Being “Smart”

People accuse me of being “smart”. The word choice there is intentional (although it’s almost always well-meaning):

“You’re too smart for that.”

“You did that? You must be smart.”

“I could never do that. I’m not as smart as you.”

“You’ll be fine, you’re a smart guy.”

Statements like this bother me. Two of them suggest that some action I’ve taken or opinion I’ve espoused is invalid because I’m “smart”. I am perpetually concerned about my continued growth and well-being; I shouldn’t, because I’m “a smart guy”. I have made some choice or failed at some task, and this is unacceptable because I’m “too smart for that”. The other two portray me as “other”, compared to the speaker. The speaker could not perform the task I have because they’re “not that smart”. The speaker doesn’t think a task is possible (or possible in a certain amount of time), therefore accomplishing it means I’m “smart”.

We are very, very bad at this sort of thing, as if being smart were some crucial, inborn trait; you either have it or you don’t. It bleeds into our fiction– how many fantasy worlds have “born mages”, where magic (as an analogue for intelligence) is “in the blood” of some people, but not others; that they’re somehow gifted with supernatural power. At the same time, we vehemently and dispassionately punish error; If you get a question wrong on your homework, or fail at a task, or struggle in any way, you have failed and you are Forever Marked, even making up for the error later merely reduces the damage you’ve already done to yourself.

Someone told me last night that they look up to me because I’m smart, and they want to be smart and successful as well. In a day filled with unfortunate events, this struck me as profoundly sad. I am not a role model. Other than playing the hand I’ve been dealt as competently as I can, I have done little of worth to warrant emulation. I talk a big game, but I don’t have the breadth of experience to truly say I’ve acted upon it. In the meantime, I look at my friends, ones who have actually struggled in their lives and had genuine hardships and still come out on top– they are the role models. I have known people who have kicked drug habits, started careers and families, and know both what failure is and how to overcome it. I have seen people transcend troubled, dangerous upbringings and carve for themselves a place in the world. I have seen people struggle to live a life that isn’t defined by a mental illness, a “normal” life, whatever that means. I have seen people give up everything for a cause or an ideal that they believe in, and make it real not through any gift, but through sheer hard work. These are the laudable people, the role models. They are the ones with something to learn from. I can only aspire to develop something worth teaching.

If you want to be smart, use your brain. This sounds flippant, but it’s true. Work at it constantly, do mental exercises like you might find in something like Lumosity, don’t settle for passive entertainment that doesn’t require thought. It’s like any form of exercise: the more you do it, the easier it gets. Read books, solve puzzles, learn new skills, find patterns in things, figure out how things you use every day work. The Internet is a fantastic resource for this, and the more you learn things, the faster you learn new things. Never settle for telling yourself you’re bad at something, because all that means is that you haven’t practiced at it, and you’ve probably gotten it wrong in the past. Relationship columns will frequently offer the advice “never settle” — this applies to things other than dating.

“Smart” isn’t an identity, don’t let it define you. It’s not an exclusive club you’re not a part of, and it’s not some magic wand that prevents you from failing at things. We’re bad at valuing improvement, but don’t let that stop you from improving. All that means is that there isn’t someone standing over you with a red pen, ready to mark you off for not getting something right on the first try. Failing at something and trying again to get better is a far more laudable thing than simply getting it right on the first try. If you’re getting things right on the first try, you should be doing harder things.


  1. Well said. You’re so smart.

    … seriously, though, I actually had this mantle thrust upon me very early. I was the kid in kindergarten who could read in a rural area where most kids could not. I excelled in early elementary, to the point where I was singled out and bullied for it. On some level, I then rejected it.

    I tried not to stand out. I found out that I could get by without working very hard, and that continued even into college. I went from potentially excellent student to B+ student. I’m not proud of that. Every point lost was due to incomplete homework OR finding a boundary in my knowledge that I didn’t know I had.

    As an adult, I think it has transformed more into “work smart” as opposed to “be smart.” I don’t like to do more work than I have to in order to get the job done and done well, so I’m in a constant search for efficiency.

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