I remember the day that being smart became central to my identity. I was 8 years old, sitting in my fourth grade classroom, and I remember the lights were low. We were doing some kind of interactive activity with the TV. If I recall correctly, the TV asked a question that was a bit advanced for fourth graders. Nobody spoke but all the heads I could see turned toward me. In my memory their faces were all full of the same sort of innocent admiration. I don’t remember if I had the answer or not. I just remember realizing “they all think I’m smart.”
It’s not that I hadn’t been told I was smart before that. Since I could talk, adults would fawn over my vocabulary. Standardized testing that threatened to send my classmates to repeat a grade was always a breeze for me, even kind of fun. I was already the star writer in that same class. But that incident was different, because I realized it was common knowledge that I was smart. I might have been the smartest kid in that class. It was a real opportunity to be special.
You see, though I had always aspired to be special, I hadn’t always aspired to be smart. The earliest aspiration I remember was to be beautiful and have a great romance with a great man that would prove what a beautiful, good girl I was. What can I say? I watched princess movies and I was (am) drawn to beauty. I wanted what they had. I wanted to know I was good and important.
When I was a little older, alongside beauty, I started to value wisdom. Again, there were always wise sages in these princess movies, and they usually had magical powers through their wisdom. I wanted secret knowledge that gave me the ability to heal and predict the future. (I was sad that I wasn’t part of an indigenous culture that had a direct line to nature’s wisdom, as my movies had taught me indigenous people have. Also felt ashamed of being from the boring styrofoam white conquering race, but that’s a whole other post.) And beautiful women have to have some kind of retirement plan.
I always had other things going on. I had creative things like choir singing and having a visual arts major in middle and high school. Runner-up for defining my identity was moral superiority, what with my precocious vegetarianism and ramrod follow-the-rules rectitude. (Interestingly, this one took the foreground once I was at Harvard.) But being smart just always ended up being my comparative advantage. It was the worthiness hustle that presented itself.
It’s true that I am pretty smart. But I worry that seeing myself as my intellect has directed my life choices too much. Taking a bunch of advanced classes and reading mindblowing books was genuinely what I most wanted to do in high school. I love being spoonfed knowledge at a rapid pace, and I also love to be tested on that knowledge. But pursuing a PhD, and especially pushing myself into more and more quantitative subjects, was unduly influenced by the need to excel at the role of smart person. (To be fair, those decisions also owed to an illusion I had that being a scientist would give me this special deep insight into the nature of things. Fwiw, I’ve gotten more of that from reading textbooks than actually being a scientist.)
More damaging are the everyday choices that my smart ego leads me to make, like always needing to know everything and have a well-informed and original take. Like not having the patience and self-esteem to easily endure a real intellectual challenge. Like, tragically, taking what used to be my favorite things, learning and knowledge, and turning them into just an opportunity to affirm my smart identity.
The more I’ve given to being smart the emptier it feels. I thought being smart would allow me to be secure in myself, finally sure that I wasn’t making a mistake by loving myself. I’m gradually returning to a time before my fourth grade classmates turned their adoring faces expectantly towards my superior intellect. A time before I was smart and smart was me. It’s no coincidence that I’m coming back to finish this post two days before I defend my PhD dissertation, my defense slides visible in the other window in Powerpoint. Completing this degree symbolizes many things for me (most of all a triumph over major adversity and intense psychological struggle), and among them is closing the book on the Holly that strives to be smart rather than be herself. I’m getting a PhD from Harvard. I’m getting the proof of my intelligence that I always wanted, and I know now for a fact that being smart will not give me what I really want. To feel good and important is to believe that my worthiness is innate, not conditional, and not the product of working on myself.
Being smart is rad. As a tool, it mostly lives up to the hype. But it can never define the real you. Or fill the hole in your heart.