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.

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