I Am Not Smart Enough.
But How Much is Enough?
I passed two girls dressed in business professional sitting on one of the commerce school benches. One of them was crying, the other with her hand on the girl’s back, consoling and providing words of encouragement. I remarked to my classmate that just a week ago I was in the same position as the crying girl.
I am sure that girl and I are far from the first to crack under the weight of expectation, to be better than the competition, to get hired by a big name company, to bring prestige and wealth to the university.
I’m not in the commerce school, but walking the halls as I often do, it seems that every day there is a new information session by yet another company. Not that these recruiting events are inherently bad, but you turn the corner and see a flurry of black suits and plates of catered food and wonder, where’s my blazer? Should have I been printing out my resume on fancy paper at the library instead of grabbing coffee with a friend?
And what was I crying about?
“I’m not smart enough” I said to my friend. That’s it — I’ve cracked the code for what has been subconsciously plaguing me for many years but perhaps more intensely in the last few months.
I’ve always told people that I’m not book smart, that I don’t test well, that I’m average. Sure, everyone goes through some phase of sobering up and realizing they’re not the shit when they first arrive at UVA. In the first month or maybe semester you realize that while you were top dog back in your local high school, everyone is here at UVA for a reason. When you’re surrounded by people as intelligent and talented as you are, suddenly you don’t seem so special.
That’s normal and probably great for cultivating humility. While I accepted that to a certain extent and grew to be satisfied with being average, that realization never really quite left my thoughts.
In hiding my insecurity about my intelligence or pushing it to the background, I’d smile enthusiastically and say something like “I’m not really book smart, but I think I make up for it in other ways, like being good with people” or “I’m definitely the dumber one between my sister and I.”
It’s as if the fact that I was saying these things about myself proved that I accepted it wholeheartedly and have won some sort of battle. By my logic, admitting you’re the loser before someone can call you out on it, by default makes you a winner.
And yet there I was, crying and choking back words as I tried to figure out what it was that I was struggling with. Because I know I’m not dumb. I might even dare say that I’m pretty smart.
But this isn’t about whether I was smart or not. The question is: am I smart enough?
Smart enough to be considered an equal among my peers. Smart enough to date exceptionally bright guys. Smart enough for my parents to brag unabashedly about me, or so they don’t have to.
Why didn’t I feel like I was smart enough? The answer was pretty obvious. I’m surrounded by brilliant people. At UVA, but also in NYC where I’ve been spending a lot of my time away from school.
To survive in NYC you have to earn a decent amount of money, and to do that, you have to be pretty smart and come from a good school. So when everyone you meet or hear about is a banker, a consultant, a marketing director, a tech wizard, a media guru, and comes from Yale, Columbia, U of Chicago, MIT, etc, how can you not feel inferior?
UVA is an excellent school, but I start to think, but is it prestigious enough? Marketing is a fine profession, thriving in a microcosm of media and advertising in Manhattan’s center, emboldened with the sex appeal made possible by the Don Drapers of the world. But is it lucrative enough?
This train of thought is dangerous. If nothing is ever enough, how can I be satisfied with who and where I am?
“Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
This statement was conceived with the good intent of encouraging one to never become complacent with where they are in life. And I agree, I love learning. I think it’s the most beautiful thing about life — that you can continue to learn more and more new things and still never come close to knowing everything.
As they also say: you should never be the smartest person in the room.
Again I agree, if you surround yourself with people brighter than you, you’ll be constantly stimulated and learn a lot more.
Both of these quotes convince me that it’s okay to not know and to not be the smartest. I’m already okay with not being smartest. Because who can be the smartest anyway? One person. Or maybe the top 5%. But the majority of people fall in the category of “not the smartest” so who cares if I’m part of a pie chart that’s made principally of one color anyway.
It is this idea of not being enough that is difficult to entertain. It’s as if intelligence existed on a likert scale with zero being an unappealing average. Who likes being at the top of the bell curve?
Your friends will probably have the same sense of humor as you so you laugh about the same things and operate on the same wavelength. Studies have shown that people tend to date people that are of a similar attractiveness level as they are.
Perhaps then it follows that people hang around people of a similar intelligence level. When the people around me have impressive credentials above that of my own or start talking about subjects I know little about, I start questioning whether I’m really on equal ground.
It feels like I’m an imposter amongst a legitimate crowd, and maybe one day they’ll discover that I’m not “one of them.”
Maybe if I wear enough J Crew and Polo Ralph Lauren I too can pass as a preppy ivy leaguer with an affluent family background.
But when I don’t know something brought up in conversation, the red devil on my shoulder whispers in a snarky tone “and you thought you were smart enough to be one of them!”
Maybe the little devil is right, maybe I’m not smart enough — when it comes to certain things. But I bet some of these brilliant people couldn’t tell me the three components of the exposure triangle of photography, or name 5 cuisines that Taiwan is famous for, or design a flyer for an event, or find the courage to strike up conversation with several strangers in a public park.
And you know what, I bet there are things they can do I that I wouldn’t know where to begin doing.
Today I may not be smart enough to know X, but each day provides another opportunity to learn that elusive X. The beauty is that I probably don’t need to know X. What I need to understand and accept is that I could. If I wanted to, I could know X.
X could be valuing a company or writing a piece of software or painting a mural, none of which is crucial to my success in my career or happiness as a person exactly. They could be interesting skill sets to acquire, but not necessary.
But if I wanted to learn X, I could, and it doesn’t mean I should. With that knowledge, I feel equipped with a new found confidence.
I will never be “smart enough,” but I am enough.