Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Being Smart: A True Story

I am working on a post that isn’t quite ready, so in the meantime, I am going to tell you story. 

It is a true story.

*   *   *

Once, a lady decided to go back to college and finish her undergraduate degree. It was not enough for her to go to a regular college, so she got into Harvard.

She was surprised.

Before that, she had attended a small Community College. When she graduated with her Associate of Arts Degree and a 4.0 GPA, someone remarked that it couldn’t have been very difficult as it was just Community College. Even though many, many other people said nice things and assured her that she was bright and intelligent, she always wondered.  

Now, she thought, it is not just Community College. It is Harvard. I will find out if I am smart or not.

It was a long journey to Harvard, and she had to fly into the worst airport in the world, Logan in Boston. Then she had to take a taxi to Harvard and find her dorm, get an ID, and figure out many things. She had to eat cafeteria food.

On her very first day on her way to her very first class, she was overwhelmed by the Harvard-ness of it all. The trees, the buildings, the harried-looking students! The Harvard Lampoon building!  Harvard Yard! The statue of that guy in a chair! The dining hall that makes Hogwarts look like an underfunded public school!


It was exciting, but she worried that she wasn’t smart enough.

On the very first day in her very first class, her (Linguistics) professor casually mentioned an ongoing debate (regarding Linguistics) that he had with his colleague Noam Chomsky, who taught over at MIT. Holy crap! The lady nearly swallowed her tongue. Not only was she being taught (and graded) by someone who KNEW Noam Chomsky, she being taught (and graded) by someone who DISAGREED WITH HIM TO HIS FACE. Noam Chomsky, the Father of modern Linguistics. It’s like having a disagreement about science with your buddy Einstein. TO HIS FACE. 

Her Harvard-high plummeted when it became clear, on the very first day in her very first class, that the professors were very intimidating and the work was extremely challenging. She was even more concerned that she wasn’t smart enough, but she was determined to try and find out.

As she left the building after class, a flyer caught her eye. Salman Rushdie (one of her heroes) was giving a lecture over at MIT later that week. As she stood there, gazing at the colorful array of flyers and notices, she found herself thinking…huh. Salman Rushdie, over at MIT. Noam Chomsky, over at MIT. Oh my God. All the cool people are over at MIT! What am I doing at this cut-rate, second-class school? If I was really smart, I would be at MIT.

She felt terrible. This whole place was clearly a sham: no wonder they let her in; she wasn’t smart at all. But maybe, just maybe, if she could get into MIT…perhaps for Grad School…

As she trudged back to the dorm, she suddenly realized how silly she was being. It took a few blocks.

So it was, that on her very first day after her very first class, the lady admitted that she really wasn’t very smart…just not in the way she originally suspected.

*   *   *

Yes, of course that’s me.

I tell the story now and laugh at myself, but it’s an uneasy laugh…because even though I recognize the foolishness and danger of that kind of thinking, sometimes I can’t help myself from doing it.

I’m always a little suspicious that I’m not doing enough. Or that I’m not quite smart enough, or whatever. It seems that the minute I accomplish something, I conclude it was not worth much, and immediately start seeking the next hurdle…hoping that once I achieve that, I will feel I have achieved something. It never works; there’s this thing about trying to find happiness on the outside rather than within bla bla bla you know how it goes.  

The good news is: I do learn. The inner critic is quieter. I try to appreciate my accomplishments-- even bask in them a little. I am getting smarter about the things that matter.

But ok, ok, I’ll admit it, although after sharing that personal fable and tidy moral lesson, it is a bit embarrassing: my GPA at Harvard is 4.0.

I mean, it’s a good school and all, but there’s only so much it can teach me. I’m still struggling with the really hard lessons.


  1. Yes, you're a smarite. Get over it.

    The truly hard lessons about ourselves are hard for all of us, no matter how smart we are.

    Thanks for sharing this -- it's a great story, a personal story, and a fun read.

  2. That is a funny & uplifting story - I loved it.