I remember being smart. Man, that was great: to know all the answers without being told, to finish all your class work in an hour, to race through exams and be the first one to turn them in.I think I peaked in second grade, and I get a little dumber every year. We talk about smart people as if they are all the same, but there are many different kinds of smart, and the labels don’t always stick.
I’ve met a lot of smart people in college, and I find they can be broken down into three categories.
The first kind of smart is Honor Roll smart. These are the people who do their homework, study for tests, turn in papers weeks in advance and generally make the rest of us feel lazy.
The second kind of smart person is the regrettably common Gifted Slacker (a category I am still in). Gifted Slackers recognize their intelligence at a young age. Some of them are child prodigies; some of them are just lucky. And over time, they all develop the same blind spots.
Schoolwork comes easy to them – so easy, in fact, it becomes boring. They race through tests and sit there with nothing to do. The homework is boring, so they just stop doing it.
Sometimes teachers allow them to read books in class when they get bored. This is a big mistake. Books are inherently more interesting than class work, so once this loophole is established, the Slackers work even faster to get back to their stories. Their work becomes sloppy and rushed, their motivation sinks like a stone, and at the end of the road, they end up with 160 IQ points and a D-average.
Some of them still do well on tests. Others drop out completely, becoming ultra-specialized automatons. These folks can assemble computers in their sleep, but they can’t tell you who Mark Twain was.
This leads us to my favorite type of smart person: the Tragically Overspecialized. And while the rest of these categories apply to students, this one applies to teachers. Many professors start out as Honor students or Gifted Slackers and end up like this, so devoted to their chosen field that all the other knowledge in their heads just kind of slips away.
These folks can tell you what ingredients Melville put in his coffee, but they can’t tell you who wrote the Declaration of Independence. Their conversations sound like this:
STUDENT: “So, do you like Mark Twain?”
PROFESSOR: “I’m sorry, that’s not my field.”
STUDENT: “I thought you were an English professor!”
PROFESSOR: “I teach British literature. Mark Twain is American literature. If you want to know about Mark Twain, you’ll have to ask Professor Coxswain. He’s the expert.”
STUDENT: “I just wanted to know if you like him!”
PROFESSOR: “I’m sorry, that’s not my field. I’m really not comfortable discussing American authors.”
So what’s the difference between the Slackers and the Honor students?
I think it has to do with self-awareness. The Honors kids work harder because deep down, they think they’re idiots. They’re afraid of being exposed as frauds, so they work twice as hard and accomplish twice as much.
The Slackers back off because somewhere down the line, someone told them they were smart. They realized they could meet the basic requirements with a minimum of effort, and they didn’t really see any reward for exceeding that standard, so they got lazy and let the whole thing slide.
Some of the most brilliant people I know secretly believe they’re stupid. They’re always rushing from place to place, agonizing over tests, scrambling to find rare books, poised over their computer screens waiting for grades to be posted.
I can’t say this is healthy, but this elemental self-doubt keeps them working. This is why older students traditionally do well in school. They spend years in pathetic mind-numbing jobs, watching helplessly as their knowledge slips away from them.
They go back to school, and they panic. They don’t remember algebra. They don’t remember the Periodic Table, and they think Thomas Jefferson is some guy who dated Grace Slick.
It all comes back to them, of course. And in the midst of all that self-doubt, they end up producing some excellent work. It’s the classic tortoise and the hare story. The bored young genius skips class and ends up failing, while the frantic returning housewife does all the work.
In the real game of life, results trump talent every time. The housewife who gets a B is still going to end up better than the slacker genius who blows off the assignment. And after 10 years of slacking off, the genius isn’t really a genius anymore. He’s been surpassed by ordinary people who did the work, paid their dues and turned their brains into something wonderful.