truth about being smart

In my mid-20s, I had an unexpectedly profound experience that changed me: I saw a documentary on people living in Appalachia. The documentary profiled a family of “hillbillies,” including their kinship networks, how they survived financially at the bottom of the financial food chain, how they made their way in the world with limited education and in some cases illiteracy, and their struggles and their triumphs.

They had an ease and understanding with each other, a familiarity. They had loyalty, willing to share their already limited resources with one another for the survival of all.

What was striking was this: despite being poor and uneducated, these people had something that I didn’t have, despite all of my smarts.

* * *

A decade ago, all I thought I wanted in life was a tenure-track professorship. I spent the weekends scouring the clearance aisle at Banana Republic to find suits; I joined eight different academic committees (most full-time professors are on maybe 2 or 3); I signed up for time in the campus tutoring labs.

I was working so hard so that I could get the job so that I could have the things so that I could validate the accomplishments so that I could live a good life–and to do that, I thought, you needed to be smart.

Everyone adopts certain “identities” and uses those identity systems to navigate the world. In my case, “Smart” had become the armor and shield to protect me from life’s failures (If I was just smart enough about things, I wouldn’t make mistakes–or feel pain).

“Smart Person” had become an identity–one that I needed to maintain at all costs. I wanted to read all of the right books, so that my faculty cohort wouldn’t know that I had never studied “the canon.” I sought out friendships with other like-minded people who would also make high-minded conversation at dinner parties. I wanted the intellectual debate and discourse.

Because I was so attached to the “Smart Person” identity, I wanted to surround myself with really smart people. In those communities, as Dr. Brene Brown puts it, I “hustled for my worthiness.”

Ugh–the arrogance! I feel compassion for the woman I was, who didn’t know that it was okay for her to be herself without striving to appear so smart, in the hopes that that would bring her connection.

As you can imagine, it was empty. I could make conversation at a party, but I couldn’t get truly vulnerable. The comparisons and one-upmanship were mentally exhausting. Sometimes, the dark side of the ego that was driving me to protect and maintain my “Smart Person” identity did so at all costs, making me judgmental of someone else’s conversational faux-pas or their mispronunciation of a word.

The thing is, “smart” doesn’t get you anywhere, if where you’re trying to go is being smarter than everyone else.

It’s like trying to be forever youthful and gorgeous. Eventually, the mind fades–and eventually, the skin sags. Eventually, someone else has the new and innovative idea, or inevitably, you’ll arrive at the party tired and unable to keep up with the conversation.

Furthermore, everyone can see someone with that “Smart Person” identity as they are hustling. Everyone. The more they hustle, the less anyone wants to be around them. Few people like being corrected, or having someone bring up a devil’s advocate position purely for the debate. Few people like sharing what they know about a topic and having someone contradict them to get their own point of view in.

The very thing that someone’s using their “Smart Person” identity to get, ends up being the very thing that drives people away. I wanted connection more than anything, yet for all of my smarts, I couldn’t “figure out” why people distanced themselves. Yet, the people in that documentary with 1/5 the education that I’d had, already had that connection, with ease.

* * *

I had to learn a few things, to release my attachment to the identity of “Smart Person” and all the behaviors that went along with it.

One, I’m not nearly as smart as I used to think I was. Sure, I’ve got smarts–I’ve just stopped over-inflating my capacity in comparison to others, stopped using it as the “Smart Person” identity that justifies all of my choices or how I’m better or what they should be doing, differently.

I feared releasing this identity–I’d built an entire existence around it–and yet now, this is a relief. It’s far less work to just be in a conversation, fully, than it is to be thinking of the next witty thing to say in the hopes that it will be impressive and thus have me be liked, and it’s far less pressure to admit when I don’t know or don’t understand than it is to keep nodding and pretending as if I do.

Two, I’ve found that if you observe others who are using their “Smart Person” identity to navigate the world, you’ll find that it’s the same for them. They aren’t nearly as smart as they think they are. I don’t say that unkindly or as a put-down. I say it to share that if you feel intimidated around them, there’s no reason to. When someone clings to any identity system, they’re going to do what they can to defend it because “that’s who I am.” We all have identity systems that we cling to. Part of the “Smart Person” identity system is maintained through intimidation and perfectionism. Instead of finding that intimidating, find compassion in your heart. It’s a painful place to live.

Three, I actually don’t care about intellect as much as I thought I did. Once the “Smart Person” identity started to fall away, I realized that part of the fallacy of the “Smart Person” identity is that what you know is the prized position, and what you know is your only limited currency.

When I meet someone who desperately needs everyone to know that she’s smart because she clings to the “Smart Person” identity, I immediately understand that I may learn fascinating things in my conversations with her, but unless she’s willing to drop deeper than the intellect, there will be limits to the connection in that relationship.


What you know is far less important than who you choose to be.

It’s far less important that someone is smart, than it is that they are kind.

Your intelligence drops drastically in value, when it’s used to serve internal mental dysfunction (comparisons, “better than” mentalities, hierarchies, “putting people in their place”), rather than creating internal peace and external connection.

The truly brilliant minds of this world are the ones that use their brilliance to contribute, not the ones that need to be right in a conversation.

The measure of someone’s true intellect is in how she uses it to create good in the world, starting with the world that begins in her home, at her dinner table, in her job, with her family, in her community.

That’s the kind of intelligence that matters.