My least favorite compliment (to be on the receiving end of) is “smart.”
It happens occasionally that someone pays me that exact compliment. I don’t want to begrudge anyone that says something nice to me! If you’ve ever thought of me in such terms or voiced as much, please don’t think me ungrateful. It’s just that in my whole life, that’s never been anything but a hindrance.
Being smart as a kid is such an terrible curse, especially the way the average American school is set up. It completely kills your work ethic as a kid, because if you’re smart enough that the normal work is easy, all the adults in the room just pat you on the head and move on. You’re left with the impression that life will be easy just because you were genetically gifted with a few extra IQ points than the average. But life absolutely doesn’t care about that. At all.
I don’t think I’ve ever done the following with my own children, but I hear other adults do this all the time: they tell their kid that they’re smart as an accusation. In so many parent-child interactions, being smart is the precursor to an exasperated question about behavior or performance: “You’re so smart, why did you fail this history test?” Or maybe “You’re so smart, why did you get in that fight?”
Or even, “You’re so smart, why are you unhappy?”
I’ve dedicated a huge, huge part of my adult life to self-improvement. To shedding the bad habits I learned as a child, adolescent, and young man. More than half of the posts on The Opportunity Machine are dedicated to that theme, and in addition to my own thinking and philosophizing on the topic I’ve consumed seemingly endless books, articles, speeches, lessons from mentors, and other pieces of content on how to make the various aspects of your life better. How to improve your health, how to reach your professional goals, how to raise a strong family, how to improve your interpersonal relationships. How to be happier. I’ve read a lot of great advice and thrown out a lot of bad advice, and done my best to be wise about the distinction.
Absolutely zero percent of the good advice has ever been: “Be smarter.”
The keys to all of these things aren’t intelligence. You don’t need to be smart to be healthy, successful, happy. You need to be diligent. You need to be moral. You need to be kind.
I don’t know that being smart has ever helped someone become those things. I think it often makes you think that intelligence can replace work ethic, thus killing your diligence. I think it gives you the tools to rationalize and justify bad behavior, thus killing your morality. And I think it can breed pride and contempt, thus killing your kindness.
The great answers to the questions of life aren’t undiscovered – they’re just obscured. You don’t have to be smart to find them, you just have to dig through a lot of noise that the modern world throws your way. You don’t have to be especially smart.