Saturday, February 7, 2015

Taking the smart train

As I said earlier, I grew up having a reputation for being smart.  And I as I got older, I also entered increasingly selective intellectual spaces.

My social bubble right now consists almost entirely of educated elite.  Therefore, I strongly suspect that most of my friends went through a significant period of their life having the reputation for being smart, for being a nerd or a geek.  However, this experience does not last forever!

For me, it lasted for a long time, probably more than most.  I was the top of my class in middle school.  In my private high school, I was only in the top ten or so, but it was also widely known that I was the best at math.  In college, I was a physics major, which is already enough to get you labeled as smart among non-physics people.  Even among physics people, I was known for getting exam scores so high that they'd need to be excluded from the grading curve.  When did I ever get off the smart train?
Image borrowed from a transit blog, with apologies.

I finally got off at grad school.  I got good grades in my classes, but who cares about grades in physics grad school?  And now I don't take classes at all. It turns out that test-taking skills don't transfer perfectly to research.

I am fine with this.  The smart train wasn't so great anyway.  I was increasingly disillusioned with it by the end.

It is right and good that intelligence and academics are celebrated in our society.  It's important to the betterment of society, and also just intrinsically desirable.  However, living as an example of what is celebrated is fraught with problems.

There are the awkward nerd stereotypes discussed before.  There's the jealousy.  There are the expectations.

And there's the blatant unfairness of it all.  I have no idea why I had more academic success than other people.  Talent?  Upbringing by educated well-to-do parents?  Hard work?  I sure didn't feel like I was working hard, I felt like I was lazy.  I hated that other students felt like they could never do as well as me, no matter how hard they worked.  I hated that Biology and History students felt dumber than me.

That's my personal attitude.  And I think it's been quite adaptive, because I was able to step off the train relatively safely.  From what I've heard, some people only get off the train when it crashes.
I'm speculating here, but the main problem seems to be hubris.  You're told that you're smart, and that makes you better than other people.  So you simply believe it.  But eventually you get to such a level of education where your peers are as smart or smarter than you.  It's the Peter Principle for nerds.  And then what's left?