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I Discovered I’m Not As Smart As I Thought

And I'm OK with that.

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Photo of scantron bubble test with answers filled in.
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To this day, my father still recalls how, at age 4, I was reading from my mom’s accounting textbook. He used to marvel at my intelligence, and how I would say “the damnedest things.” I can still feel the hot rush of pride that flooded my body the first time I got straight As on my report card in the sixth grade. I wanted to experience that rush again and again. I wanted to be known as smart.

I never made another B again after that first straight-A report card (we don’t discuss that one condensed summer course in 20th Century European History). I graduated at the top of my high school class and with summa cum laude for my bachelor’s degree. I reveled in always having the right answer and having it first. You know the exasperating Hermione Granger-type wildly waving her entire arm from her permanent perch in the front row? That was me. My intelligence became part of my identity, a competition, and something I must always demonstrate lest I risk losing my “smart” status.

But, as the decades passed, my horizons broadened. I met people who were wildly intelligent and impressively educated. In grad school, I met a couple of math whizzes who had the sort of mental computing ability normally reserved for … well, computers. I’d try as hard as I could to keep up, but I simply didn’t have the intellectual capacity for it. It frustrated me. It made me feel incompetent and inferior.

When my writing career began to take off, I met even more unbelievably smart people. Different kinds of smart. Not just computationally smart but logic-smart, analysis-smart, humor-smart, social-smart, art-smart, history-buff smart. The internet is a vast, diverse space, and I was being exposed to brainiac populations I previously didn’t know existed.

At the same time, I was tumbling down the deep well of motherhood. We talk about mommy brain like it’s this silly thing, something to joke about, but for me, with a kid dangling from each leg, mommy brain was a tangible, painful thing. Suddenly I could no longer keep a schedule straight in my brain. I couldn’t retain information from texts I’d read. Solving any sort of logic problem took longer and felt more difficult than it used to. A severe case of mommy brain. Or was it? Maybe I had always been this way and had simply been too arrogant to perceive it in myself.

It doesn’t matter. The point is, a terrible truth had begun to reveal itself to me: I was not as smart as I thought I was.

For years, this chipped away at my self-esteem. It haunted me at night the way the Casper the Friendly Ghost mask used to haunt me from my childhood closet. If I didn’t have superior intelligence, what did I have? It made me want to go back to school — See these straight As? Still smart! For a while I actually did go back, but then we moved and life got chaotic, and I didn’t resume classes.

I became fearful about speaking up in social situations. What if I said something that made me sound stupid? I agonized over emails and social media comments, editing them until I thought they were perfect, deleting them afterward sometimes if I thought I’d said something foolish. I was terrified I’d reveal myself to be airheaded and not worthy of anyone’s time.

Enter into my life a few special humans who have an altogether different kind of intelligence — fierceness intelligence. Otherwise known as confidence. These kickass friends have varying degrees of the other types of intelligence I mentioned, but their chillest, most attractive trait is that they are totally comfortable with themselves — including anything they may not know. If I were in an online conversation and the topic turned to a subject I was unfamiliar with, I would quickly Google it so I wouldn’t sound like an idiot, but these badasses simply say, “No idea. I’d have to look it up.”

What? You can just admit when you don’t know something? In retrospect, it’s obvious, but at the time it felt like divine revelation. And so began my slow forgiveness of myself for not always being the smartest in the room. How refreshing not to have to know everything. How liberating not to feel like life is one never-ending final exam. What a relief to be able to announce with conviction: “I don’t know.”

I’ve since redefined intelligence, for myself and for others. There are so many different and beautiful types of intelligence. So much more than just book smarts. And those who know more than I do about any given subject are not my competition. They are my teachers, and the less I fear my own intellectual ineptitude, the more I am capable of learning. The world is so big and life is so fleeting. Why not be open to all of it, including our own limitations?

The craving to be seen as smart was a superficial need, and the irony in the great waste of time was that no matter how much information I acquired, no matter how much affirmation I received for my intelligence, the one thing none of that learning could give me was the ability to love myself.

Imperfect memory and all.