Mensa - the admirable con

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

[An anecdote, as apparently told by Dick F. Weissmann to a ‘former colleague’]

I had this colleague, Bobby Zimmerman, who always overestimated his ability to judge others’ attributes. And so he (mis)took me to be of exceptional intelligence.

Bobby would seek me out twice or so a day to make grand small talk that would cover the lives and struggles of baroque composers, the Carolingian Renaissance, the stupidity of the measurement problem and interpretations of decoherence, Hegel, and the like. ‘Small talk’ was not the correct description for these occasions though. A person with any understanding of social interaction would occasionally swap the high-brow subjects for the actual, and also pause or ask a question now and then instead of delivering monologues. He always managed to conclude his addresses by bringing it all back to his superiors and peers either disrespecting his talent or simply not being able to understand his propositions and criticisms.

“They don’t like me, because I'm honest. I see the things they don’t want to see. I think about things they can’t imagine. I say the things others are too scared to. They hire me, because they want my skill, but then I scare them!” - these were Bobby’s concluding explanation at the end of every coffee break for how a guy with a bachelor's in statistical finance and an MBA from a top school could neither stay at one company for five years, nor get close to senior management by the time his final decade before retirement ensued.

One day Bobby told me: “You see - you also like the more intelligent stuff. You should come along to the next Mensa meeting - the next one’s an open event.” He proceeded to describe the joy of spending time with persons of similar intelligence. He particularly detailed the delight he took in playing board games with highly intelligent people. I had expected that they would’ve played board games specially developed for and by these geniuses. It turned out that they played the games I played as a child - like Battleship. Not even Trivial Pursuit. (If ever there was a game that made me feel stupid, it was Trivial Pursuit. I guess that’s why it wouldn’t be played at Mensa gatherings.)

Anyway, a bunch of geniuses playing children's games sounded too good to pass over, and so I agreed, to the immeasurable satisfaction of Bobby Zimmerman, to accompany him to the next Mensa gathering.

Arriving at the country club, which was the venue for that Mensa evening, I was reminded of my days as a teenage junkie. You’d meet your friends in the Spur* and smile giddily, tickled by the sensation of your situation being transparent to all who passed you. Sitting at the table, we’d weirdly strain our eyes and smiles while facing each other - this was non-verbal communication for: “Mickey, did you manage to steal some morphine from your dad’s pharmacy? Norm, did you get dagga from the gardener? George, could your cousin get us coke?” And from their facial expressions to me, because I was a sucker and had a little fruit business: “Dickey, did you bring the cash?” The Mensa folk looked at each other with similar contortions, making up for their inability to engage in normal conversation with forced smiles and frozen eyes as proxies for: “Ooh, at last we’re here with our kind. We’ve things in common, special things, we’re smart. It’s a secret, don’t tell anyone, it’s our secret, the world wouldn’t understand. We’re safe from the stupid world and silly people now. We’re cool, no really, totally cool in our way.” I have seen people more relaxed upon arriving at their first swingers orgy than old timer Mensa folk congregating and waiting for the icebreaker.

A very senior figure from one of the country’s leading universities had been invited to deliver the keynote for the evening. He started off by giving his bio, since the Mensa lady who introduced him basically just said: "You know who he is." The speaker mentioned postgraduate studies at Oxford, an Ivy League doctorate and a Berkeley postdoc - barely discernible micro-orgasms were achieved by a healthy portion of the audience. The speaker noticed this and expertly referred to his alma maters about ten more times during his speech.

After the speech there was an opportunity for Q&A. If the board games were a surprise, the questions were astonishing. A terrified man asked how the university would survive the recent partial legalization of marijuana. Another, emphasizing the weight of his question with dramatic delivery, wanted to know when the university would start conducting research and offering courses on public sector management, given the endemic corruption and mismanagement of state owned enterprises and other public sector entities in South Africa. The speaker, with notable respect, explained that the university, pertaining to the field in question, had already established a research unit; and offered relevant short courses, certificates, postgraduate diplomas, master's and doctoral degrees. Indignantly, the questioner demanded: "why do we not know about this!?" Showing even greater restraint and awareness, the speaker sidestepped the question by saying “Oxford, Ivy League, Berkeley”, smiling, and heading for the door as applause and groans of pleasure were heard.

I did not attend another Mensa meeting. A joke is only funny the first time. Bobby Zimmerman slowly came to the realization that I was not as smart as he once thought. He is still a Mensa devotee and I have remained intrigued by relatively smart persons’ propensity for joining Mensa. I have looked at the exam - you’d certainly not need the 132 (or whatever) IQ to pass it**. Strangely, every Mensa member whom I have spoken to narrowly failed the test at the first try, and passed it at the second. After failing the first attempt, they all were told that it is natural, and that one should retry after having some good rest, second time around always being the charm. What an ingenious set-up: let them fail the first time, so that admission seems challenging; make them pass the second attempt, so that the maximum membership is achieved.

My conclusion: I fully support Mensa. Just like I don’t care if a billionaire loses a couple of million to slimy traders, fooling people who think they’re smart is a most admirable con.


*The Spur is a diner-type restaurant in South Africa.

**See Tibees’ video on a Mensa IQ test:

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