed him a few spots in the documentary The Perfect Candidate and an even bigger role in Ollie's Army another documentary about the grass-roots Republican effort to elect Oliver North to the U.S. Senate.Not every genius enjoys such notoriety. Consider the case of Kilian Garvey. He was held back in grade school, failed the 11th grade twice and spent 16 semesters at three different colleges just trying to graduate. When he finally did, he wound up with a 2.1 grade point average and meager prospects for a job. But in Garvey's case, the intelligence quotient proved a profound irony."I had an enormous amount of difficulty in school," he says, "but it wasn't so much failing that bothered me. It was that I could get so frustrated with the whole thing. I became disinterested and would stop going to classes."Garvey had a learning disability, which is not uncommon in people with very high IQs. Common learning disabilities include dyslexia, ADHD, and attention deficit disorder, which was Garvey's albatross. "I was seen as a failure," he says. "I was failing out of high school. People thought I was stupid."But Garvey knew differently. "I always knew I was smart, in spite of my bad grades." While attending -- and struggling -- through VCU in 1989, he noticed an article in The Richmond Times-Dispatch with the headline "You May be a Genius." On a whim, he called Mensa for a practice test. The test comprised 100 sample questions and after he returned it, they recommended he take a proctored test. Garvey took two IQ tests in one morning and soon found he had scored in the 97th percentile on the first and in the 99th on the other. And with that, he became a member of Mensa.At the end of last summer Garvey came to terms with his ADD and began taking the drug Ritalin. Shortly thereafter, he took two summer courses and roped in two A's. "I've never in my life gotten two A's in any one semester," he says. His experiences have made him somewhat cynical of measurements such as the Intelligence Quotient. "No matter how high a person's IQ may be, they are not always Oxbridge material," he says.With his learning disorder in check, Garvey, who is an admissions counselor at Benedictine high school, is back in school for a master's degree in counseling. "It's disappointing to think that I wasted so many of those years," he says, "but it could be worse. I've still got plenty of years in front of me."Mensans are quick to invite anyone and everyone to join the group.To get in all you have to do is correctly answer a few simple questions. When you've passed with flying colors, you'll technically be a genius -- your IQ will measure in the top 2 percent of everyone in the world. And if you fail...well, those with fragile egos might just keep on considering. Procrastination could be the smartest move of all.SIDEBAR ONESecrets of Success: Emotional, Intellectual Savvy are Keys to Satisfaction, One Study Shows.So you're not a rocket scientist. But if you were, could you be a happy rocket scientist?A College of William and Mary psychologist is looking for the answer by updating a nearly 50-year-old-study of the relationship of intelligence to success, satisfaction and happiness.Greg Feist hopes this and other studies will help us understand why some people succeed in life without a high IQ and why some really high IQ folks are miserable and fail to live up to their potential.What's more important, he and other psychologists are asking, academic intelligence or the ability to read your "gut" and manage emotions?Success, it seems, thrives on a blend of emotional and intellectual abilities.In a study that spanned 44 years, Feist and a colleague tracked down 53 of an original 80 study subjects to discover how successful they had been in their careers.Back in 1950, University of California at Berkeley graduate students were given a slew of personality and intelligence tests. The students also spent a weekend with a group of psychologists, who later rated them on how "emotionally healthy" they were. During the weekend of socializing, the psychologists tried to gauge how sensitive the students were to their own and others' emotions and how they coped with problems. In short, they wanted to know how mature and balanced the students were.Then, the students' academic advisors and the psychologists rated each student on his "potential for success" using one rating for academics and intelligence and another for "personal soundness," 1950s lingo for "emotional intelligence," Feist says.The study aimed to find out which of the two scores would predict future success. Forty-four years later, Feist and his colleague reviewed the resumes of the now-retiring subjects to find out how their careers had fared and how those resumes compared to the students' original ratings."We found both the academic and intelligence (ratings) predicted career success, but the emotional intelligence (rating) was a better predictor," Feist says. In other words, those who were emotionally savvy back in 1950 appeared to achieve more over the course of their careers.But wait, there's more. These aging subjects were also asked about "life satisfaction." The result is sobering.The researchers found that neither the academic rating nor the emotional rating could forecast satisfaction."It suggests that being smart in academics or sensitive and aware doesn't relate to how happy you're going to be," Feist observes.Feist continues the quest to unlock the secrets to success and satisfaction. He's already working on a new study that will follow 120 students and adults and attempt to measure whether emotional or academic success can predict not only career success but also life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction. Whew.It's gotta be harder than rocket science. -- Betty Joyce NashSIDEBAR TWOBy The Numbers: Mensa is Not as Exclusive as it May Seem.While the 98th percentile requirement does seem a pretty slim margin, the numbers suggest that, on a worldwide statistical basis, 100 million people could get that kind of score and thus qualify for membership. Compare that to the membership requirements of other "brain clubs" around the country. The Triple Nine Society requires that a member's IQ be in the 99.9th percentile of all 5 billion people on the planet. Crunching the numbers will reveal that's one in a thousand. Membership in the Prometheus Society is even more of a long shot -- don't even think about if you don't rank in the 99.997th percentile. Then there's the Mega Society. You're welcome if your I.Q. tests in the 99.9999th percentile.But how much could the rest of us be missing? Mega only has 17 members worldwide. Statistics show that only 5,000 people on earth have an IQ that could qualify them for membership.SIDEBAR THREEAbout MensaMensa exists to identify and foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity, to encourage intelligence research and to promote stimulating intellectual and social opportunities for its members. There are currently about 100,000 Mensans, as they are called, worldwide. About half of them live in the United States supporting 150 local chapters. For more information on Mensa locally, visit their World Wide Web site (www.us.mensa.org) or contact Adele Klien at (804) 358-7511 or American Mensa, Ltd., 201 Main St., Suite 1101, Fort Worth, Texas 76102. (817) 332-2600.


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