How you can be smart about being smart
7 lessons from superheroes.
Being smart is great, but if you’re not smart about it, being smart can land you in a world of hurt.
(And that wouldn’t be very smart, now, would it?)
Before I say more about that, I should clarify how I’m using “smart” here:
By “smart,” I mean being better than average — whatever it is you’re better than average at.
Once you think of it that way, it’s easy to see that being smart makes you stand out. The problem is, standing out makes you a potential hitting target. (Irrelevant here whether the hit is by intent or by accident.)
So how does one go about learning to be smart about being smart? There isn’t exactly a manual for it, after all.
Turns out there is a manual of sorts…
Superheroes to the rescue
I know, I know, they’re fictional, but you’d be amazed how useful fantasy can be in negotiating real life.
For starters, superheroes are smart by definition. I mean, just staying alive as a superhero requires you to be smart. But if we think about our definition of smart from earlier, being smart (aka being better than average) is basically having a superpower.
Who better to learn from, then, than the folks in spandex?
I’ll admit I’ve not always been the quickest student, but for a start, here’s 7 things I’ve learned along the way…and am still learning.
1. You have to know your powers.
Not all powers are the same. But even among those with similar powers, they’re expressed differently.
Superman and the Flash are both fast, but only one uses a time-manipulating speed force. Similar outcomes, but different operations. And even for a single hero, powers often evolve with time. Magneto started with metal, but later he could manipulate even the iron in people’s blood. Same power, greater control.
What you’re better than average at, too, comes in various shapes and sizes. Math or writing, and if it’s writing, songs or stories? Or songs, then stories? You have to know your powers. And then…
2. You have to grow your powers.
I should warn you, you won’t like this part.
Not the “grow your powers” part — anyone can see why it makes sense to grow your powers. It’s how that’s the problem.
The X-Men call their training room the Danger Room (not figurative, I assure you — it really is dangerous). Because Professor Xavier, like any good teacher, knows that the only way to grow a muscle is to push it to its limits.
The only way to grow your smartness is to put yourself in the Danger Room: situations where it might not come through and failing is a real possibility.
Tough, I know. But there really is no other way.
But there’s a paradox…
3. Downplay your powers when you’re not with superheroes.
The more your powers grow, the less often you should use them randomly.
It sucks to hear that, I know but there’s a reason why.
See, it’s easy to define yourself by the fact that you have powers. This is understandable: we tend to want to define things in terms of what makes them unique. It’s why we say things like, “That guy with the big head,” or “The lady with the shrill voice.” We want to be “that person with the superpower.”
But it’s often a grave mistake, because what makes a person unique is not all there is to them. Yes, your uniqueness might make you interesting, but it’s your ordinariness that will make you relatable. (Why else do you think relationships start with trying to find common ground?)
Also, that’s how you get unnecessary hate.
Here’s why: most people like superpowers, but it’s only at a distance. Up close, most people are threatened by people with powers. Nothing to get upset about: it’s just human nature.
Or why do you think the thing most people say after meeting powerful people is, “Do you know, they were just so ordinary and human!” Those are smart superheroes.
Learn from that, and when you’re with people without your powers, take it easy.
But when you can…
4. Hang out with other superheroes
The Avengers. X-Men. Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. The Defenders. Justice League. The Green Lantern Corps.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that superheroes like to team up. And it’s not just teaming up to fight bad guys, sometimes they just want to hang out.
And make no mistake, superheroes aren’t hanging out with other superheroes because they don’t like regular people. (The villains do, sometimes, like Magneto and his crew, but that’s an absolutely terrible reason.)
They do it because everyone needs somewhere where they’re just normal.
And when you stand out, it’s super helpful to have others who are just like you, or even better, so when you’re with them, you can just be you without thinking of downplaying your powers or hurting anyone or stuff like that.
5. With great power comes great responsibility.
If you have only a passing acquaintance with Spiderman you have to know this quote by his late Uncle Ben.
It’s the quintessential superhero quote. And it’s dead-on true. And it’s the main reason why you really should think about how to use your powers for good. It’s why you need to know your powers, why you should work to grow and stretch them, why you must think about how to use them to make a difference in the world.
You’re given those powers for a reason. But try to stay focused on being helpful, not on being obvious. For all his bigheadedness, Iron Man really wants to help. (Like, maybe half the time?) Be arrogant if you want (and at your own risk) but at least try to be helpful. It won’t kill you.
And it might even save you.
6. You can’t save everyone. No one can.
It’s great to have whatever abilities you have, but no amount of it can solve everyone’s problems, or even anyone’s problems every time. The smartest people know this and it keeps them humble.
Every superhero has that moment when they aren’t able to save someone. Some never get over it. Others learn from it.
Two ways knowing this can help you:
- It helps you know your hard limits so you can come to terms with them
- It helps you see how much you need other people (since you can’t do it all)
Both of these two things add up to something even more important: being humble. Which doesn’t mean derogating yourself, as much as it means accepting your limits and being comfortable with them. (You see the problem with Iron Man?)
(Speaking of which, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard “wise” used to describe a conceited person.)
7. You are more than your powers.
This is so, so important.
You remember I said earlier that you shouldn’t define yourself by your powers? Well, this kind of builds on that, but it’s about more than your relationships with others and being relatable.
It’s about how you see yourself.
Your powers are just a part of you. And however amazing they might be, they aren’t all of you. Don’t be one of those folks who focuses so much on their uniqueness that they lose their ordinary humanness.
Grow your powers, but don’t forget to deepen your heart.