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The Price of Brilliance: My Uncle's Life

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What is the most annoying thing about smart people? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Sean Kernan, Published Author, on Quora:

My uncle Jeff (my mom's brother) was a renowned Neurosurgeon and Director of Stereotactic Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University. As you could imagine, he was a relatively brilliant guy (perfect SAT, Princeton undergrad, taught himself fluency in German, all of those things crazy-smart people do.)

We are a small family, so I got to know him on a pretty personal level, more as an uncle than a doctor. But I still knew him as both and can tell you there was a significant dichotomy between the two Jeffs.

His patients raved about his passion and care for their well-being and treatment; they said he was an unwavering professional. He received the utmost respect among peers and students. Jeff, or Dr. Williams, aimed to become the best neurosurgeon in the world.

Jeff as a person, and I say this as someone who still loves him dearly, was a wonderful but flawed and complex individual. On his good days, he could be the funniest and most intelligent guy you've ever spoken to, the kind of guy who could say one sentence that changed the way you saw the world. On his bad days, he could be profoundly arrogant; he was very aware of his mental capacities and not afraid to let you know.

He could also be very demanding and temperamental. As a seven-year-old, he would review my math homework with me and let me tell you; you've never met a more demanding math tutor. My theory was that because he was so demanding of himself, he projected that same standard upon people he cared about.

But we still had fun too.

Over the years, we saw him frequently and had a great relationship, but we noticed he started looking pretty bad. He was gaining weight, and he had lost a lot of color in his face. We knew he was working 80+ hours and living off hospital cafeteria food. It wasn't something you could mention to him, or he would stop talking to you for a year. Finally, his dad (my grandpa) tried to bring it up with him, but Jeff would have none of it. He wouldn't listen and didn't take it seriously. And he got angry to the point that we could never bring it up again.

About a month after my 19th birthday, I was packing to head back to college. I heard my mom crying in her bedroom across the hall. I could tell something was wrong, very wrong. I came in, she was on the phone, sobbing. It was that type of cry that meant something appalling had happened. She hung up the phone and told me, "Your Uncle Jeff had a heart attack this morning, Jeff is dead."

That morning, he had been running on a treadmill in the Johns Hopkins gym next to a fellow doctor, he had a type of "widow maker" heart attack and died. Not even the surgeon jogging next to him could save him. He was 50 years old.

To this day, I miss and love Jeff. I idolized him and his death crushed the family. But I am also angry; he made some pretty bad health choices that cost him his life, choices a neurosurgeon knows well not to make. Choices he somehow rationalized didn't apply to him. And so to answer the question, the thing that annoys me about really smart people, is that they can be guilty of hubris at times.

Love ya Jeff.

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