On Being Smart

Today a fellow teacher asked, “When did you know that you were smart?” My honest, yet glib answer was, “I don’t think I am smart.” Yes, that was a deflection. My second answer, “I’m not smart, everyone else is stupid” was just a smart-ass answer.
I do think that I am smart. Yet I think that somewhere along the line I missed something. I never felt that I was all that smart. I’m not sure even now if I am all that smart. Yes, I was in the excelerated classes in middle and high school. Yes, I was in the Junior and National Honor societies. I made A’s and B’s without trying through out public school. In college I received my B.A. again without trying that hard and doing the usual amount of drinking and partying, and skipping classes; and sometimes more than the usual amount.
When I look back at various events in my life, I think wow that was really a weird gecky thing (translation: smart). I had what I realize now was my first philosophical encounter with language in third grade. I thought, “Nothing has to be something or it wouldn’t have a name.” I read the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings for the first time in 3rd and 4th grade. I didn’t think that was unusual, my older sisters had already read it, and they were what I had to compare myself to, the norm I had at hand. It befuddled me in elementary that others were not as interested in the books I was interested in, or that they took longer to do the assignments in math or social studies. I never thought of myself as smart however.
By sixth grade I met two of my oldest friends, Nathan and Jimmy. Finally some people who had read the same books as me, who were interested in, what I now realize were odd, obscure, games and were willing to spend hours and hours playing them while we talked about the books we were reading. We would embark on projects and have a blast creating sets for the skits or plays we were doing for class. But this was all normal. Normal, not smart. Smart was something else, something beyond what I was able to do.
As a nineteen year old undergraduate, I worked as a dishwasher at Clarksville Wine Shop. I listened to the customers, and the waiters (graduate students) talk about various subjects from wine to art, to music, to politics; and I came to an early cynical idea: pretension is half of the game. With being able to back it all up the other half, thus negating the pretension. I started working on being able to back up what I had to say; being able to do more than just bullshit. I have always read a lot. When some author refers to some other text, and that text keeps coming up, I go and read it. I don’t read someone else’s ideas about that writer, I go read the source. I guess my Lutheran upbringing comes out there: don’t rely on the priests to tell you what the book means, read it yourself. I’ve noticed that most people do not make their own decisions about ideas, they tend to read what others say the ideas mean. When I read “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” for the first time, I was surprised that the infamous quote, “God is Dead.” comes rather early in the work and is not really that important in the work as a whole. Yet that is the line that I would say the majority of people know from Neitsche, if they know any line at all. I read and study because I don’t understand much of life; and for the most part, that simply leads me into deeper confusions and cause for further reading.
Others always seem to know what they are doing, what all the answers are. I don’t understand the world. I am not that smart.

4 thoughts on “On Being Smart

  1. I guess I was not clear. I wish I had been as persistent as the planet finder in my own field.

    There is being educated and interested in your field and then there are people who are just flipping brilliant.

    The math wiz and the astronomer were very brainy. Not brilliant as Hawking but closer than me. Genius level.

    You don't have to be a genius to make art. Warhol always claimed his IQ was 94. Then there is the debate about whether what he made was art.
    Art is subjective not objective. Why it is not always valued.

    I think I am drifting, now.

  2. There are more ways to be smart and creative than discovering planets or doing math. Look at your walls. Not that you were fishing for a compliment, but art, poetry etal. are also synthesis. Bill flipping trees and painting them is synthesis as well. We as a culture put too much emphasis on that which can be commodified or turned into the creation of weapons. And just to be argumentative: finding something that is already there even if it is light years away, to me at least is not the same as creating something new.

  3. Yes, it is a sign when a reference keeps recurring. It's why I have shelves full of books bought because they were cited by others.

    However, I am not that smart. I found that out when I met others who were way smarter than me.

    People who discover planets or find doing pages long math problems FUN.

    Part of appearing smart is being persistent and having good retention. Being brilliant is being able to make the cognitive leaps to something new. Creating synthesis.

    My two cents.

    -D

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