The Wise Guy

By Scott Westerman
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“I’m not a psychopath. I’m a high functioning sociopath.” ~Sherlock Holmes from the BBC series, Sherlock

Richard Feynman is one of my all time favorite characters. He came to science with a different set of tools, some of which he created himself. He had the opportunity to interact with some of the world’s brightest minds but was completely comfortable challenging their ideas if they didn’t make sense to him, in the process earning their admiration and trust.

What I like most about Feynman was how he saw everything in life as a puzzle to be solved. He was known as a great troubleshooter, a safecracker, a joker, a disruptor and a sage. He played the drums, studied painting and helped unlock the secrets of atomic energy.

Feynman could describe the totality of physics by looking into a glass of wine. If you saw him on the street, you might think he was just another wise guy.

He was.

But he didn’t fit “The Mold”.

Despite how hard we work to appreciate diversity, we still classify people based on how we expect a certain personality to behave. Step out of that line and something is wrong with you.

How we define a disability is one stunning example. When we see a blind person, we make certain assumptions, many of which may be totally incorrect. One of the best communicators I ever met had cerebral palsy. His speech was barely intelligible. But put a ham radio code key in his hand and he could perfectly articulate his ideas, in the language of dots and dashes that only Morse Code enthusiasts understand.

The term “mental illness” still has a stigma, even though some of history’s greatest contributors would earn that classification by today’s standards.

Being brilliant can be a disability. I love the new BBC incarnation of a modern day Sherlock Holmes. He is so smart that it’s impossible for him to have a what we would define as a normal human relationship. That’s an extreme, but, if you’re a college girl and you are a genius in engineering, physics or science, preconceived notions of what that means can impact your social life.

It turns out that we are all brilliant at something. And we’re all disabled in some sense. The key to greatness is in how we clear away the assumptions that come with those words and maximize the potential of every single human being.

Even if you find it hard to understand someone’s political position, their spiritual beliefs or their choice of a life partner, they still have gifts to give you. And you have gifts you can give them.

The adventure is in finding those gifts, learning from those you receive and reveling in the unparalleled joy of sharing them with others.

A closed mind is the one disability nothing can cure. To an open mind, all things are possible.

The answers to every problem we face are hidden from closed minds and sit waiting to be revealed by those with open minds, who truly seek to understand.

We’re all pretty well screwed up. Hurt, distrust and shame inhabit us all to some degree.

But so does the potential to see each of these as stepping stones to a better understanding of who we are. And that’s the first step in learning how to understand everybody else.