The Crisis of Being Smart

Po Bronson just published a thorough and fascinating article in New York Magazine called How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise. It zeroes in on “gifted kids” and how being labeled and praised as such can negatively affect their development. Put simply, it can make them lazy.

If you’re told over and over again that you’re achieving well because you’re smart (as opposed to “because you worked really hard”), you begin to divide tasks into two categories: things you’re good at, and things you’re not good at. You earn praise by appearing perfect, and you learn to make choices that support that image. Discipline and effort fall by the wayside, and you do only what comes easy to you.

It’s no secret that this is my story. Put into gifted classes as early as second grade, I was identified as “a smart kid” and treated differently. I knew that I was above my peers, above discipline, and above many aspects of the education system. I learned how to play the game of performance without effort. I aced tests without studying and wrote exceptional comparative literature term papers without reading books. I also avoided anything that was hard. For example, sports.

Hitting the “real world” where I actually had to work was an agonizing process of disillusionment. I’m fortunate that it started in high school when I was finally put in mixed classes with students of all skill levels. I had to collaborate in group projects with peers who didn’t grasp concepts as quickly as I did. At the time, this was excruciatingly hard work. For a full year, I was utterly resentful at the system for not giving me special treatment. Eventually, though, I started to appreciate what I could learn from people with different backgrounds.

By the time I was inducted into the National Honors Society, I was starting to embrace my normalcy and no longer wanted to be seen as elite. Within six months of my membership, I wrote a scathing letter to the organization, informing them that I was fundamentally opposed to their principles and that I wanted nothing to do with their false sense of superiority. This was my version of “wild teenage rebellion,” and my mother was horrified. Yes, I am an NHS drop-out, and I’m darned proud of it, too. But I still kept my record of straight A’s.

As an adult, I’ve had to consciously (and with great effort) learn how to work. I still naturally gravitate toward things I can do impressively without effort, but I also force myself to put time into things I know I can’t “be the best at.” For example, cleaning my kitchen (I am so not smart at that…). To achieve some balance in my life, I’ve done mountains of work on learning how to deal with (what I perceive as) failures. The “smart kid” answer to failure is to give up and do something else. The “real world” answer is to learn from it and try again. And again. And again. And yes, that’s counterintuitive for me, but I’ve learned the hard way that it’s worth it.

And it makes me wonder… would this process have been easier for me if IQ tests, grades, and the concept of “smart” had never been present in our culture? Yeah, I think it would have. But then again, so much of our culture hinges on intellectual hierarchy that everything would be radically different without it. (Can you even imagine it?)

Thankfully, even within the system and after a lifetime of praise-junkie programming, I am able today to step back and recognize that there’s a lot more to life than being smart.

(So praise me for that, damnit!)

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One Response to “The Crisis of Being Smart”

  1. Nancy Talbott Says:

    That was a great essay.
    Your mother