I'm not smart

I'm not smart

By Tim Vandergriend

A friend of mine fessed up the other day when we were talking about beliefs, things we believe about ourselves that limit us from doing well in our lives. She surprised me by saying that she believed she was not very smart. Surprised, because I see her as a very bright individual who has skills and abilities I don't have.


Hearing this actually angered me. I wasn't angry at her. But that we live in a society that has shaped a system that causes people to feel this way. And by this I mean our school system and the parents who don't offer guidance outside of its constraints.


The main problem as I see it is that from day one, our school system uses rankings as determination of intelligence and ultimately informs us of our value in society.  This system starts in primary school and continues right through to university. Rankings are based on subjects that most of us are not really interested in, nor never likely to use outside of school. A lot of necessary life skills and areas of intelligence are actually not even covered within the curriculum. So who's to say we're really ranking the right subject areas anyway?  What it comes down to is if we study hard, and get good marks, we are seen as smart. If we have a good memory for information regurgitation, we are determined to be smart. If we behave in class and pay attention, we are more likely to be seen as smart.


I have a few issues with this.


Our minds are susceptible to feedback.

If we don't perform too well on the first day at school, let's say you get a C. Are you celebrated? No. The kid who gets an A is celebrated. Leaving you to believe you are inadequate.  This has a powerful effect on the our self esteem. We then start to form beliefs around this that we carry with us. This is likely to cause angst and self-doubt that will reduce the likelihood of our brains working at optimal efficiency to work at the next task. And so the pattern repeats.


Our environment judges us and pigeon holes us

The problem is further compounded by the fact that the adults and care takers around us start to label us. We get a C, we are a C student. We are then no longer expected to achieve great things. That's ok, he or she is not that smart. We won't expect too much. We receive that signal back to us which further reinforces in our minds that we are not smart.


You need high marks to follow certain career paths

Somewhere down the road we are also told that in order to study certain professions you need a certain mark.  If you're not getting the marks you need, you inevitably have to remove that goal or dream from your reality. We tell ourselves, we are not smart enough to do profession XYZ.  And we carry this with us the rest of our lives. The ridiculousness of the situation is that the minimum education qualifications are not in place to determine aptitude of the individual to succeed in that profession. It's in place solely for supply and demand.


So what's the alternative?

We can't change the current system.  But what we can do is understand the limitations of the system and contextualise our existence within that. We need to...


  • Understand that there is different kind of smarts (verbal, visual, musical, mathematical, interpersonal, logical/maths, physical, emotional)
  • Understand that everyone is unique and has a unique skill or potential to achieve something in life.
  • Understand that we don't have to be good at everything
  • Focus on what an individual likes. We become good at something if we love doing it.
  • Identify strengths and focus your teaching around improving the strengths. If someone has good verbal skills, and poor physical skills (drawing, sports) don't spend hours trying to improve hand skills. That only serves to give negative feedback. Focus on activities and skills where your strenghts lie.
  • And ultimately, don't try to rank individuals (even if someone else tries to). We are all good at something different. Let's tell each other we are all good what we do best and don't try to compare.



What about those who do score high?...

I actually scored very well at school. So well that I had all the possibilities in the world - I could go onto anything I wanted to do.  However … I had no idea what I wanted to do.  I was spat out of a system that ultimately gave me no direction, no guidance, and no skills to succeed in life.  I struggled to find the right career path. 

So instead of ranking on smarts, the school system might do better to help students uncover their strenghts and passion and how that aligns to the job market to define a practical career path where you are valued.