smarty pants

tell it like it is, bansky

tell it like it is, Banksy

In the never ending battle against crippling self-doubt and the ticking time bomb called “The Rest of My Life,” questions and self-criticism are everywhere. It is as if my brain has spawned a gang of misguided teens to run around in my psyche and spray negative graffiti over every good thought I’ve ever had. As if Meryl Streep from The Devil Wears Prada is following me, spewing venom all over my hard work. These terrible feelings and mental images have been accompanying me all through college while I try to figure out what career choice is right, but more importantly what I AM good at.

But this morning during my early-morning, bitter-cold, in-no-way depressing commute to work, I started listening to this story about the difference between Eastern and Western perspectives on the struggle of learning , and for the first time in a few days it turned my proverbial frown upside down. Sound a bit heady for a piece of information that is supposed to make your day a little better? Let me explain.

You know those smart kids in school who seem to get everything right away? Who can zone out of class but still get the right answer? The ones who can pull an 8 page essay out of their ear the night before it is due and three weeks later it is published in some academic magazine? Are those people “smart?” I think most people would say “yes.” School says “yes.” The culture in the United States says “yes.”And so by exclusion, people who have to work at achieving the same thing (or maybe less) are seen as of lesser intelligence. Not necessarily stupid, but below the wizards of natural ability. (Not that these “smart” kids don’t work hard too. But come on math geniuses: imaginary numbers are bullshit and I will never understand them. And I tried, believe me I tried.)

We’ve all heard this and hopefully agree that grades are not our best indicator of actual intelligence or potential. Remember when George W. Bush positioned himself as the “B-student who became President?” Well, maybe that’s not the best example…but it happened, didn’t it? I always thought myself to be pretty smart because I made good grades and I liked learning, and other people fueled the fire by telling me I was smart. But I was also afraid of asking questions that made me look like I didn’t know everything already. Once I got over the fear admitting what I didn’t know, I found out that I have a LOT of questions. I mean a LOT. Does this mean many things don’t come easily to me? Am I not smart? Enter the crippling doubts about my intelligence–or perhaps lack thereof–and where that will put me in the future.

But let’s go back to the idea that being “smart” comes naturally. The study presented in the article says focusing on natural intelligence is a very Western idea that has been presented to us and impressed upon us repeatedly. But what if we were born in another country like Japan or Thailand? Would the wealth of intelligence be redistributed if the scale was different? Would we feel different about ourselves and our abilities?

According to Professor Jin Li, the overarching Eastern perspective regarding learning puts a focus on the struggle of mastery rather than the outcome. Not that the outcome isn’t important, but the idea of innate intelligence or ability is not as significant as the amount of work and mental energy someone is willing to put into something. It is process-centered rather than a race to the finish line. Even though neither perspective is completely flawless, perhaps incorporating the two ideals would lead to a more harmonious experience for students at all learning levels. What’s more, maybe students who move at a slower pace may experience less damage to their ego and, in turn, their ambitions.

“Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.”

This story served me like a reassuring pat on the back or a good fortune cookie. Maybe things I don’t think I am good at just make me work harder for it, which actually makes me BETTER at it? My fear of being ruled out of a certain skill or career path just because I struggle with it isn’t fact or even just my opinion. It is a cultural ideal that I was born into, and realizing that can help me change my own self-perception going forward. Ask myself, “Not what can I do, but how bad do I want to do it.”

Something like that.