The problems with “being smart”

Recently on tumblr, I saw this post by tumblr user obesitycore making the rounds to generally positive reception. I’ve reproduced it below with an example of some of the type of commentary I saw:

the really shitty thing about being told that youre smart your whole entire life is that as soon as you dont understand something you just kind of completely shut down and his this big shitty crisis because maybe youre not as smart as youve always been told

A similar thing which rang true for me when I heard it described is this: when you’re categorized as “smart,” anything you do well gets chalked up to the smartness, rather than to the effort. Combine that with lack of challenges in school and you get the situation where I didn’t learn how to work on something until I got better at it until I was in my twenties.

I relate to all of the above, and also: When I couldn’t do something academic—because I didn’t have the relevant skills, or I didn’t have enough confidence, or I wasn’t organized enough, or I was confused about what was expected, or I was depressed—all I ever got was “But you’re smart! This should be easy for you!” Like if you’re smart then the only possible reason for any kind of academic failure is laziness.

Let me be clear: to some extent I can identify with these feelings and situations. But I think we need be very critical about what we are feeling and saying here.

First of all, I think it’s a bit much for us to complain about having been told we’re smart all our lives, when it is demonstrably much worse to be told you’re stupid or to be treated as if you’re stupid. This all smacks of thin people whinging “People told me to eat a burger” and “They assumed I was confident because I’m thin!” Yes, these are real problems that thin people have that cause them emotional pain, but they are minor in comparison to what happens in the lives of those who are not considered thin in our culture. The same is true of the experiences of people not considered smart. If the people around you think you’re stupid, and even worse, if they tell you you’re stupid, it can have a huge negative impact on your life. (Research by Duflo and Banerjee on this topic, outlined in their book Poor Economics, provides some evidence for this in the context of India.) The people who are really systematically beaten down in our culture are people who are considered “stupid” – we routinely hear people who think themselves “smart” bemoaning the fact that “stupid” people can vote, run their own lives, have children, and frankly dare to exist at all.

Being seen as smart by the people around you is a huge advantage in life. From a young age, people seen as smart are given more agency in their own lives than people who are seen as stupid or incompetent. They are given attention and encouragement where other, “average” people might be left to sink or swim in order to prove themselves. The personality flaws of “smart” people are explained away, or even seen as the inevitable result of their intelligence, and therefore to be tolerated without question. Of course – as these posts make clear – there are downsides here, like there are downsides to being conventionally beautiful and thin. But let’s be mindful of the wider structure those downsides occur in. I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the downsides we are discussing in these tumblr posts are not the result of being seen as smart, but are in fact the result of making “intelligence” the foundation of your self-worth. That is not something you have to do – it’s a choice, even if it doesn’t feel like it. It can be unlearned. And as these posts show, it obviously should be, especially if it comes coupled with the damaging notion that being smart means never having to struggle to understand something.

Moreover, I think we should recognise that even what we think of as “smart” is to some extent culturally and socially defined. So if you are going to buy into “being smart” as some kind of important identity marker, you’re giving your society a lot of power over your identity and over your mind. Clearly, being conventionally “smart” is not the same as being intelligent – and at this point in the discussion we have to now admit that we don’t have a really good definition for intelligence. Of course, many people are devoting their lives to studying this question, so I don’t think I can add much here aside from an acknowledgement that we are far from any consensus on a definition for whatever constitutes “intelligence”.

Now, I know that some people think the very concept of intelligence is ableist, but I don’t share that view. I think the evidence suggests that there really is variation in the capacities of human brains for processing information and solving difficult problems in creative ways, and that some people genuinely are better at these tasks than others – although it’s hard to say exactly what is responsible for the variation. But I do think that these skills are not perfectly correlated with what our society calls smart, and especially not to what adults think is smart in young people. And I do think a lot of our social norms around intelligence are ableist – and also sexist, racist and classist.

I think a lot of what we call “smart” – especially in the early years of a person’s life – is more about skills that are acquired through practice, and about being able to figure out what people want from you. I think that the young people who live in an environment conducive to the kind of practice needed to develop many such skills tend to be richer on average – even controlling for educational access, which is a separate and huge issue in itself. I also think that our culture has certain ideas about who is likely to be naturally “smart” (white boys) and so we collectively encourage them to persevere to acquire such skills much more than we encourage other people. This matters because while some portion of intelligence seems to be genetic, some also seems to be developed by perseverance itself. In fact, even thinking of yourself as capable seems to help you perform better. So when one group is taught to see themselves as naturally less intelligent or less capable, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy – this is classic stereotype threat (see Spencer et al 1999, for an alarming example of this in a randomised controlled trial.)

I think that our society makes a lot of arbitrary distinctions between which kinds of mental processing abilities and problem-solving skills make you “smart”. You know, “I proved the asymptotic properties of the OLS estimator” is one way to be smart, but “I have perfected the apple pie” or “I invented the lute” is another. And a lot of these distinctions are biased in ways that reinforce harmful, oppressive social structures. Excelling in male-dominated disciplines such as mathematics and science is seen as a marker of intelligence, but excelling in female-dominated disciplines such as teaching and nursing is not. Is it harder to do proofs in algebraic geometry than to get high schoolers to engage critically with their own national history? Writing reasonably complicated, rhyming rap lyrics isn’t seen as a display of intelligence, but of course it’s just as difficult as writing a sonnet in iambic pentameter. Computer programming wasn’t seen as smart when it was predominantly done by women – now that men do it, being good at it makes you “smart”. Those of us lucky enough to enjoy the social privilege from being recognised as conventionally smart should be mindful of how we’ve benefited from this structure.

And suppose even that you do think that some types of difficult and creative problems are objectively more “difficult” than others – if you think that in an objective sense it requires more “intellect” or brain processing power to sequence the human genome than to embroider the Bayeux tapestry. Still, the fact remains that no matter what we call “smart” or how legitimate you think the label and the corresponding social power is, it is fucked up that our culture says “smart” people are more worthy than “stupid” people. Look, “smart” people are not better than other people. If you lose the title of smart, if you grow up and suddenly nobody calls you “smart” anymore like they did when you were a kid, you’re not a less valid human.

I know that a lot of those tumblr posts are about catharsis, and I know that my raising these objections might cause some emotional pain. But I think it needs to be said, because I think the perspective you take on being “smart” really matters. Not just because of the broader social issues, and not just because it can make things go horribly wrong for you if you are petrified by intellectual challenge, but also because it will cause you problems even if things go right. Suppose that you actually do possess more neural processing power and problem-solving abilities than the average human. And suppose you also work hard, and you are lucky, and you want to be challenged and learn things. Then, in the best case scenario, you will eventually find yourself in a room full of people roughly as smart as you, or indeed, a room full of people who are on average smarter. If you get really lucky, you might get yourself to a room full of people compared to whom you will seem – to yourself, at least – very slow-witted indeed.

Then you’re not “the smart one” anymore – and that can be wonderful, if you let it be. I’m in graduate school now and it’s a place in which I could not remotely be called “the smart one” anymore. After a small lifetime of rarely having to ask my peers for help to solve an academic problem, I now have to ask them for help multiple times a day. I often feel inadequate in the face of the problems I have to solve, but I get on with them and usually I make progress – often, more progress than I thought possible. To continually surprise yourself in this way is a great experience. It also wipes away any vestiges of the illusion that “being smart” matters. What you do matters. The problems you solve and the things you build matter. Stop worrying about being smart and start focussing on getting things done.

Author: Rachael

Rachael is a queer, nerdy, aneurotypical, white cisfemale with a bachelor's degree in economics and a give 'em hell attitude. She has a culturally unacceptable amount of body fat but sometimes "passes", and she accesses some forms of thin privilege but not others. She believes in leveraging the privilege one has in order to smash the kyriarchy. She is a big geek, an atheist, a skeptic, and a fan of science. In her spare time she enjoys meditation, going to therapy, and shouting.

13 thoughts on “The problems with “being smart””

  1. “I think it’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the downsides we are discussing in these tumblr posts are not the result of being seen as smart, but are in fact the result of making “intelligence” the foundation of your self-worth.”
    Spot on with this. At least from the quote from obesitycore, they seemed to be saying they did just that, and had not learnt to be more resilient. That happened to me.

    I had made smartness the foundation of my self-worth, in the face of relentless bullying. But later, coping with all kinds of real, non-academic, life challenges, “smartness” just didn’t mean sh*t. And becoming chronically ill as a result of stress stripped away a lot of that “smartness” anyway. So I had to develop different ways of bolstering my self-worth that didn’t involve being “better than” someone else, bully or not. I don’t like the concept of “intelligent person” “stupid person” these days. Everyone’s got reasons for what they do, and the ability to do an abstract maths problem is unrelated to not f*cking up your personal life, or getting by on a few bucks a day, for instance.

  2. I agree with everything you say here, but I also think that for people who have been brought up from birth to view their intelligence as the core of their worth, it’s not quite as simple as “stop worrying about being smart and start focussing on getting things done.” A lot of these people suffer debilitating anxiety and depression when confronted with the fact that their intelligence isn’t really special or all that helpful in life, and it leads to a profound sense of worthlessness and lack of direction in life. I just think that’s useful to talk about from a mental health perspective, if not necessarily a social justice perspective.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I appreciate what you’re saying here, and I agree that it would be useful to discuss this more from a mental health viewpoint as well as the social viewpoint I took. But as for your critique of my solution – I do think it can be that simple, but I think we should remember that simple doesn’t mean easy. I am myself one of the people you describe, and I find the change in perspective – the choice to let go of trying to build an identity around a narrow view of intelligence, the choice to let go of trying to “attain” worthiness – is enormously beneficial for my mental health. It is certainly not easy, but it is simple. Merely recognising that I had a choice whether or not to engage in a cycle of defining myself and then tethering my self-worth to my ability to live up to my own arbitrary standard had a huge impact on my life.

      That said, I recognise that the issues raised here are different for everyone, and that other people’s experiences of anxiety and depression are likely to differ a lot from mine. As you noted, this wasn’t the focus of this post so I didn’t discuss it there, but it is related and it definitely needs to be said. So thank you for giving me the chance to say it!

  3. I see the construction of smartness as being linked very closely to income, that income is a sort of de facto proxy for how smart someone is. This means that skills that tend to translate into income more easily are hallmarks of smartness in kids.

    I don’t like the comparison of ‘math and science’ to ‘teaching and nursing’. I suspect that in almost every service discipline, you’d find that excellence in it is not considered a hallmark of intelligence regardless of whether it is male/female dominated. The excellent lab technician isn’t considered nearly as ‘smart’ as the grad student in the lab for example. My feeling is that class is the overwhelming factor here.

  4. I appreciate this post. I too have experienced some of the “downsides of being smart” that the Tumblr users you quote bewail. And sure, it kind of sucks to have to learn how to work on schoolwork when in your twenties because you never had to do it before and now other people seem to have a mysterious, even magical advantage. Much like the mysterious, even magical advantage I had as a child and teenager when I *never had to make any effort to do well*!

    People who grew up fabulously wealthy and then experience a downturn in their fortunes can struggle with day to day things like paying bills, going to the post office, etc. Learning how to do that stuff as an adult must be weird and stressful and difficult, but it would be absurd to claim that therefore rich people actually have it really tough even when compared to poor people.

    I think being smart, and particularly being smart without suitably-proportioned challenge as a child, makes us less likely to have developed grit* by the time we find ourselves needing it. I also think that recognising and overcoming this is a great challenge for smart people to get stuck into.

    * Grit, stick-to-it-iveness, whatever you want to call it.

  5. I’ve had to sort of fight to remember that I agree with you because of a strong emotional reaction that is not quite actually opposed to the point of this article. I’m autistic and a child sexual abuse survivor who was also labeled smart growing up. Non-disabled non-survivors who wanted to minimize what I was going through liked to tell me that I had it easy because I was smart. This was obviously upsetting and wrong but not the point of the post. I totally recognize that if I was an autistic abuse surviver who was not labeled smart I would have been overall worse off and probably things would be minimized for a different reason by people who wanted to. At least this way I was considered worth saving by teachers and such.

    But still, I think there is a point here about how people can be silenced by focusing on the advantages that they have and ignoring other axes of privilege in which they’re worse off. Some of the people complaining about this may have less dramatic versions of the same thing going on.

    I still think this post probably needed to be said, but that my response needed to be said too, so I said it.

  6. I don’t know too much about ableism, its the social justice sphere I am least acquainted with, but I think there are certain people, and they may not even come about once a generation, but once in a while, there are people who’s confluence of nature and nurture produce a individual who can change the course of history.

    I hate the out dated yet still practiced “great man” version of history, it usually lauds very problematic white cis men who came from great privilege. At the same time, isn’t an intellect such and Curie or Newton or a Aryahbata is simply such an outlier that their contributions to society surpass almost anything seen before them, what does ableist theory make of these individuals. Might it be said that a Pasture does have a special impact on the world, and that it is one so exceptional it deserves more than celebration? I guess I feel that some lucky few truly are people able to aid society in ways that 99.99% percent of us can only dream of. Is it wrong to treat them as the intellectual outliers that they are, as I would dare anyone to challenge the genius of Ramanujan (seriously, check that dude out, wow!).

    I agree with the premis of the article, privilege does not provide one with an easy life, just an easier one. And that every unique person has a unique situation that gives them a unique set of challenges. This doesn’t mean that real inequality doesn’t exist, I’m just interested in what ableist theory makes of “once in a generation intellects.” If no one wants to deal with my privilege, can they at least give me a blog/book to read?

    Thank you

  7. This is a bit of a nitpick but I feel like your comparison of nurses and teachers to scientists is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. I think it would be better to compare within academic disciplines. As it is, in my experience, male orientated fields such as mathematics or the hard sciences are seen as requiring more intelligence compared to “female orientated” (or again, those that are percieved of as such) disciplines such as (english, psychology, etc.) which are typically presented as being taken up by slackers and majoring in such will only qualify you to ask “would you like fries with that?”

    On the other hand, I think nurses come out slightly ahead of most blue colar professions, including male dominated ones (police, military, fire-fighting, etc.) in terms of percieved intelligence.

  8. Hi, Rachael!

    I’m autistic, and in my childhood/adolescence been sorted into both the “Stupid” and “Smart” boxes by different people at different times. So I know that the “Smart” box is a lot easier, and more pleasant, to be in.

    I also never hit the wall that the people on Tumblr describe, though, maybe because I was never The Smart One, or never just The Smart One. I also did not absorb the idea that smartness was some scarce resource that either I had, or someone else had … someone else being smarter did not make me not smart. I also had the weird thing going on where relatively simple things that would’ve gone unremarked in a typical child, like my ability to speak, were seen as Amazing and Unique because when I was a kid most people bearing the label “autistic” couldn’t speak. (If I were to be a kid now, I don’t think I would be so special. “Oh, one of those.”)

    I also struggled with simple things that other kids could do, but because I had such limited awareness of other kids I probably didn’t grasp the extent of this at the time. I always knew I was Very Different and Special, but I knew this because adults told me. It was only later, as a teenager and adult, that I was actually able to see how I was different.

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