To get into American Mensa, the organization for smart people, you must score in the top 2 percent of the general population on an accepted, standardized intelligence test (they recognize about 200 tests, including the GRE, LSAT, Otis-Gamma Test, or Mensa’s in-house admission test). What score qualifies you for the 98th percentile, though, actually keeps moving, since as political scientist James Flynn has shown, there has been a steady rise in IQ scores over the last hundred years, thanks (he says) to formal schooling, the way people have developed scientific habits of mind (in particular, how much more comfortable we are with hypotheticals), and the prevalence of visual images in the modern world. But what is it like to have truly exceptional intelligence, in the range of, like, Stephen Hawking (IQ of 160)?
Here, 41-year-old Leon Feingold of New York City discusses his super-intelligent life.
How high is your IQ?
The last time I was tested, it was 168. I’ve been a member of Mensa since college. I’ve always been a bit socially retarded but intellectually very accomplished. Both my parents have above-average IQs. I skipped first grade. I’ve always been very good at everything I try and I can ace any test you put in front of me. But I still have no common sense.
Tell me a bit about your career. What do you do for work?
I currently own and run a real-estate brokerage and I’m an attorney. I give baseball-pitching lessons once in a while. But I’ve done a lot of things: I was a competitive eater and a Minor League Baseball player. I’m president of the Greater New York Mensa chapter, and I’ve served on the board for about nine years.
Was being a lawyer or a real-estate broker your goal when you graduated college?
It’s not what I set out to do. I was playing baseball professionally in the minors in Montana and someone I knew from Boy Scouts was going to law school, so he asked me if I wanted to take the LSAT with him for moral support. I had no interest in being a lawyer. I thought I’d be a professional baseball player to the day I died. But when the season ended, I signed up remotely and went back home about three weeks before the test date. I looked it over and I was like, Oh, this is fun.
I ended up getting 175 out of 180, which was better than the median at Harvard or Yale. So I’ve always been good at testing and very smart in some areas. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are smart in others.
When did you get into competitive eating?
When I was in law school, maybe in 1997. My sister talked me into going to a competition at the Nathan’s in Oceanside. If you won that, you were eligible to compete at Coney Island. I didn’t eat dinner the night before.
There’s a lot of intelligence that goes into competitive eating. You can do physical things like train your body by stretching your stomach, but there’s also a lot of strategy — how you put food in your mouth, how much water you wash it down with. I think I took the hot dogs and dunked them in the water and squeezed them out. At the end, there was a minute left and I took the lead and I won. They knew I was at law school, so my competitive eating name became “Justice.” I started taking it seriously and training for it, dining at all-you-can-eat buffets. It wasn’t the healthiest thing I have done. I continued to compete through around 2007, including at the July 4 Championships at Coney Island and the televised Glutton Bowl.
Did you specialize in a certain food?
I’ve eaten over 20 different foods in competition, including ice cream, hard-boiled eggs, baked beans, canola, corned beef and cabbage, and pierogi.
Do you think your high IQ means you need to be constantly challenged? Do you get bored easily?
Unquestionably yes. Having a high IQ doesn’t mean you are going to be successful. It just means your brain works faster. It recognizes patterns. It can reach conclusions quickly. I’m laughing at jokes as soon as the punch line comes out; I multitask and boredom is my nemesis. I’m always doing five things at once. My mom hates it when we go out for dinner. I have two phones, one for work and a personal one, and I am always on both. I’m still keeping up with the conversation and I don’t understand why she’s so upset.
Also, I’m polyamorous and I think that has a lot to do with my low threshold for boredom. I think responsible non-monogamy has an amazing benefit, because one person can’t meet all your needs, or if that person exists, I haven’t met her.
When did you discover polyamory?
About eight years ago, I met a girl on OkCupid who described herself as polyamorous. I didn’t know what it was. She explained it and I was mind-blown. I was like, How can I not know that this exists?
What was your dating life like at that time?
I was meeting lots of girls I liked. One week I went out with seven different girls all in a row: That’s seven straight overnights. I sound like I’m bragging, but I’m just explaining that I was seeing a lot of people. You know, there’s this thing called “New York single.” Unless you’ve had “the conversation,” you assume people are seeing other people. So, nobody had a problem because we never discussed exclusivity. Everyone I was dating had something to offer. Some were gorgeous. Some were smart. Some were fun. Some were really intriguing. Some liked to go to certain parties. So seeing so many people triggered so many parts of my brain and I was really happy with it.
So being poly allows you to build the composite woman? You can have a range of people in your life who fulfill a host of intellectual and social needs?
Yes, that’s why I was enjoying seeing all these people — because I have all these needs. Not just three or four. I have about 30 things that are important to me, and if any one of them wasn’t met, I would get antsy.
How does it work in a practical sense?
The model that works for me is a girlfriend and I have a lot of friends who I may have sex with. A girlfriend is somebody who is the highest priority, someone I spend the bulk of my time with. When I’m in a relationship, that slot of “primary” is not available and if someone else I’m attracted to is comfortable with that, then we will pursue something. Free love only works if everyone is on the same page and comfortable and happy with it.
Are you currently in a relationship? Is she smart?
The girl I am with right now is very intelligent, but she’s also Japanese, so there’s a language barrier. It gets challenging trying to discuss some concepts, including responsible non-monogamy, which doesn’t really exist for women in Japan. It’s under the table there, and accepted because men have needs but women just have to put up with it. It’s a double standard and I’m not a big fan of those. I’m happy for my girlfriend to sleep with other people. So we have a bit of an interpretation barrier. The biggest problems come when we discuss concepts. She can’t keep up with conversations, and that frustrates me.
There’s a saying in the non-monogamy world, which is to be successful you should date your own species. If you’re monogamous, date someone who is monogamous; if you’re non-monogamous, date someone non-monogamous. But trying to mix and match is a recipe for disaster. So far, we are trying. I do love her, but we all know that love is not what makes a relationship work.
Is intelligence the main thing you look for in a partner?
My dream has always been to marry someone who is smarter than I am. I want to be challenged and I want to be with someone who teaches me things.
Does that mean you believe in marriage? And if you were married, would you continue a polyamorous lifestyle?
Yes. I would love to get married and start a family. I can’t imagine I would ever be not poly and I can’t imagine I would ever be with a long-term partner who would expect that of me.
But why would you want to get married? That seems awfully conventional …
Marriage is an archaic concept, but it’s so much a fabric of our society that people expect it. I wouldn’t want any kids that have to be thought of as bastards.
But why do you consider kids who are born out of wedlock “bastards”? Do you have religious leanings?
No, bastard is simply the child of unmarried parents.
You don’t want to challenge the idea that you should be married to have kids?
I wouldn’t want my kids to feel like outcasts. I was an outcast growing up and sure, it made me stronger, but I don’t know what I would answer to a kid who wondered why I wasn’t married to their mother.
Would you feel like they might feel like outsiders if their friends found out that their dad was polyamorous, or would you keep this from them?
I’d love to raise kids without the traditional shame associated with being sex-positive — talking about sex or relationships should be as simple as talking about how their day was at school. My concern is more with the perception of others, which is probably the biggest problem for poly families. The structure itself works, but they catch a lot of flak from society. It’s sad, and while I personally don’t mind being a lightning rod for criticism from small-minded people, I’m not sure I’d want to subject my kids to that before they know enough to understand it themselves. Hopefully, by the time I have to think about it, poly will have gained enough widespread acceptance that I’ll be able to worry about real parenting issues, like raising awesome kids who make the world a better place.
What were you like as a child? Were you the smartest kid in the class?
I grew up in Oceanside, Long Island. My father was an accountant and my mom was an elementary school teacher. I underperformed — maybe because I wasn’t challenged and maybe because I didn’t see the point. In class, we’d lose a point for every piece of homework we missed and I was a straight-C student because I didn’t really do it — I thought it was a waste of time. I really excelled in English: When we were assigned one story, I’d read the whole book. I had a predilection for Greco-Roman mythology. My mom got me a leather-bound edition of Bulfinch’s Mythology was when I was about 11. I loved the concepts.
I didn’t have a lot of social skills, so I would spend most of my time alone. I think I ended up on the autism spectrum, but I wasn’t told about it when I was a kid. My grandmother suggested that I not be labeled with any negative things because it would give me more of an excuse to slack off, and she was probably right.
So you didn’t fit in at school?
I was athletic, but I wasn’t cool enough to be a jock. I didn’t feel like belonged anywhere, largely because I skipped a grade, so I was a little socially held back. I could deal with adults, but I didn’t feel any connection with kids my own age.
I was just a skinny, awkward kid. I literally never talked to a girl, not even one sentence. I was terrified. I thought I’d get shot down. When you are already an outsider, the fear of being ostracized further keeps you quiet. I was a class clown, but I couldn’t handle one-on-one interactions.
By the time I graduated high school I was very good at sports but not at socializing. I’ve always been very good at being competitive with myself rather than other people. I love to push myself.
At school, everyone knew who I was, but they all assumed I hung out with a different group and I was teased. For some reason, one of my nicknames was “germs” — I don’t really know why.
You didn’t talk to girls — but were you attracted to them?
I always had crushes on girls. When I was 11, I had a crush on this cute redhead all year. I left a handmade note for her and was mortified when one of her friends confronted me with it on the playground in front of everyone else. Before that, I had a huge crush on Little Orphan Annie, who I knew from the cover of an LP my father owned (to make matters worse, it might even have been a cartoon version of her on the cover). It was the voice and the words that mattered — I really wanted to feel love from a girl. I would listen to the album and she would sing, “I love ya tomorrow,” and I would think, Oh really, you’ll love me tomorrow? I didn’t quite get the grammar of the song. But tomorrow never actually came and I was very sad about that.
What happened when you graduated?
My parents paid for me to go on a six-week trip with United Synagogue Youth, to Israel. I thought, If I am going to break out of this stupid self-imposed shell, it should be now. I forced myself to pretend I was popular because nobody knew me. For all they knew, I was this really cool guy. It was on this trip that I forced myself to talk to girls.
When we all met at the airport, I thought, What would the popular guy at school do? He would look at the nearest hot girl and wink. So I forced myself to do that. When we introduced ourselves to the group we had to say our names and give a description that started with the same letter. I said, “My name is Leon, but I wish it was Adam because I’m awesome.” It was funny and clever and everyone laughed.
I had my first kiss on the plane. There was a girl who was stupidly smart and I was really attracted to her, but I had no idea what to do. So, I thought, what would happen in the movies? The guy would just get up and be like, “Hey, baby, let’s go … ” So I got up and gave her a look and said I was going to the back of the plane. She came with me. I had no idea it was that easy.
I faked it until I made it and it totally worked. I’m not even sure if the person I am now is “me,” or if it’s a person I created over all these years. And I lost my virginity on that trip to another girl.
What was it like when you got to college?
College was pretty easy. I took on a lot during my first semester and I did really well. I was on the Dean’s list, which was a new experience for me because I’d never applied myself before. You know, I don’t even think I was applying myself then. Nothing seemed very challenging. I think the reason I did well was because they weren’t taking points away from me for not doing my homework.
What did you do when you graduated?
Just before I finished college, I’d sent my résumé to several Major League baseball teams and received invites to a few minor league affiliate tryout camps. The first one I attended was in Watertown, New York, held by the Cleveland Indians. I drove up from Long Island, worked out, pitched in a simulated game and drove home. The next day, I got a call with a contract offer and drove back up. I joined that team for a couple of weeks and then got co-opted (“lent”) to the Copper Kings in Butte, Montana.
Then during the off-season I took the LSAT. I returned the next season to play for another team but I got injured, so I went back home to Long Island and started rehab for my injury. At that time, I thought I may as well apply for law school. I went to Hofstra because it was near my home, and they had accepted me immediately, a few days before classes started. I didn’t really take it very seriously. I needed something to do, and I knew I was out for rehab so I thought I’d just try it out and see how it went. Then I got into a car accident and popped my pitching shoulder out of the socket and stretched out the ligament. I ended up staying in law school for the full three years — I graduated in 1998 and passed the bar exam for both New York and New Jersey.
Did you see baseball as an intellectual activity? Did the competition keep you engaged?
I didn’t see much of a connection between sports and intelligence, but I did find that baseball more than any other sport had a way of intriguing me, especially because I was a pitcher. There’s strategy and games within games. It’s like poker; there’s bluffing. Am I looking for a strikeout? Is he leaning in? Is he looking away? There’s so many things to think about that casual fans might not realize. That may have been one of the reasons I was attracted to it. Plus the defense controls the ball, so there’s a lot more time for thinking and less time for gut reaction.
When you were playing baseball did you feel there was an intellectual gulf between you and your team members?
I think I have a bit of a disconnect with the mind-set of a traditional jock. I’d find myself pretty starved for intellectual conversation. A lot of the guys just wanted to talk about girls, so I felt extremely bored on the road. I didn’t really find a whole lot of stimulation from my teammates. When you are pro athletes, all you have in common is an ability to play baseball very well. You could see who spits seeds closest to a cup.
Or you play word games. That was actually the most fun. There was one kid who I would play an alphabetical one about baseball players with. You’d have to name a baseball player and then the next person had to come up with a name beginning with that player’s last name. And we would try and screw people with the letter Q or Z. We both had an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball players. I would always think of names that were so obscure nobody would believe they exist. And actually, in the pro clubhouse I always respected the players who did crossword puzzles before games. Some of them were really intellectually superior and I always noticed that, and wound up becoming friends with them.
When did you join Mensa?
When I was in college, I introduced my mom to a couple of girls I’d been dating and she was like, “Don’t you want to meet a really smart girl?” She suggested I join. I wasn’t really into the idea because I just thought it was full of old people. I tried something called a Zip code party and I was easily the youngest person there. I did have some interesting conversations, but I remember thinking, Why would I drive 45 minutes to a random house on Long Island to see people who are older than my parents? There was one pimply faced kid but everyone else was really old. I didn’t see the value of it.
Later, at larger nationwide gatherings, I realized there were thousands of people in Mensa. That’s where I felt most at home throwing ideas and thoughts around with people who actually got my ideas and my references.
What do you enjoy most about their company?
I love competition where I have to use my brain to win, so strategy game nights are always fun. I don’t want to play a game against people when I know I’m going to win.
I’ve probably met the women I click with the most through Mensa, but some of the best fits have lived in other cities, and I can’t rationalize a long-distance relationship at this point, since my work as a broker and a lawyer is restricted to the tristate area.
When you look back over your life, what do you think are the benefits and the downsides of having such a high IQ?
It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s given me the ability to handle any situation and it’s given me a better, quicker perspective about things. As a negative, it’s made me complacent. Why would I work hard at something if I know I can do it? If I were only good at one thing, then I would know what to focus on. But I’m good at too many things. I’m not trying to be a narcissist: It’s just true.
Have you ever sat back and wished that you had focused on a single field, say an area of academic inquiry, or chosen a single career since college and really risen to the top of that?
That I have. It’s axiomatic that by taking one path you forgo all others. I realize that drifting around has made me “jack of all trades” and master of none. Sometimes I wonder if I had taken anything seriously and worked at it how I would do.
It’s not like my IQ is higher so I win at everything. Some people are better planners than I am. Some people are better at playing certain cards than I am. I’m comfortable with that. But I don’t feel the need to compete with people anymore and that’s something I learned from polyamory. When I see someone else, like a guy who is fitter, or younger, or more attractive, I no longer see that as competition. I don’t need to compete for girls.
How does your intelligence come into play in your relationships? Do you feel like you always have the upper hand in arguments?
I’m a very logical person. I think there’s a strong correlation between logic and intelligence. I don’t let my emotions get in the way. I tend to be pretty good at, well … it’s manipulation, but I like to think of it as guidance. I’m very good at arguing.
And are you usually aware that you are in control of the argument?
And does that ever cause tension?
It creates conflict when people are arguing from a place of emotion. I can’t rationalize that. But I have learned that sometimes I have to acknowledge someone’s feelings even though they are stupid in my mind.
So if somebody says “I feel very frustrated right now,” instead of saying, “Well, that’s stupid because … ,” I’ve learned to say (and this makes no sense to me), you know, “I acknowledge that you are frustrated and that must be really hard for you right now.” That sentence has zero logical value, but it helps talk someone down off the mental ledge because they feel like their emotions are validated.
Do you ever wish you weren’t smart?
I have never felt the desire to dumb myself down. I think being so intelligent has allowed me to step out and see the illogical ways that society functions, and that’s one of the things I’m most grateful for. I don’t think I would have had the guts to explore the polyamorous lifestyle if I didn’t believe that I was right and all of society was wrong.