Why Being Smart Is a Dumb Idea (Part 2)

My favorite professor asked his class why we were going to college. We all gave the usual dumb answers. I want a good job or I want a good salary. Which usually mean the same thing.

degree money salary equal good smart job

We were dumb.

He told us, “A plumber makes more money than I do and I have three degrees.”

And then he asked us again why we were going to college.

I had no good answer.

He’s the smartest man I’ve ever met.

Last week, I told you half the reasons why it’s dumb to be smart. (Didn’t see Part 1? Read it here.)

And now the rest.

Expectation, oppression, and depression.

When people started calling me smart in high school, I had no idea what they were talking about. I wasn’t smart.

I  couldn’t do math in my head like my dad. I wasn’t a tech whiz like my brother. Computers were a vast wasteland of scary buttons and screens and vague concepts that I couldn’t hold in my hand.

But when I studied really hard, I got A’s. And for the first time in my life people called me smart.

And then they expected me to be smart. Soon I expected myself to be smart.

But I didn’t want to study any more than the next person. What I really wanted to do was play.

My real passions were climbing trees, dressing up for frightening photo shoots, and writing angsty soliloquies in secret notebooks.

My 8-year old self wanted to be an artist. My 18-year old self instead became an academic.

I smothered the creative, carefree person I was as a kid in thick, suffocating layers of books. I didn’t do sports or art or music, eschewing them as distractions or unworthy pursuits because learning words like eschew was clearly the smarter thing to do.

That really wasn’t smart at all.

It wasn’t smart to ignore the things that made me happy. It wasn’t smart to learn for the sake of getting an A rather than for the sake of learning something that would actually do some good in the world. It wasn’t smart to have a dumb reason for going to college.

My 28-year old self shattered and crumbled into depression. I was no longer a “smart” person. I had become no lawyer, doctor, scientist, or business person.

What was worse, I had become no artist.

I hope my 38-year old self will have learned how to be 8 again. I was ME when I was 8. I liked being ME.

A fixed mindset stunts true learning.

I got my first B on a paper my third year of college. I was furious and humiliated. I was an A student and a good writer. I got A’s on papers. That’s just how it was.

I went to talk to the professor to try to get my A back from whichever swamp she had sunk it in (not to try and learn from whatever mistake I had made).

School after all was about proving yourself, not growing yourself.

I know why she gave me a B now. I wrote a good paper, but she knew it wasn’t as good as I was capable of making it. She saw where I slacked and cut corners, and she called me out on my BS by giving me that B.

I didn’t like her for it. She had undermined my “smartness,” my very identity.

But as much as I hate to admit it, she was right. And very smart.

It only took me 8 years to figure out why.

Only after I read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset did I finally realize how I had made life more about proving myself the “smart” person I thought I was rather than allowing myself to be the perpetual student of life that I’m supposed to be.

The problem with “being smart” is that it’s fixed mindset language. It implies that someone is born with some special ability and doesn’t have to work hard at developing that ability because it’s already set in the stones of their DNA.

“Being smart” prohibits you from making mistakes and thereby learning from them. It puffs up the ego, feeds pride, and turns learning into a competition.

Truly smart people, on the other hand, don’t suffer from the pride of a fixed mindset. They don’t let limitations or perceived failures stop their curiosity or ambitions.

They are the ones who can take whatever knowledge they have – whether it’s from a GED, a PhD, or no degree – expand upon it, and learn how to apply it to the real world to shape the sort of life they want to live.

There was a street boy in Mozambique who grew up to become a professional photographer. His name is Mario Macilau. He didn’t even know what the internet was until 2007.

His mother couldn’t afford to send him to school, but he taught himself by reading books and practicing with a borrowed camera. He didn’t let himself feel intimidated when he met the pros. He just let himself learn from them.

In other words, he had a growth mindset. And it’s taken him to where he wants to be.

He told the BBC, “I believe that in life we have to learn how to adapt and how to see things differently.”

He’s way smarter than I am.

If education should teach us anything, it should be what Mario Macilau learned on the streets.

I have my shiny, gold valedictorian sticker and my bachelor’s degree with highest distinction, and yet I envy a street boy turned photographer because he figured out how to learn with purpose, grow in the right direction, and become his own version of success.

Only 7% of the world’s population holds a college degree. When I was a freshman in college, that number was only 1%. I’m really, really lucky.

I actually think education could solve a lot of the world’s problems.

But it has to be the right kind of education. Education with a purpose.

Education for the sake of education alone is but a luxury to the privileged few like me who don’t seem to know what to do with it.

I think I was the dumbest valedictorian that ever graduated.

I was so dumb I couldn’t figure out that being valedictorian was not a good use of my time, energy, brain, or talent. I was so dumb I didn’t realize a college diploma wasn’t a golden ticket to a good job or a good life.

And I’m still pretty dumb. I’m trying to figure out life every day, and I’m not doing a very good job at it.

But that’s okay, I guess. They don’t give out A’s in real life anyway.

5 thoughts on “Why Being Smart Is a Dumb Idea (Part 2)

  • July 26, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    You say that you are still “dumb” but I see a young woman gaining wisdom with age and experience. As your fellow dumb valedictorian I know that making mistakes is simultaneously terrifying and liberating, my friend. We should have tried it sooner. 😉

    • July 26, 2016 at 9:33 pm

      Haha, yes we should have. 😉 Thanks, my friend!

  • August 9, 2016 at 12:41 am

    Just another dumb valedictorian over here, giving you two thumbs way up for saying it how it is! 😉 It sure was a pain to spend extra time memorizing everything to get those A’s. Time to put effort into something that matters: something that will better this world.

    • August 9, 2016 at 10:04 am


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