Why the smartest people have the toughest time dating

I have a mini-confession to make: I wrote the Tao of Dating books specifically for really smart people (both women and men).  The writing of the books was precipitated by the endemic dating woes on the Harvard campus, as I observed them as an advisor and, earlier, wallowed in them as a student.

Those kids graduate and pretty much continue to have the same dating woes — only now with fewer single people around living in the same building and sharing meals with them every day.  So if they had challenges then, it gets about 1000 times worse once they’re expelled from the warm womb of alma mater.

From my observations, the following dating challenges are common to most smart people.  In fact, the smarter you are, the more clueless you will be, and the more problems you’re going to have in your dating life.

On the one hand, this makes no sense.  Smart people can figure stuff out, right?  And this dating stuff should be simple!

On the other hand, it makes total sense.  For simple things, it takes someone smart to really screw it up (or a computer).  So whether you went (or should have gone) to the likes of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, Swarthmore, Amherst, Dartmouth, Brown, Oxford, Cambridge, Berkeley, Penn, Caltech, Duke, read on:

1) Smart people spent more time on achievements than on relationships when growing up.

Smart kids usually come from smart families.  And smart families are usually achievement-oriented.  Bring me home those straight A’s, son.  Get into those top colleges, daughter. Take piano, violin, tennis, swimming and Tibetan throat-singing lessons. Win every award there is in the book. Be ‘well-rounded.’

Well, you’re a talented little bugger.  Of course you should develop those talents. At the same time, there’s an opportunity cost associated with achievement.  Time spent studying, doing homework, and practicing the violin is time not spent doing other things — like chasing boys or girls, which turns out is fairly instrumental in making you a well-rounded human.

The upshot of all that achievement is that you get into a top college — congratulations! — and then continue doing even more of what you were doing before.  Dating is at best another extracurricular, #6 or #7 down the list, somewhere between Model UN and intramural badminton.

I’ve been co-hosting young alumni events for name-brand schools for long enough to know that these kids come out a little lopsided (which sounds so much better than ‘socially awkward’, don’t you think?).  All they need is a little tune-up, or a proper dating textbook to get them going — plus a little practice.

Of course, as noted above, things only get worse once you graduate.  And if you’re frustrated with your love life, you just might try to compensate by working harder and achieving even more to fill that void.  Left untreated, this condition can go on for decades.  I know people in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond who still haven’t figured out how to create an intimate connection with another human being.

It’s because they’ve been going at it the wrong way.  Which brings us to…

2) Smart people feel that they’re entitled to love because of their achievements.

For most of their lives, smart people inhabit a seemingly meritocratic universe: if they work hard, they get good results (or, in the case of really smart folks, even if they don’t work hard, they still get good results).  Good results mean kudos, strokes, positive reinforcement, respect from peers, love from parents.

So it only makes sense that in the romantic arena, it should work the same way.  Right?  The more stuff I do, the more accomplishments and awards I have, the more girls (or boys) will like me.  Right?  Please say I’m right, because I’ve spent a LOT of time and energy accumulating this mental jewelry, and I’m going to be really bummed if you tell me it’s not going to get me laid.

Well, I’ve collected a lot of jewelry in my time, and I’ve gotta tell ya it’s not going to get you laid, brother (or sister).  It may get you a first date, but it’s probably not going to get you a second date.  And it certainly won’t bring you lasting love and fulfillment.

Here’s the thing: your romantic success has nothing to do with your mental jewelry and everything to do with how you make the other person feel.  And making someone feel a certain way is a somewhat nonlinear process that requires a different kind of mastery than that of calculus or Shakespeare.

In other words, you need to earn love (or at least lust).  Sadly, no mom, dad or professor teaches us about the power of the well-placed compliment (or put-down), giving attention but not too much attention, being caring without being needy. I wrote a whole book about that, boys, so that’s a story for a different day.

3) When you don’t feel like a fully-realized sexual being, you don’t act like one.

At some point in your life, you got pegged as a smart person.  From then on, that was your principal identity: The Smart One.  Especially if you had a sibling who was better-looking than you, in which case she (or he) was The Pretty One.

Now as a woman you could be absolutely stunning (in which case you’re both smart and pretty and everyone hates you except for me — call me!), but your identity is still bound up in being The Smart One.  So maybe you dress frumpy and don’t pay a lot of attention to your appearance.  Or never bothered to cultivate your sensuality as a woman or, as a guy, your sexual aggression.

Attracting a partner is all about the dance of polarity.  Energy flows between positive and negative electrodes, anode and cathode, magnetic north and south.  Unless you actually convey femininity as a woman or masculinity as a man, you’re not going to attract a suitable companion of the opposite sex.

Part of the issue is this: when all of your personal energy is concentrated in the head, it never gets a chance to trickle down to the heart, or, god forbid, the groin.  By virtue of being born of the union of male and female, yang and yin, you are a sexual being.  Deal with it.  Now do what you need to do to perpetuate the race already.  Use what mama amoeba gave you.

That brings us to…

4) You’re exceptionally talented at getting in the way of your own romantic success.

Here’s an incontrovertible fact: every one of your ancestors survived to reproductive age and got it on at least once with a member of the opposite sex.  All the way back to Homo erectus.  And even further back to Australopithecus. And even further back to monkeys, to lizards, to the first amphibian that crawled out of the slime, the fish that preceded that amphibian, the worm before the fish and the amoeba that preceded the worm.

And you, YOU, in the year 2011 C.E., the culmination of that miraculously unbroken line of succession, you, Homo sapiens sapiens, not just thinking man but thinking thinking man (or woman), are the only one smart enough to SCREW THE WHOLE THING UP.

Perhaps you should consider thinking a little less then.

Because heaven knows that the amoeba, worm, fish, amphibian, monkey and primitive hominids didn’t do a whole lot of thinking. Their DNA had a vested interest in perpetuating itself, so it made sure that happened.

Turns out your DNA works the same way, too.  And maybe when you’re really sloshed at a party and your whole frontal lobe is on vacation in the outer rings of Saturn, you’ve noticed that your lizard brain knows exactly how to grab that cute girl by the waist for a twirl on the dance floor.  Or knows exactly how to arch your back, flip your hair and glance at that handsome hunk just so that he comes on over to say hi.

To put it plainly, you are programmed to reproduce.  Now quit thinking you’re smarter than the 3 billion base pairs in your genome and 4 billion years of evolution.  Actually, just stop thinking altogether.  As the Tao Te Ching said, “Stop thinking and solve all your problems.”  Let the program do its work.

5) By virtue (or vice) of being smart, you eliminate most of the planet’s inhabitants as a dating prospect

Let’s say by ‘smart’ we mean ‘in the top 5% of the population in terms of intelligence and education’.  Generally speaking, smart people seek out other smart people to hang out with, simply because they get bored otherwise.  And if they’re going to spend a lot of time with someone, intelligence in a partner is pretty much a requirement.

Well, congratulations — you’ve just eliminated 95% of the world’s population as a potential mate, Mr or Ms Smartypants.  Now, luckily, the world’s kinda big, so the remaining 5% of the gender of your choice is still a plentiful 160 million or so people.  Even if only 1% of those are single enough, good-looking enough, local enough and just all-around cool enough for you, that’s over a million people you can date out there.

Still, that’s less than one in five thousand people. And if you live in a smaller city, it may be just a handful of folks who are going to meet your stringent criteria.

At this point, you have three choices:

  • Loosen up
  • Do a very thorough search all over the planet and be prepared to move to Düsseldorf OR
  • Join a monastery.

My hearty recommendation is choice A.  The purpose of relationship (and perhaps all of life) is to practice the loving.  No partner is going to be 100% perfect anyway, so learn to appreciate people for what they have to offer, not what they don’t.  And love them for that.  That’s what real loving is.

Nobody’s asking to lower your standards here; you should still spend time only with worthwhile company.  But do question the standards to see whether they’re serving you or you’re serving them.

When you open your heart to love, you may find fulfillment in ways you never imagined possible — like the day you tried sushi or beer in spite of your trepidation, found it surprisingly alright, and expanded your personal envelope of pleasure.  Taking that into consideration, given a choice between happy-go-lucky and picky-but-lonely, happy sounds like more fun.

This article originally appeared on Huffington Post in 2009. Since then, The Tao of Dating for Women has become the #1 rated dating book on Amazon. And smart boys all over the world still find The Tao of Dating for Men surprisingly useful.