The Jonah Complex: Why We Are Afraid Of Being Brilliant

As often happens, @redorgreenpen posed a question last week that caused me to ponder:

The ‘lack of wanting to be clever’ problem is something anyone working in classrooms will encounter [and it’s not always gendered, girls are often like that too].

One of the things I learned to ask students like this was: what would you have to sacrifice if you suddenly did really well, academically speaking. For example:

  • Me: I’m guessing you don’t really want to get an A because it wouldn’t suit something about yourself, right?
  • Kid: What? No.
  • Me: Really? Only none of the friends I see you with are in the top set, and you seem to like chatting more than working, so… why would you work? If you work won’t you lose your friends and your ability to chat?
  • Kid: Are you trying to, like, reverse-mind me or sumfin?
  • Me; No! [I genuinely wasn’t] I’m just wondering what things you would have to give up to do well at school and if I can see why it might not be worth it.

After the goading I would then step back and let the student figure it out for themselves a bit, often leading the way in discussing what’s scary about being even just “a bit more clever” than they currently are.

I was brought to this technique by a little known theory of Abraham Maslow’s called “The Jonah Complex”. It is first mentioned in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, and it explains why humans who want to be brilliant, also find it terrifying:

Jonah Complex

Maslow continues by pointing out that if we do the best we can, we (a)are stuck out on our own, because being at the top entails being lonely, and (b) are only able to move downwards. How terrifying! How utterly awful! To spend one’s life at the top, afraid that at any moment you can tumble, would be too much for most people to cope with, let alone our hormonally-charged teenage students. Hence, many of them spend their life fighting to stay away from being brilliant, fearing that if they should reach their potential it will only make them lonely and stressed.

As an example of how common this fear is, Maslow would ask his university students: “Who is going to write the next great psychology textbook?” No-one would ever admit to it.

But then he would say advice that I think is one of the most important phrases in all of life:

If not you, then who?

I’ve used this phrase a lot with kids. “I’ll never get into Oxford”, they would say. “Well someone has to,” I would respond, “why not you?”. [Same goes for being prime minister, taking a person they fancy to the school prom, getting a top mark on coursework….I mean, someone has to. So why not them?].  Of course, we don’t always get what we want. Not everyone can do these things. But Maslow would also tell his students that if they purposely plan to be terrible (or not be prime minister, etc) then they won’t somehow escape misery. That’s not how playing it safe works. Like Jonah, they will run away only to find themselves scooped up and asked to face other challenges. Only, by taking the path of least resistance they’ll be less prepared and without a shot at achieving the dream. He ends by pointing out that we cannot avoid unhappiness, but we can learn to be less scared of brilliance.

That sounds a bit sappy, I know. But The Jonah Complex is a real thing in our classrooms and I’m not above a bit of cheesy sloganeering if it helps students overcome achievement fear. So, to that end, I have produced the following meme. Feel free to download and stick on your classroom wall. Stick it on all four of them if you can.  And always always remember to ask your kid who is about to give up in despair: “If not you, then who?”


Categories: Philosophy of Education, Randoms

4 replies

  1. This is an interesting perspective/tactic, and I love the student’s ‘reverse-mind’ comment. I am concerned that such models as Maslow’s Jonah or Dweck’s self-attribution may play into discourses of individualization and neglect the complex factors that may lead to a student choosing to socialise and identify with others than the ‘top set’. Narratives of self-improvement can be alienating for students, implying that they must want to get away from what is familiar and by definition inadequate. Schools like New York’s Urban Academy are interesting in their offering of a wider vision of the fruits of academic success – rooted in civic engagement rather than just self-improvment

    • Michele, I completely agree with what you are saying here, and I don’t think that concern is fundamentally problematic for Jonah/Mindset. There is a difference between saying “you have to want ‘better'”, which implies that where a student currently is in terms of culture, or place, or identity, is somehow problematic, and saying “you should want to be the best you can be, at the things you want to be”. As an example, I’ve written before about my dad – who was a busdriver of 30 years – talking to some of my students who wanted to be busdrivers and therefore thought their exams were irrelevant. Dad spent ages talking to them about all the great things about being a bus driver. He didn’t patronise them by saying “you can do better” because, as he pointed out, the job had given him lots of good things and it could well work for being the person you are. But his view was that you should want to be a *great* busdriver, a smart busdriver. That just because you do a certain job that doesn’t mean giving up on caring about how well you do things. (Not least, as you point out and so did he, because that will affect how you treat your family and the community you serve as a driver).

      Ultimately I think the two things can meld together.

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