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Being “smart” (this hit way too close to home for me)

Last week I wrote about rethinking education to take advantage of technology and teach for mastery.

I saw this tweet a few weeks ago, and it’s been on my mind ever since:

It’s tempting to laugh this off and make a joke about people who are a little too obsessed with winning trivia night at the local pub.

Or to dismiss the insight altogether and say, “of course being smart isn’t important as an adult. Besides, who cares what anyone else thinks about you?”

But if you happen to catch me in a brutally honest and self-reflective mood, then I would say, this cuts deep.

I’m one of those people who was praised often as a kid for being smart. <Takes a hit of dopamine>. Being praised feels good, so we go off looking for more opportunities to prove how smart we are. <Takes another hit of dopamine>. It creates a positive feedback loop.

So what’s the problem?

Well for one thing, this teaches us to externalize approval. At school, we hand in the test then eagerly await our score. Maybe we’ll even earn a gold star!

But real life doesn’t work that way.

Once you finish school, it becomes a lot harder to prove your smartness.

Promotions at most jobs are more about politicking and putting on a performance than about brain power (much to the chagrin of introverted engineers and programmers everywhere).

Even in mathematics and the sciences, careers that most rely on and reward intellectual ability, there are relatively few opportunities for proving your brilliance.

Maybe you publish a great paper once every few years? Best case scenario, you win a Nobel prize, once in your life?

Opportunities for praise aside, it’s cute when my 16-month old shows off her latest abilities (and then claps for herself). But at 37 years old?

I suspect that if you dig down deep, under all of the “put a dent in the universe” talk, there are a lot of people (and I’m definitely speaking from personal experience here) whose real goal is to, “show the world how clever I am, so I can earn more praise and adulation.”

If you go really, really, deep even beyond that, you’d probably find the most basic human desire of all: to be loved. Perhaps somewhere along the way, we conflated the idea of being worthy of love with being praised for our intelligence.

For me personally, that’s where my spiritual beliefs and having a loving family come in. But even just remembering that that’s where I should be looking for love takes some work. It’s a practice.

You could argue a counter-point that, among all the human desires, ‘wanting to be seen as smart’ is hardly the most destructive. Especially if it leads to quantum mechanics and spaceships and symphonies.

But it can also lead to a dark place. Spending your whole life trying to fill a void by achieving things to earn more praise, only to find that it’s never enough.

The Wrong Question?

All of this begs another question: If we can stop worrying about trying to prove how smart we are, then how should we orient our efforts instead?

I’m reminded of a story about management guru Peter Drucker and some advice he offered a colleague:

If Peter were around to give me a thwacky pep talk, I think he’d say something like this:

It seems to me you spend a lot of time worrying about proving how smart you are. You already know you’re smart enough.

And you seem to spend a lot of energy gathering more knowledge and coming up with new ideas.

The question is: how can you use all of your abilities and knowledge and ideas to create value for others!

Of course, that last question isn’t just for me. It’s something we must all contend with — How do I live up to my full potential? What does that even look like?

This is what I’m working on now…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been enjoying leading the Quality Questions community through the process of finding their superpowers.

We’ve been working on questions like:

What is fun for you but feels like work for other people?
​How can you stack your skills together to form uncommon combinations?

I’ve been collecting questions, exercises, and tools like these for years, but this is the first time I’ve shared them with a group. It’s exciting!

Identifying your strengths and learning about yourself are worthwhile exercises on their own. But my hope is that everyone in the group will use that knowledge both to improve their lives (by spending more time on activities that bring joy), and to maximize their contributions to the world.

That’s all for this week. More soon…

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I write occasional emails to share what I’m thinking, learning, and doing. It’s all related to the idea of breaking free from the “default plan” in life.

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