“Smart” is a Terrible Thing to Call Someone

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I believe there is a hidden curse to being called smart. A computer science professor of mine shared an anecdote to try and encourage the class to ask more questions. As an undergraduate, she took a course taught by one of her intellectual heroes. On the first day of class, she asked something which her hero said was a “great question”. The professor explained she never asked another question for the rest of the semester. She was terrified of not living up to the standard she had set for herself.

I believe a much higher stakes version of this plays out in the lives of those who attend(ed) elite colleges across the country. Much of what makes smart college students afraid to take risks is precisely the fear of invalidating the “smart” label. They can fall into a trap of caring more about being seen as smart than almost anything else. This is the essence of the smart curse; smart is an adjective potent enough to serve as the basis for an entire identity — shackling its servants to the tried and true institutions that reinforce “smartness”.

This is both ironic and unfortunate as these are the very people best able to absorb any negative shocks from risk taking. Of course there are many examples of risk-taking innovators coming out of elite universities, but their numbers are far smaller than they should be.

It is also important to recognize that calling a young person “smart” produces a potentially toxic emotional burden as it implicitly loads them with an entire society’s expectations for the future.

Society’s rapacious pursuit of progress is an engine that needs continuous refueling, and a steady stream of smart young people with empty resumes serves as the ultimate renewable resource. A blank resume is like an energy-dense fuel; every word extracts energy until the page is filled, leaving its potential energy depleted. Once real words begin to fill the page, the constraints of human life become realized and promise gives way to the invariable mediocrity of any one individual’s work. Once complete, society’s engine of hope sputters, and it must turn to the next generation to refill its tank.

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