By Anna Taylor, January 18 2024—
What does it mean to be smart? OxfordLanguages defines “smart” as “having or showing a quick-witted intelligence”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary correspondingly adds that it means to “[have/show] a high degree of mental ability”. So does that mean that those who don’t display this seemingly elevated cognitive ability aren’t considered “smart”? Does not being “quick-witted” enough in different aspects of life devalue the prospect of one’s mental capabilities?
These were exactly the thoughts that had occupied my mind for as long as I could remember.
Originally, the word “smart” held a single definition in my mind as the stereotypical school-obsessed student who always seemed to pull all the right answers out of thin air, had the perfect test scores and probably spent all their free time studying or doing homework. Of course, as I grew out of my teenage Disney channel sitcom phase I eventually discovered the exaggerated comedy-centered marketing scheme behind that idea. However, I remained biased toward the viewpoint that academic focus and achievements implied a certain degree of higher intellectual capability.
For the majority of my life, I had never considered myself physically attractive. I hadn’t really gotten into makeup or more stylish clothing, even in high school. Since I was known not to be very academically gifted at my junior high, I figured high school would be my chance to become the studious and intellectually capable student I never was. I poured all my effort into my studies and managed to obtain the high 90 math and science grades I desperately craved and founded the ambitious goal of pursuing an engineering degree in the future. I’d gotten exactly what I wanted — establishing myself as one of the “smartest” among my peers, as well as half the grade.
However, I found all of my expectations to be shattered once I began my first semester as an engineering student at the University of Calgary. I was by far the weakest link in my group, no matter how much I contributed or how hard I studied and ended up switching programs due to burnout and a multitude of bad grades. I was right back to square one — unattractive and unintelligent.
It was around this time when I began to think of my high school peers, who hadn’t put much effort into their studies. While they’d had lower grades than me, they were infinitely more successful in all the regular aspects of life — partying and relationships, among many other things. This was when I seriously began to rethink the concept of being “smart” — dressing in a socially acceptable manner, wearing makeup and blowing off studying to party gave people the very life experiences almost everyone went through at that point in their lives. Having neglected all these aspects of typical young/new adulthood had left me completely inexperienced at an age considered unacceptable to still be new to those kinds of things.
Coming to that realization much too late had left me entirely mortified. Incessant rumination on where I could have possibly gone wrong led me to a single conclusion — I’d failed to have the same predispositions my peers had at the correct age. I was severely inexperienced at my current age because I hadn’t followed the norm when I was supposed to. I hadn’t been clever enough to have figured it out at the same time everyone else had.
In other words, I hadn’t been “smart” enough.
I was always someone who experienced difficulties with concentration, even when it came to the most basic logical thoughts or actions. I often had a hard time processing things quickly, which had gotten me a lot of backlash from family and other people. So the conclusion I’d come to in the previous paragraph felt like adding fuel to the fire.
I became obsessed with every minute detail that could potentially make me be seen as “smart”. Skipping class because I either “didn’t feel like going” or to hang out because that’s what everyone else did. Refraining from answering or contributing my own opinion for fear that it might not be the “smart” thing to say. I frequently found myself in situations with two possible outcomes that I would brutally analyze to determine which outcome was the “smartest” and somehow always seemed to choose the “less smart” option, after which I’d be told to “learn to put my brain to use”. I would then proceed to angrily explain my thought process behind the option I’d chosen and that I did in fact “put my brain to use”. It was turning into a never-ending obsession. I once organized a display at work in a way that I’d found to be much more efficient than how I was told to do. Pleased with myself that I’d thought of the “smart” way to do things, I was later shocked to have been reprimanded by my manager for it. My thought process was abruptly switched to the “smart” choice having been to listen to my manager instead and this had been obvious to everyone else except for me.
I had never realized beforehand that this compulsive addiction I had with being “smart” stemmed from an unquenchable thirst for validation. My peers, family and even strangers I would never see again had to quit my presence with the mentality that I was “smart”. The terms “late bloomer” and “everyone goes through life at their own pace” used to infuriate me. It felt like everyone I was close to was lying to make me feel better about myself.
It took slipping into a pit of emotional and mental drainage to finally start changing my perspective. I couldn’t live the rest of my life relentlessly overanalyzing every single thought and action. Not only was it unrealistic and unachievable but it was also completely ridiculous. We are all human, born to make mistakes not fake perfection. We are not wired to have it all figured out and be right all the time.
So for anyone feeling pressured to mold themselves to fit an unrealistic ideal, I hear you. It is certainly not an easy fix to disregard others’ opinions of us. Once you have an obsessive ideal in mind, it becomes increasingly difficult to rid yourself of old destructive habits. It is enough to just take it slowly day by day, one step at a time, and trust that these all-consuming feelings will not last forever. We are all fighters, and we all strive to heal from and fight the demons that haunt us.
This article is a part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet editorial board.