What defines you?
For the longest time if someone had asked me that question, I would have replied, ‘my intellect’.
Growing up in an academically rigorous environment, I received subtle cues from those around me that being smart was somehow important. As a young student, I picked up that those who were smart received awards, those who did well in school were looked upon favorably by teachers, and those who got the good grades got the best jobs after high school.
And thus began my journey of equating intelligence with self worth.
I may have not been the smartest person at my school, but good gosh did I work hard to look like I was. This complex ultimately led me to do ridiculous things, just to keep up an appearance of ease in the face of academics.
I studied for topics we had not yet covered in class, completed homework and assignments weeks before they were due, learnt material by heart when it wasn’t necessary, and took on copious amounts of coursework, scholarship classes, and extracurricular activities, just so that people could see how dedicated I was to my studies. Very quickly, I became known as the smart one. And as the classes got harder, I worked exponentially harder to keep up this appearance.
Was I the smartest? Maybe, maybe not. Most likely I wasn’t. But that wasn’t what mattered. What mattered was that I perceived myself to be the smartest out of my peers, my class, my grade, and for me, that was enough. By the end of my senior year, I had been accepted into a top ranking school abroad with a full ride scholarship, and it was like a dream come true. Acceptance into a high achieving college was like the ultimate demonstration of my intellect, surely everyone will know now that I’m smart.
But then, I arrived on campus, and it was like being thrown into the deep end of a pool without knowing how to swim.
What I had forgotten to realize upon accepting my place at a top ranked university was the top ranked students who inhabited it. Everyone around me had been the smartest amongst their peers, the best in their class, the top in their grade, and everyone was a national or regional champion at something.
I was no longer the smartest, heck, I was below average.
I remember returning to my dorm after my first day of classes, head hung low, and crying on my bed for what seemed like hours. For the duration of my teenage years, I defined myself by my ability to be better than those around me. And now, when I suddenly wasn’t the smartest, I had nothing to base my self worth on. I was worthless in my own eyes.
A 2002 study conducted at the University of Michigan found that 80% of students surveyed based their self worth on academic performance. That was more than the number who cited family support as a source of self-esteem.
And it makes sense. Picking up teenagers who likely for most of their life have been the smartest, the fastest, or the brightest, and dropping them into an environment where they are average is bound to make some students struggle. For me personally, it was eye opening. It took dropping me into an environment in which the very thing I valued was drawn into question for me to realize that, you know what, being smart isn’t everything.
There is always going to be someone smarter than you. There is always going to be someone more talented, more athletic, more cultural, more successful. In short, substitute any word into that sentence and I guarantee you there is someone better than you at it.
And you know what, that is ok.
My need to feel smart was rooted in my desire to feel superior to those around me. It was my own destructive way of self validation. But I never truly realized how much I had let this need to feel like I was smarter than everyone impact my decisions. In high school, I made sure I took the subjects that were perceived to be the most challenging. Calculus, Physics and Chemistry, I would jump at the chance to take classes a year early, because in my mind, that’s what smart people do. Despite a passion for art and creative writing, I rejected that side, because in my head, those who did art were destined to be drop outs. I’m better than those people, I thought.
Only now, when I am surrounded by thousands of students who I know are smarter than me, am I realizing just how much it doesn’t matter. How little my worth is defined by my intelligence. It is impossible to find self acceptance if my acceptance of myself is rooted in how I stack up to other people.
I am more than how I perceive myself to compare to others.
And that is so freeing.
Lead Image Credit: Steven S. via Flickr