After graduating seven years ago, I’ve learned that making money in America revolves around knowing finance, data and science. Making money means understanding economics and ways to do business, and working in geopolitics. Writers and people who study good books rarely make a lot of money. But their literature is what makes the world go round. 

Anyone who passes through Yale’s Ivy gates should understand the different kinds of intellects on the market. As someone who is mildly intelligent, I like to study the art of intelligence myself. 

First, there are mathematicians. Math fanatics look at sheets of paper and computers and chalk boards and write numbers down. They mull over equations and make new ones if they excel at their craft. They marvel at the way a line slopes in the xy-coordinate plane or in planes more multidimensional than that. Top-tier mathematicians compete to solve puzzles and problems with no answer in sight. But when one lucky person finds the answer to that puzzle — maybe at Princeton, or maybe at Brown — they win a Nobel prize. Despite all of their brilliance, mathematicians rarely have to look at the world around them to be good at their craft. Occasionally, they will witness mathematical problems in nature around them — in the curvature of a seashell, for instance, or in the speed of light. But for the most part, a prize-winning mathematician can be the best in the world without having to worry about human suffering. They don’t have to care about culture. 

Let’s move on to scientists. Some scientists work to cure society’s ills through groundbreaking cancer drugs and treatments to rare diseases. But most of a scientist’s time is dedicated to being good with microscopes, knowing a few coding languages and excelling in laboratory settings. The best scientists on the market pose questions about the world around them; they formulate new hypotheses and try to evaluate these with experiments. Top scientists are curious and have superior spatial reasoning skills: they seek to answer their curiosity with action in hospitals and labs and research centers. But at the end of the day, scientists don’t incorporate systemic discrimination, heartbreak or politics into their work. 

Let’s look at literature and writers. A literary intellect is different from all other intellects. Scientists code and understand how particles collide with each other, and mathematicians look at sheets of variables. But writers need to observe the world around them and communicate the suffering they see onto paper. The finest writing — the kind of lines that get passed down from generation to generation — communicates suffering. Only bad writing talks about rainbows and butterflies and Valentine’s Day chocolates and rose petals. Many Americans don’t want to read heavy topics. They want “Fifty Shades of Grey” on the beach. And I don’t blame them. 

The greatest novels are studded with tales of fine tuned suffering, both in America and beyond. One of my favorite books of all time, “Middlesex,” written by Jeffrey Eugenides, explored the life of an intersex girl in Detroit, long before writing about trans topics was trendy. I read Middlesex when I was 13, before I changed genders. It induced such a visceral reaction in my body that it made my stomach sick. I was fearful of what was to come. But because Eugenides did such a stellar job of conveying the nuances of intersex life, he won a Pulitzer. Many in the trans community don’t think a cisgender white male author should’ve garnered a prize for writing about this topic. I disagree, but that’s a story for another day. 

Novelists need to hone a very fine grasp on human suffering. An award-winning novelist looks at the life around them and plucks one issue out of thin air to write about. Eugenides wrote about gender bending. Toni Morrison wrote about racism and Black community. Kafka wrote about people who think they are monsters but are really not. Dostoevsky wrote about what it was like to be utterly deranged. You can argue — and this is a tepid argument at best — that J.K. Rowling taught children good versus evil, only until she became, with all the Hogwartsian irony in the world, a second reincarnation of Voldemort after kicking trans women in the dirt. 

While top writers need to care about the pain ebbing through their daily surroundings, they also must carry a special intimacy with the English language that often cannot be taught in the classroom. The question of how quality writing can be instilled in students is one I mull over on a weekly basis. In one interview, Salman Rushdie — winner of a Booker Prize and author of the utterly glorious “Satanic Verses” — reiterated the thought that English professors cannot, despite their efforts, induce a unique affinity for words in their students. Professors can teach other things: themes, dialogue and to some extent, style. But talent must abound as well. And talent, fortunately or unfortunately, comes from within. 

This is why the literary intellect is so important and so unique. Don’t get me wrong. All fields at Yale should be treasured. But society should always cherish literary intelligence. We are the tellers of your own suffering, after all. 

ISAAC AMEND graduated in 2017 from Timothy Dwight College. He is a transgender man and was featured in National Geographic’s “Gender Revolution” documentary. In his free time, he is a columnist for the Washington Blade. He also serves on the board of the LGBT Democrats of Virginia. Contact him at