I’ve done pretty well for myself during my quarter century on Earth. I communicate well and like to think I exist a step or two above awkward on the social staircase. I’ve tended to be pretty good at pretty much everything I’ve ever put any effort into (except bowling… I love to bowl but am undeniably awful). I have achieved a decent-but-less-than-Zuckerbergian level of success in my professional life. Adults don’t generally avert their eyes and children don’t often stare when I walk down the street, so in regard to aesthetics I figure it’s safe to say I’m doing all right.

I’m also smart. Smart enough to have been told as much for as long as I can remember. Smart enough to have been able to impress co-workers, bosses, and collaborators by perpetually being a step or two ahead of them (or at least ahead of where they expected me to be). Smart enough that the trait has become a more-than-negligible component of my identity.

Smart enough that I feel comfortable saying it without conceit; smart enough that I wear it proudly.

Smart enough to realize there will always be more that I don’t know than I do.

Smart is good, but there is, however, a problem in all of this. There’s an implied half of the “I’m smart” sentiment: I’m smart… -er than average. It’s trivial, I suppose, but worth pointing out. “Smart” is not an absolute idea, it’s a relative one, and a person doesn’t come to identify with it unless they see themselves as being smarter than the average Joe.

Since the Mr. Average Joe theoretically exists at the median of intelligence of all humankind, a person who says they’re smart could also be understood to believe they’re smarter than the majority of other people on the planet. The next logical supposition is that this intelligent person feels that in any given encounter, there’s a good chance they’re smarter than the person they’re dealing with.

And this is where things get dangerous, and is the ground on which I recently realized I’ve been treading for quite some time. I like to think I’m humble (-er than the Average Joe?!). I also like to think I’m decently in touch with the reality of my own strengths and weaknesses (my justification for unabashedly touting my great big brain). And I do tend to assume I’m more intellectually gifted than any random stranger I encounter.

Surely this is indeed true some of the time. Maybe even most of the time. But it absolutely, without a doubt, is not true all of the time. And what happens is that when I do run into someone with a more developed intellect than my own, my assumption means I’ve already gone a significant part of the way toward closing myself down to any opportunity to learn.

And that, may I say, is quite dumb.

Part Two of the danger is that for any given opinion or thought I have, I’m pretty confident I’m on the right side of the argument. (This one is pretty inherent in human nature and is actually more a hallmark of people who aren’t so smart than those who are, but is absolutely still true for me.) And this tendency, coupled with my inclination to think I’m smarter than those around me, means I’m stubborn.

Now one of the biggest problems with all of these assumptions is that, strictly speaking, they’re reinforced by reality – I do tend to be right. I do tend to trounce the intellectual competition. However, this is a realm in which it’s worth weighting those moments when I’m wrong, or when I’m the dead, two-steps-behind weight in a conversation, because the sacrifice of being ill-prepared for learning opportunities in the rare moments is much greater than whatever slight boost to the confidence being smart or right provides.

So as I’ve come to realize just how problematic these beliefs are, I’ve also been trying to figure out how to stop them from taking such deep root in my consciousness. And here is what I’ve come up with:

I am much smarter than I used to be.

When I was 18 I thought I was really damn slick. I had my head on straight. My priorities placed. And compared to others, that was true. I went to perhaps the best college of anyone I graduated from high school with. I won awards at dance competitions; took AP tests galore; taught and tutored small children; was fawned upon by every adult in my life.

Now when I think about many of the decisions I made at 18 I cringe. I took on too much student loan debt. I procrastinated in the worst way. I was more concerned (only concerned) with my image – someone who looks like they’ve got it all together, who looks like they’re going places – than the really meaty, meaningful part of my self, beliefs, and ambitions. My world was tiny, and I practically put blinders on to make it even smaller.

In my early 20s I struggled with depression. I am not naturally a particularly social creature, but also don’t handle isolation well — it skews my perception of reality. And at this point in my life I basically took a long series of big steps that led to me being extremely removed from anyone who was or potentially could be in my emotional or intellectual vicinity. Not. Smart.

When I was 24 I was on top of the frickin’ world. I had a job that made people go, “Wow, that’s really cool!” I was making enough money to pay down my debt and buy neat Christmas presents for my family. I won an Emmy Award, which put me on the front page of my hometown newspaper. Then a new manager came on at work who made my life miserable. He was vindictive, self-centered, and took away every last drip of the sense of agency I’d cherished for my first several years of employment. Because of one person, I stopped enjoying the work I’d previously adored. Eventually I quit, without much thought for what came next beyond, “I’ll figure it out.”

And on and on. I can’t say I regret any of these things, because I know that at the time, I didn’t know better. All any of us can do is to make the best decision we can with the information at hand. However, my 25-year-old self still thinks my 18-, 21-, and 24-year-old selves were kind of dumb. And naïve. And too quick to jump to conclusions. 25-year-old me sees all the opportunities, all the knowledge they could have had, and how that knowledge could have informed their choices and given them some much-needed perspective.

And here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure my 30-year-old self will think my 25-year-old self was kind of an idiot.

And that’s okay.

It’s actually awesome.

Because now when I’m inclined to think I’ve got something figured out; when I’m sitting high and mighty; when I’m tempted to dismiss someone else’s opinion or idea, all I have to do is remember that future me will be able to see parts of the story that I don’t even know exist, and it’s my job to find those pieces of truth and bring them into the light.

I think it’s kind of the ultimate perspective, and the ultimate insurance against complacency. It’s not about me compared to everyone else, it’s about me compared to me. And when I compare me to me, I’m absolutely average – better than what I’ve been, but not yet where I want to be. There’s every reason in the world to feel proud of what I’ve done, but invariably more to strive for.

When I was in high school I was one of those annoying kids who did everything. I played in the band; I sang in the choir; I was in every school play and musical; I danced competitively and taught classes to younger kids; I took an unfathomable slew of accelerated and AP classes.

In fact, I took so many classes that during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I actually paid to go to summer school: I was never going to be able to fit gym or health into my regular schedule, so I voluntarily plopped myself into a classroom at 7am for seven weeks to get it out of the way. Then during my senior year I ate lunch in the choir room every day and sang because I ran out of room for that, too.

I was a little… ridiculous.

My brain took this little trip into years gone by this evening as I wrestled with reading a 5,700-word article on a topic I’m only peripherally interested in. It was fine, but I had two other tabs open to pieces I was really excited about, and which had promise of being more valuable for my purposes than the one I was slogging through.

The obvious action is to close the freakin’ tab and move on — there’s too much out there to consume and to do to bother wasting time on stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter. This is not a difficult concept.

Yet it took me about 2,500 words to accept that my time investment was going nowhere and jump ship.

You see, I have a natural tendency to want to finish things. No matter what. Basically just to be able to say I did. I think part of my brain believes it raises my hardcore cred, and I’m all about being hardcore (this is both ironically true and truly ironic). More hours, more credits, more pages, more miles… and ya gotta stick it out ’til the end, baby — it’s an all-or-nothing game.

This is dumb.

These days I’m generally able to override my gut instinct (“keep going!”) by remembering high school. What I remember most of all at these moments is that for four years I played the trombone in the schools Symphonic Orchestra. For four years I gave it my first hour of the day — 8 semesters by graduation.

And I didn’t care about it at all. I’d started in band because my older sister was band. I thought the trombone was cool and liked that not many girls played it (again with the hardcore thing — my 12-year-old self was more interested in that than boys… and in all fairness, my 25-year-old self kind of is too…). I didn’t find the class engaging though and was lucky to be able to force myself to practice at home once every week or two. I played all right with the bare minimum of effort, and left it at that.

Yet I kept with it year after year, all because for some reason I found the notion of quitting less palatable than the cool things I could have done with that period — photography, physics, drama, yoga… there were so many opportunities I missed because I was more committed to staying the course I was on than figuring out how to get the most personalized value out of my experience, time, and energy.

I’ll say it again: this is dumb.

And it happens all the time. People stay in jobs or careers they’re not interested in, they read books they don’t like, they spend time with acquaintances they don’t enjoy, and on and on and on. Momentum is a powerful thing, but there is so freaking much in this world that is awesome, that it’s worth being aware of when momentum is dictating action and when true interest, affinity, and passion are at the wheel.

All you get when you do it just to say you did it is… the ability to say you did it. And that is roughly… worthless.

If you’re not captivated by what you’re doing, no one else will be either. And if you’re not interested and no one else is interested, then what the hell’s the point?

What does have value is when people get excited about what they’re doing and follow a path that inspires them to do more or be more — those paths create interesting, interested people. And I don’t know about you, but that’s who I want to be, and those are the only folks I want in my life.

Perhaps an Overreaction

October 3, 2011

I have a pet peeve. Well… in all fairness, I have many. For the majority of them I am able to quell my snark impulse, but was reminded today of one that I haven’t yet managed to master, and which gets under my skin with impressive efficiency:

“I thought about doing [x], but didn’t.”

This is what I hear when someone tells me such a tale:

“I realized I could do something to save you time or money or brighten your day, but decided I value my own time and comfort more than yours.”

Now here’s the thing: I’m totally fine with this being true. Each of us values our own energy and experience over that of others, because it’s the only one we know with absolute certainty to be true: any time we hypothesize about what someone else might like, there’s an inherent layer of abstraction. We can be pretty damn sure, but since we each only exist in our own head and no one else’s, there’s no way to be absolutely, completely certain.

And that’s is exactly the way it should be — when this equation becomes skewed, we end up with Martyr Complex situations, when one participant in a relationship (any relationship) spends all their energy on what they perceive to be the needs of others instead of their own, and doesn’t understand why no one is doing the same for them. It’s unproductive, inefficient, and annoying.

So the fact that this happens, that people make that choice, doesn’t bother me. About 5% of what does bother me is that the statement borders on an “I knew what was right and what was wrong, but chose to do what was wrong” sort of a sentiment. It’s an acknowledgement of a conscious choice between a good, kind, selfless action and a selfish alternative, and the active choice irks me more than if the thought simply never crosses a person’s mind at all — innocent ignorance or forgetfulness I can forgive (we’ve all got a lot of crap running through our brains), but willful negligence… well, I can forgive it, but it takes a bit more effort to do so.

The other 95% though is the fact that statements of this formula are almost always offered with pride, as though the thought matters as much as the gesture would have.

Sometimes it’s true. If someone says, “I saw a billboard on the highway that referenced an inside joke we’ve had since we were seven years old and wanted to pull over, climb up to it, and have my companion take a picture, but we were racing to the hospital to see my dying grandmother, who took her last breath five minutes after we arrived,” then I value that thought quite a bit.

On the other hand, I once had an intern tell me, “I was going to set up the studio for this morning’s session last night, but was too lazy.” I was neither amused, nor empathetic, nor appreciative.

In the vast majority of situations, it is action that counts — not the thought. Everyone thinks; everyone has ideas. What makes anyone notable is their propensity (or lack thereof) to act on said inclinations. And while the title of this post readily acknowledges the likelihood that my reaction is disproportionate to the crime, it doesn’t change the fact that I’m unimpressed at best, offended at worst, and (almost) invariably bothered when the situation arises. Tell me something useful, or don’t say anything at all.