“Smart” is an interesting adjective. It’s one of those words that feels really bad when you use it to describe yourself, especially among new friends, but it feels perfectly natural when others use it to describe you. I think it’s perfectly natural and not at all self-aggrandizing to describe yourself as “athletic,” why, then, must one feel compelled to hide his own intelligence?
Perhaps it’s because it’s because intelligence is hard to verify. I can tell someone is athletic simply by looking at his muscles, but I have no idea whether someone is smart unless I spend a few moment probing him or her, and even then, that seems to be fallible (it’s terribly easy to bullshit).
Or maybe its internal — smart people seem to be rather unsatisfied and driven, so describing themselves as intelligent would be implying that they have reached some imaginary point of utopian intelligence.
Actually, it probably aligns more along the lines of the latter. The smart people I know aren’t naturally intelligent, or, at least, not any more than someone might be naturally athletic. They’re just unsatisfied with the status quo and driven to become the best people they can be. The mental acuity they display is because they work really fucking hard, to the point where they often end up hurting themselves. They don’t know why they do it. Often times, it may be a deep psychological dissatisfaction that they can’t begin to explain to others — one that hurts them deeply, but pushes them forward. It actually hurts to not know.
This is probably why many smart people deal with feelings of loneliness and despair. Not only must they grope with the vast body of information which they simply won’t have enough time in their life to master, but they also can’t explain what drives them to anyone — perhaps, not even themselves.
This being said, I do think that in spite of our obvious biases, we can judge ourselves fairly well against others. So I don’t think it should be nearly as taboo as it often seems to be to describe yourself as intelligent. Maybe it’ll help you find someone else who is also intelligent — someone who understands your motivations — or, at the very least, understands why you can’t understand what drives you. Being described as the “teacher’s pet” ought to be a compliment, not an insult.
In my case, it took a lot of courage to first speak up for myself, and I’m very glad I did. I’m around smart people who understand why I’m as driven as I am (or, at least, pretend to understand why I’m as driven as I am.) But it’s still something that I struggle with today: when is it appropriate to vouch for yourself and when is it better to simply shut-up? I don’t know. I may never know. And it bothers me.