Thursday, May 5, 2011

How I became more stupid

Forrest Gump always believed that stupid is as stupid does... or at least his mama felt that way. I think Mama was right, but I'd take it a step further: Stupid is as stupid says. I spent a good many years of my life showing, through my words, that I wasn't very wise.

Growing up in a rather small pond, in a family of people like me, it was relatively easy to pass those early years believing that I was pretty smart. Kids can be obnoxiously confident anyway, can't they? And finding moderate to noticeable success in a school or home setting can lull a young person into feeling pretty darned special. I tried to be humble, but in my heart I didn't buy it.

I chose a less-than-large state school as my undergrad alma mater, and this experience continued to feed the fantasy that I was all that. I had to work a little harder, granted, and I had a little too much fun that first year-and-a-half and watched my grades suffer (much to my parents' chagrin and annoyance). But truthfully, even when I slouched and lazed along, I still didn't do that badly. It was more challenging, but still manageable.

Even my first professional job fell into the same camp of making me believe I was on top. I moved to a little, inbred town near Erie, and taught a variety of kids there. A few of my students were rather brilliant, but many were average; more than a handful were counting down days until their 16th birthday, when they'd proudly file their "outta here" papers and flee to the family farm. So, in comparison to the norm there? I considered myself to be somewhat intellectual. No one told me otherwise. (They were too kind, I see now.)

I had to move to a larger city, and rub elbows with some truly smart people, before I began to figure out I had quite a lot to learn... and that there was plenty I'd simply never learn. I remember this dawning of realization at one of the firms where I worked, while I watched one of my bosses work through an extremely complex piece of information. He sketched it, he explained it, he fleshed out the physics behind it. And I took it all in, gleaning simultaneously that I could never have made it so clear and easy to grasp. I simply did not have that sort of brain power.

There were others at that company, and many since, who have left me with my figurative mouth agape. Great artists and performers populate the group, of course, but more often it's made up of that rare breed of person who oozes grey cell greatness—the people who really understand the stock market and can simply explain why the housing market collapsed, the folks who truly comprehend world economics and the shortcomings of every proposed solution, the people who can describe with perfect verbiage how one splits a cell or creates a new combustion system or safely constructs a tall tower. I have learned, by shutting up and listening, just how much I really lack.

The longer I live, the more I get it: I am not so smart. Actually, I am quite dull. And the more I look for the strengths of others, the more I find them. Even when a strength isn't uniquely intellectual, it usually still has great merit. I know one guy, an everyday guy who isn't the brightest bulb in the bunch, but you know what? He is absolutely fantastic at getting people to feel close to each other and open up; he is great at sensing when a person needs a community around him. And there's one lady who seems so fluffy and flighty, but who can deliver a word of truth in such a way that the recipient actually listens and considers the point instead of taking offense.

The list goes on and on: A neighbor's daughter who is mentally challenged but knows instantly when she confronts a lie; a fellow who is jovial and somewhat goofy, yet can tear apart any machine and put it back together better than before. One of the smartest guys I knew was my dad's mechanic, who repaired engines by ear, and also worked beautifully with wood; I believe he even made his own knives. When I cleaned houses for that awful two weeks last fall, the guy who was training me was a fantastic cleaner. He knew how best to do it, how to work quickly and efficiently, how to keep track of every tool and spray bottle... it was awesome. My husband is great at planting and cultivating things, and not because he studied it exclusively but just because he loves it and learns a tip or two from every gardener he meets. Some people are just born problem solvers, and we all should learn whom they are and admit their prowess and our own shortcomings.

The last time I had this overwhelming feeling, I was attending a luncheon with Todd for new employees at his current university workplace. We listened to a speaker talk about his superior, and how she'd created a new type of missile; we learned that a fellow employee had been the creator of the strange little code word system that I use every time I leave a comment on someone's blog. The other fellow at our table mentioned how he traveled a lot to train others worldwide to use the school's software. I sat unobtrusively, hoping no one noticed my sad state of brainlessness.

It's amazing how stupid I became once I stopped telling everyone how smart I was. It's also pretty embarrassing. To anyone I've ever bored with my own praise, I am sorry. Please forgive me.

Happily, one of the many perks of being a Christian is that my lack of impressive cells is not just tolerated, but sometimes actually welcomed. We are encouraged to do things like be still and be more like a child. I struggle with the stillness, but the childlike acceptance and questioning less? That I can handle.


Facie said...

Mel: I feel like a moron on pretty much a daily basis. I graduated in the top 10 percent of my high school class, and some students there thought I was so smart. Well, compared to them, sure. But to the rest of the world? Yeah, not really.

As I continue not to find a job and apply for very few because I am just not qualified, this lack of smarts becomes painfully obvious.

Just be glad you are so talented in the art world and can budget and organize better than most. Me? I am pretty childish, so I guess I will find some comfort in that. :-)

Mel said...

Facie, glad I'm not alone. My point though (or one of them) was that I really do think we all have gifts. Some are more financially profitable and some are frowned upon, most aren't even noticed by society, but they're there. We have to find them and use them for good. I guess I just keep seeing over and over that, just as the loud-mouth "I can drink more than you" party guy in college was often the first to pass out, the people who claim to be smartest are almost never the smart ones. Know what I mean?

P.S. Don't sell yourself short; I'm finding today's younger job seekers are terrible at face-to-face communications, and thankfully that does still seem to be a valuable commodity... at least until the faceless Facebook crowd is leading the career charge and doing the hiring. Then? I'm screwed.

Self Reflection said...

hi. your blog came up while i was searching around. i just want to say, you're not stupid, you've just grown up'. this is happening to me and i'm realizing i'm not the brightest bulb around. that's life!


Mel said...

Self Reflection, I agree with you completely. Thanks for visiting--stop back!