I Don’t Feel ‘Smart’ Enough For 2019

Everything has to be 'smart' these days. You can’t walk into a bookshop just now without tripping over all the 'whip-smart’ ladies and their razor-sharp brains. But for Lauren Bravo, it's only making her feel insecure about her own intelligence...

I don't feel smart enough

by Lauren Bravo |

This month marks 10 years since I graduated from university, with a very expensive degree that I have almost entirely forgotten.

At a friend’s wedding a few years ago, after a reading of a poem by Frank O’Hara, I remarked to a fellow guest that the poet had been the subject of my uni dissertation. “Which of his poems is your favourite?” they asked with genuine interest. I froze. I couldn’t remember. Not just my favourite; I couldn’t remember a single title, or a single thing about any of the poems that I’d spent two whole terms poring over.

As a kid I used to watch University Challenge and marvel, assuming that by the time I was that age, I too would have a compendium of niche, nerdy knowledge that spanned Greek classics and chemical equations. These days I watch it, just as blank, and yell “Vivaldi” at every third question.

Now, I realise having a good memory for trivia is not the same thing as having a high IQ, which likewise is not the same thing as having street smarts or emotional intelligence or perceptive instinct (sometimes the answer is Vivaldi!), or any of the other forms of intellect that are often undervalued compared with traditional academic dick-swinging. But in that moment, at that wedding, desperately trying to drum up anything to say that wasn’t “do you know... where the toilets are?” with Bridget Jones’ inflection, it felt like every kind of smart had evaded me. I was a dead weight, taking up space where a scintillating person should be.

Intelligence isn’t really something I expected to feel insecure about at this point in my life. One of the privileges of adulthood, I always assumed, is that you’ve picked your professional lane, ploughed your furrow of expertise, and nobody is going to ask you to do long division anymore. Especially not now, in my thirties, when we’re all dimly aware of the gradual decline, our brains overloaded by stress and slowly ground into mince by our smartphones. Bring us a bill in a restaurant and watch us all fumble for our phone calculators, taking comedy stabs at the tip. “So if it’s £34.60 I guess we just round up to… £50? No wait. Ahahaha, I’m such an idiot... £60?”

Yet I do feel insecure about it. When everyone else’s mind seems to whirr on 5G, mine often feels like it’s still clunking along on dial-up. I struggle to find the right word, to think of a witty caption, to know who it is talking on The Today Programme. I’m embarrassed by the way I struggle with the books that everyone else seems to love. “I think I was just too thick to appreciate it,” I’ve shrugged more than one conversation about an ‘important’ cultural text, to turn myself into the joke before someone else does. Give me a must-read long form essay and I glaze over several paragraphs in. Podcasts send me into a crisis spiral. Why am I never this articulate? Why can’t I quote philosophers off the cuff, and deliver searing cultural analysis in a creaky New York accent? Why can’t I say ‘specificity’ right first time? When somebody else is always smarter, what can I bring to the table? Biscuits?

I know what you’re thinking: imposter syndrome. In our performative world, where nothing means anything unless it’s acted out for a crowd of digital onlookers, aren’t we all ambling about feeling like three toddlers in a trench coat?

Just ask Dr Jessamy Hibberd, clinical psychologist and author of The Imposter Cure (Aster Books, £12.99), a guide to help us escape the “mind-trap” of imaginary fraudulence. She explains that despite hyperconnected modern life giving us ample opportunity to learn things, the daily onslaught of news and views can make us feel less informed. “When there’s so much information it can feel overwhelming and can leave us feeling like we are not up to date or aware of every argument and lose faith in what we know,” she says. “For the imposter, the realisation that they don’t know everything is the trigger point, and makes them wrongly conclude that they must be a fraud.”

We still like to make fun of Donald Trump for being stupid, of course. Love Island contestants, Reddit users, rambling Facebook posts by other people’s aunties; despite the fact that IQ scores are actually declining in many European countries and even the scientists aren’t quite sure why, stupidity is still fair game for mockery and derision on an ever-shrinking (and rightly so) list. So much of intelligence is an accident of birth, both in the brains we’re born with and the privilege and resources we have to shape them – and yet society broadly treats cleverness as though it’s the same thing as morality.

Especially when it comes to women. Woe betide she who tries to have an opinion with a typo in the tweet.

Everything women create has to be ‘smart’ now, have you noticed? You can’t walk into a bookshop just now without tripping over all the 'whip-smart’ ladies and their razor-sharp brains. I do it myself, if I’m asked to review my peers; ‘smart’ is the first adjective you reach for. ‘Smart’ is a fight-back against a world that values our body over our brains. When Kim Kardashian-West announced that she is studying to take the bar and qualify as a lawyer, the cocktail of bemusement, vitriol and emphatic yas queeening was a case in point.

Books and films and theatre by men are rarely called ‘smart’, let’s note, maybe because it’s seen as a given (assume clever until proven otherwise), or because their worth doesn’t rest on their cognitive horsepower. But for women, smartness is still virtually an entry requirement for equality, alongside other ubiquitous, rapidly depreciating adjectives like ‘strong’ and ‘brave’. The smart, strong, brave women get the respect. The silly, weak, scared ones are on their own.

And I think there’s a danger in telling ourselves that every twang of self-doubt is nothing but imposter syndrome. That if we can only crack the ice of our own insecurity, underneath it we’d be clever enough to hold our own in every boardroom in the land. Because the truth is we can’t all be informed about everything, and nor do we have to be. Sometimes my intellectual insecurity is a cruel trick of the mind, and sometimes it’s just... an accurate assessment of the situation. I dunno! And that’s fine.

It’s the idea behind The School for Dumb Women podcast, started by Caroline O’Donoghue, Alex Haddow and Hannah Varrall in 2017. “We were working in women's media and felt like we were surrounded by this idea that the pinnacle of feminism was being a 'smart woman' – being a CEO, starting a business, changing the world with activism, coding your own tampon charity at the age of eight. It sometimes felt a bit like if you weren't achieving this or aspiring to achieve this then you weren't worthwhile as a feminist,” explains Varrall.

The podcast (currently on hiatus but there’s a juicy archive on iTunes to enjoy) sees the hosts educate themselves and each other on topics as diverse as inflation, bats, Guy Fawkes and ‘what are boobs for?’. “We each felt like there were plenty of things we weren't good at, or didn't know about, or had never even heard of. The idea was that we would admit these things and teach ourselves about them in a satirical way, so that while we were learning interesting facts we were also highlighting the unrealistically high standards for women.”

Dr Hibberd agrees that we need to feel more comfortable admitting our shortcomings, if we’re ever going to feel confident in our skills. “This idea that we should be competent and capable at all times can pose another problem,” she says. “By saying ‘I don’t know’, it allows you to be more open to learning and means you’re more curious, helping you progress and evolve.” We often hear ignorance blamed for Brexit, but you also have to wonder how different the result might have been if people had felt more able to admit they didn’t fully understand what they were voting for.

Curiosity, then, might be the most valuable kind of intelligence. My friend, author and journalist Daisy Buchanan, articulates it better than I can. “Not knowing things is what makes us grow,” she says. “Worrying that we’re not clever enough is not a fun way to live, but it might be a more expansive and rewarding way than being completely certain and sure that we are very intelligent.” We’ve all met people who are completely sure that they are very intelligent, and we’ve all wanted to clobber them with a shoe.

Imagine, instead, how different things would be in a world where curiosity was rewarded as highly as surefooted knowledge. Where we could freely admit when we’re uninformed or confused, without fear of judgement or ridicule. The issue isn’t with seeking knowledge itself – god knows, education is an almighty privilege with the power to solve so many global problems – but rather, it’s the pressure to form rock-solid opinions on everything, rather than being allowed to say “nope, sorry, don’t understand." If we gave up pretending to know everything, we might find time to learn a bit more.

And we can always take comfort in a 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which found that personality, and in particular a conscientious personality, was a better indication of career success than IQ alone. Intelligence is only half the story – hard work, reliability and decency can go a long way to make up the shortfall. If you show up, try hard and treat people nicely, nobody cares if you don’t know Vivaldi from the Vengaboys.

Or at least, I think that’s the gist

Collage: Ben Neale

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