Your Kind of Smart

by sarahgrand

I have been an overachiever all my life. One of my earliest memories is of my pre-school teacher holding up a drawing I made of a Christmas tree for the whole class to see. “Everyone, try to make a tree like Sarah’s” she said, as I looked down and smiled. I continued to get similar praises during my elementary and middle school years.

Up until high school, I actually really liked being an overachiever. Kids have this sort of naïve confidence about themselves. If I worked hard on something, I was excited to show it off. If I scored well at school, I felt proud and smart. I was never ashamed or embarrassed of my work ethic and genuine enthusiasm for projects.

All of this changed on an unsuspecting fall day during my sophomore year of high school. I was walking around the track during gym period, when suddenly, a peer of mine ran up to tell me that class rankings were just announced, and I was tied with a few people for number one. Boy, she didn’t look too thrilled. I remember it like it was yesterday. I would soon learn that a lot of other people weren’t too thrilled, either.

1526505_10151919787298977_260859689_n{Me in 2008, aged 16}

Before I move on, let me back up a bit here. Yes, I overachieved at school, and probably cared way more than the average teenager about projects, grades, studying, and the like. But it was never like I had an agenda. I wasn’t trying to get to the top of my class, or even accepted into a dream college. And even if I was, so what? I was just doing my thing, and working hard and trying my best are part of my nature. I don’t half-ass anything, even stuff I’m not passionate about or particularly interested in. That’s just the way I am.

Being that I didn’t even know rankings were a thing at the time, the news that I was tied for number one came as much a surprise to me as it did to everyone else. Up until this point, I had been able to mind my own business at school, but suddenly, I was thrown into the spotlight. And for the first time ever, I had haters.

Haters are a funny thing. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything remotely mean or wrong to get them. My haters thought I didn’t deserve to be number one because there were “naturally smarter” people in my year, and they made that crystal clear to me for the remainder of my high school experience.

To be fair, as mean as these bullies were, they had some valid points. There were a few of those “laid-back genius” types in my grade (you know…those kids who don’t even have to crack open a book or take down notes to ace physics exams), and god knows I’m not one of them. I am able to excel at almost everything I do, but sometimes I have to work at it. So, if school rankings are supposed to be some sort of measure of “natural intellect,” then yes, maybe there should have been a few people ahead of me. Though I consider myself a sharp girl, I’m not a genius, and I’ve never claimed to be one; what bothered me about this whole situation was not that I thought I deserved to be number one. It was how black and white my bullies made the notion of “smartness” out to be.

To them, a person was either “naturally smart” or a “hard worker,” and there was no in-between. Naturally smart people didn’t need to study or do homework to succeed, and they scoffed at grades and the “limiting school system.” Hard workers, on the other hand, were sheep guised as intelligent individuals, totally incapable of doing anything beyond their structured duties. They lacked substance and passion.

Though I think this “reasoning” is absolute bogus now, as a teenager, I really let it affect me. I started believing that just because I worked hard and put effort into my schooling, I was unintelligent. I began to attribute all of my achievements to external factors, rather than my own personal abilities. I began hiding my enthusiasm for school projects, downplaying how much I studied, and pressuring myself to not take notes in class, even when I really wanted to. These behaviors might seem silly to some, and I even cringe looking back at some of my more pathetic moments, but I know I wasn’t the only one feeling this way and doing these things.

I remember observing people during class, peering around the room to see if other people were taking notes before they’d put their pen down to paper. I remember listening to countless exaggerations of how little people studied for exams, the SAT, or AP tests. I felt like everyone was in some sort of competition to see who cared the least about school, while simultaneously caring a lot about school? Weird times. And though I saw all this going on around me, I felt like no one was willing to have an honest conversation about it. Perhaps my high school was the only hell hole where this culture existed, but I doubt it.

It took quite a bit of time, but I eventually stopped feeling unintelligent and worthless, and I have grown to not only accept, but also love being an overachiever and, dare I say, a perfectionist? (another touchy word from my high school times).

I think part of getting over it came with age. As you get older, you simply stop giving a crap about what other people think, and get a clearer vision of your strengths and weaknesses. Another large part of getting over it came with realizing that “smartness” is not as black and white as my bullies made it out to be.

As I said before, I’m not a genius. Of course, sometimes I still envy those people who can gracefully absorb really complicated stuff through listening alone. Of course I think it would be awesome to, I don’t know, be the next Albert Einstein or something. But the truth is, I will never be that kind of smart. Still, my kind of smart is just as important.

My kind of smart is that I’m highly efficient, organized, clear-headed, and ambitious. I might not be able to understand every really complicated concept as fast as a laid-back genius, but give me some sample problems and a few hours, and I’ll pick that stuff up quickly and be raring to go the next time I see a similar problem. I’m the girl you go to if you want something done right, on time, and without a headache. Though I think I’m a more of a detail-oriented person by nature, I’ve been taking on more “big picture” tasks at work, and through practice and experience, succeeding at those too, and really enjoying them.

What’s your kind of smart?

Regardless of what it is, there’s really no point in feeling inferior. A good team has people of all different types of smart. Sometimes you need a straight-out physics-type genius. Sometimes you need a people-person that’s socially smart. Sometimes, you need a total sleazeball to get a specific task done. I swear! There will always be a way to spin your “smartness” to bring a lot to the table.

Since this essay is geared towards hard workers, I just need to say: If you’re an overachiever like me, and at times feel embarrassed or ashamed of your work ethic, stop that thinking right now! People that take initiative and seek out work are so desirable in the workplace, and honestly pretty hard to come by.

And one more thing I have to say: just because you’re hard working, doesn’t mean you’re just a workhorse either. I know so many overachievers who also happen to be very passionate and creative. Not only do they have bright ideas, they also take action and follow through on their goals diligently. As Picasso once said, “Action is the foundational key to all success.” Just because you’re willing to work hard on pretty much anything does NOT mean you lack substance. Maybe you haven’t found your passions yet. I didn’t home in on my passions until I was 21. Or maybe your passion is working hard, and there’s nothing wrong with that either! I personally find almost any type of work to be fulfilling as long as I’m super involved and I feel needed. You could throw me into a startup about cars, and even though I don’t care much about cars right now, if the environment was super fast-paced and I had a lot of responsibility, I’d probably get really into it. I think this is why I enjoyed working on pretty much any school project as a kid, regardless of the subject.

To close this up, since you’re probably wondering, I didn’t end up being number one in high school. During my senior year, I got a B in gym class on purpose because I couldn’t take the bullying anymore. I understand why I did this, because I was young, impressionable, and going through a tough time. If dropping to number 3 was going to ease the hate, then I wanted to do that.

If I could go back to high school knowing what I know now though, I would handle some things a bit differently. Most notably, I would own it. I wouldn’t dampen my projects, restrain my note-taking, or act chill about tests I was secretly freaking out about. I would just be myself, do my best, share my work, and shamelessly overachieve.