Sunday, October 25, 2015

Differently smart

In high school, I was pretty sure there was only one kind of smart.

I mean, yes: I knew that people might be smart in different areas--a whiz at math wasn't always a great writer--but I still saw intelligence as a thing that one either had or did not have, or that one had to a greater or a lesser degree. In other words, I didn't have much of a "growth mindset." At most I had an "if I work really hard, I probably won't fail" mindset.

Even in college I tended to see my peers as belonging to one of basically three categories:
  1. REALLY smart (and therefore terrifying)
  2. normal
  3. pretentious poseur who's probably faking it.
In my first two years of grad school I further reduced the categories: everyone was either terrifying or a poseur.

Gradually, though, I started to realize that not everyone who was intimidatingly learned or articulate in seminar was equally good at other things. At first I could only flip the binary around (so-and-so must not really be smart at all!), but eventually I was able to accommodate the idea that people simply have different strengths. Some of my peers were miles ahead of me in certain areas, but that didn't mean I was doomed. On the other hand, the one or two things I turned out to be good at--even unusually good at--were hardly some secret key to success.

Maybe this is obvious to normal people. But the idea that being good at one thing doesn't make a person smart in some absolute and holistic way is still something I struggle with. I admire, excessively, those who have talents I don't--especially if they're ones I wish I had and feel self-conscious for not having--and then am sometimes confused and disappointed when they turn out not to be as good at things I consider easy and basic.

And when it comes to rarer and more extraordinary gifts, I'm often very slow to recognize them. It's easy to identify the good writer, the spell-binding speaker, and the person who seems to have read three hundred years' of scholarship in five languages; it's harder to identify those with a special knack for helping other people grow and make intellectual connections: the person able to completely restructure and revitalize a major, identify and nurture pathbreaking new work as a journal editor, or who can, in five minutes' conversation, transform your understanding of your own project for ever.

But though I resist it, I suppose it's comforting, too: if most people aren't good at everything, that means there are more cookies to go around.

And if there's one thing I believe in, it's more cookies.


Notorious Ph.D. said...

This is perfect. I think grad school was when I began to notice it, too. There was one guy who remembered everything he read. My best friend could read an article that we all were on board with... until she pointed out the logical or evidentiary gap that made the whole thing problematic. I'm good at seeing connections between seemingly unconnected things. And so on.

As a grown-up academic in a department, if I do a taxonomy, it's between "leaders" and "workers." And it's always best to have each playing to their strengths.

Megan said...

As always, you identify something that I feel to be true but haven't really seen in this way before. (One of the ways in which you're smart . . .?)

Also, probably obvious, but those rarer gifts are often hard to spot because they're the lesser-rewarded, highly gendered skills of our profession. Totally agree that they're really important - and actual gifts, not something that just anyone could do if they chose (with the implication being that people choose to be good at the more obvious, prestigious things).

Renaissance Girl said...

Weirdly, the experience that helped me to come to the knowledge you've articulated here was my kids' elementary school learning environment. In my kids' school, each family must volunteer 3 hours per week to the classroom, and so I've been able to get to know and love two cohorts of 28 variously smart kids--by which I mean that some are brilliant at math but can't spell, some confident and articulate presenters but struggle with reading, etc. And the teachers, each one and from day one, emphasizes to the kids that different people learn differently, that each person has his/her own "time clock" for learning, etc. On the first orientation night I attended more than a decade ago, I got teary looking at all the posters around the room that promote these principles, and I wished someone had told me those things when I was 5. I felt--and continue to feel--that I might have enjoyed a less insecure and self-flagellating life in graduate school and as a young professor, if I'd internalized the things you describe here at the age my kids seem to have.

Flavia said...


Yes, ideally there's a balance in any department--or any classroom! And as RG says about her kids, it would be great if we were more upfront about this with our undergrads and grad students. (I do talk about skills as acquired and mastered over time, but maybe not as much as I ought.)


Aw, thanks! Weird pattern recognition/interpretative framework: I'll take it!

And actually, I don't know that I see the specific things I was talking about as gendered, though you're absolutely right that there are a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes strengths that get gendered female (teaching, being a particularly dedicated dissertation director, running programs).

I can think of numerous male editors (of journals or series) who had or have an astonishing knack for seeing exciting new work and coaxing, nurturing, and advocating for it. The impressario, I think, has traditionally been gendered male, and the ability to hold forth in a learned way and make big connections is usually also.

Some such men are terrific scholars in their own right. But there are others whose own work, while perfectly solid and worthwhile, has never been as astonishing as their ability to see it in others.

Andrew Stevens said...

If most people aren't good at everything, that means there are more cookies to go around.

It doesn't matter even if there are people who could, in theory, be better at everything than just about everybody else. There are more cookies to go around due to Ricardo's Theory of Comparative Advantage. Even if a nation is better at producing every single good than another nation, it still benefits from trade with the other nation by concentrating on and exporting goods where it has a larger comparative advantage and importing goods where the comparative advantage is smaller. The same reasoning applies to individuals as well.

Psycgirl said...

There is a concept related to this that I love (the book is called Multipliers and is about leadership) called "native genius" ( or maybe natural genius). It refers to the things we each find sooooo easy. when you have that experience of "this is so simple to me, how could someone find it hard?!" That is probably a native genius skill for you. That idea really helped me challenge this experience you are describing (and for me I was super judgy about what I could easily do that others couldn't)