Why Being Smart Is a Dumb Idea (Part 1)

At my older brother’s high school graduation, I watched the valedictorian give a grandiose speech and decided that’s what I wanted to do too.

So I did.

I worked my butt off and had no fun the rest of high school. Go me!

It’s been 11 years since I delivered my valedictorian speech, yet I have nothing much to show for it now except a circular track in the dirt where I’ve been chasing my tail ever since.

Oh, and this shiny sticker.

valedictorian sticker on diploma

But unless you can turn gold stickers into actual gold, being smart is pretty dumb.

Here are half the reasons why.

Book smarts ain’t street smarts.

I can still remember that the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869. Yet for some reason that question’s never come up in any of my job interviews.

Hmm, I wonder why…

I could plug and chug an algebra equation, write a sonnet in iambic pentameter, or conjugate verbs in French and German.

All useful tidbits in their own small pockets of the world but not generally useful for making money or learning happiness or living a good life.

Solving for x doesn’t mean you can solve the question of where to find a paycheck. Writing a sonnet won’t win you love. And knowing the mechanics of another language doesn’t mean you know how to communicate ideas across boundaries.

When I was in third grade, Pluto was a planet. Now it’s not.

Knowledge is transitory, and none of it has made me healthy, wealthy, or wise.

Knowledge doesn’t show you how to hustle, how to make something from nothing, or how to run even the most basic of businesses.

Knowledge is simply a tool.

And life is a business.

We should learn how the business works first. Then learn the tools to run it.

But high school doesn’t teach business, entrepreneurship, or experimentation.

It teaches the regurgitation of facts and information. It teaches formulas, like “show up” x “do the work” = A+. It teaches students how to be computers, so they can function as cogs in a wheel rather than invent the wheel itself.

But that’s why we have computers.

So we don’t have to clog our brains with minute facts and complex equations. So we can reserve our energy and intelligence for creating and experimenting. For taking risks, learning from failures, and building our own version of success in a world where there is no formula for success.

Speaking of success…

Early success leads to an elevated fear of failure.

I knew exactly what to do to succeed in school. If I showed up, paid attention, made the teachers happy, sought clarity to my confusion, and did all the work thoroughly and carefully, I would get an A. It would be ludicrous if I didn’t.

But in the real world, you can show up, work your butt off, bow down to your bosses, and still lose your job. Or never get a raise. Or a promotion. Or whatever it is you call success.

Even if you’re employee of the month six months in a row, you can still lose your job for whatever external reason you have no control over.

School doesn’t teach you how to deal with that.

Instead it teaches you that the world is an algebra equation and you have full control over the solution. Plug and chug the proper values and out comes a smart person with a good job and a good life.

But when all you learn is how to follow the rules, you’re set up to fail in the real world where formulas never produce the same solution to the same problem.

Becoming valedictorian required no risk or experimentation. It wasn’t easy to do, but it wasn’t risky either. It didn’t take street smarts.

Real life takes street smarts.

I didn’t know what to do when I graduated. So I went looking for the formula, the worksheet, the grading rubric for life, but I couldn’t find it. I was scared to take risks outside of the illusory safety net of academia.

I succeeded too early. I succeeded at something that didn’t really matter. And then I became very afraid of failure.

But we need to fail, preferably at real world activities. If we don’t fail, we don’t really learn. If we don’t learn, we never truly succeed.

I didn’t know what to do when I finally finished my academic career. I worked two part-time jobs for two years, serving overpriced, two-minutes-to-ready spaghetti in the fakest of all fake “Italian” restaurants.

I wasn’t the only waitress with a college degree. And I didn’t get tipped for waving around my diploma with that fancy valedictorian sticker.

I wish I had failed at something important in high school.

Like going bankrupt on a lemonade stand. Or being yelled at by babysitting clients for putting their baby’s diaper on backward.

Such experiences would have taught me more about real life than the entire history of the transcontinental railroad.

Which isn’t good for much except maybe trivia night at the brewpub.

Speaking of brews, I’m off to make a cup of tea like an old English lady. You’ll have to come back next week when I’ll share Part 2 of why it’s dumb to be smart.

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