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What Does it Mean To Be Smart?

The idea of "smart" vs. "dumb" is outdated and unfair. It is an idea that is, forgive me, quite dumb, past its prime and past its time. Instead of talking about "smarts," we should be talking about adaptation.
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Hey, you.

Yeah, you, let me ask you something: Which one of these two people is smarter?

John, 36, was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to parents who were both in the financial services industry. At the age of four, he scored "off the charts" on an aptitude test. He was enrolled in a Gifted and Talented school in his area and sailed through his academic subjects, in spite of getting teased a bit in high school. John was a good kid, but basically a loner. He always had one or two friends, but he didn't spend much time socializing.

John attended Emory University in Atlanta where he majored in Comparative Literature. At the age of 24, he was accepted to a doctorate program at American University. Eight years later, John got his got his Ph.D. in American History. He has been trying to get a tenure track job ever since, but the job market has been tight and he does not interview particularly well. For the past several years, John has been working at the information desk at Barnes and Noble. With help from his parents, John is getting by. He has a few friends, but generally feels lost, lonely and unfulfilled.

Angie, also 33, was born in the South Bronx, less than one mile away and three months removed from John. She took the same aptitude test as John did, but didn't make the cut-off. Angie attended her local public school where she got good, but not great, grades. When she was about 11, while hanging around her uncle's auto repair shop Angie discovered that she had an interest in, and a knack for, understanding the way cars work. She started to spend more time around the shop and learned more and more about the intricacies of cars. She began to help out around the shop here and there. Angie did just enough to get by in school. She didn't get much attention from her teachers. She was admitted to a local college, and enrolled in a bunch of classes that sounded interesting enough, but she didn't know what she wanted to study.

After her first semester, Angie needed some money so she "officially" began working at her uncle's body shop part-time. A semester later, she dropped out and began working there full-time. Angie's uncle passed four years later, and left her the shop in his will. In the eight-and-a-half years since, Angie has built a successful business, hired someone to help her with the books and day-to-day maintenance, and opened another shop. Angie has plans to open a third location in an upper middle class area in New Jersey where she now lives with her husband and five-year-old daughter. Angie is happy and is a well-regarded member of the community where she grew up. She has contributed to several local charities, including her former church and little league team near her old neighborhood.

Which one of these people is smarter?

Admittedly, I put my thumb on the scale for Angie, hoping that you would see her as the smarter one, but to be fair, the question itself is unfair and we should probably all stop asking it.

The idea of "smart" vs. "dumb" is outdated and unfair. It is an idea that is, forgive me, quite dumb, past its prime and past its time. Comparing the intelligence of two different people is like using Play-Doh to brush your teeth: That is to say, it doesn't make any sense. It hurts people emotionally to think that they are not smart and puts a vague, unfair burden on people who "make the grade[s]."

Instead of talking about "smarts," we should be talking about adaptation. For now, Angie appears to be adapting more effectively than John, but that could change, for both of them. The world is changing and the question is how do we effectively change with it.

Angie is using her knowledge of cars, business, and people, to earn a good living, take care of herself and her family, create jobs, and give back to her community. John, on the other hand is using his intelligence to earn a degree that is not really serving him at the present time, and is not helping those around him. If you ever saw the movie Forrest Gump, you probably remember the line that Forrest's mother told him, "Stupid is as stupid does." That is true. And so is the corollary: "smart is as smart does." That's what adaptation is all about.

One of Angie's strongest attributes is her will and resilience. She has had the wherewithal to overcome and overwhelm a world that told her that she is not particularly smart because she didn't, or possibly couldn't, jump through each academic hoop that came her way. Also, in this case, here is a woman who has succeeded in a historically male-dominated business, despite the fact that people have undoubtedly doubted her skills because of her gender.

As a child, Angie was, what I have come to call, a "square peg kid," a person who had lots of wonderful qualities, but didn't fit into the traditional educational framework. Most people who fall into this category fall through the cracks in the system. Some people, like Angie, rise above it, but others become so disheartened by the stings of life that by the time the reach adulthood, they simply shut down and stop trying. As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of people in my practice who are perfectly bright and lovely, but who feel that because they did not do well in school that somehow they are flawed human beings.

If we begin thinking about how we (and our kids) have adapted to our environments rather than how "smart" we are, we will all be better served. It is both more useful and more emotionally healthy to do so. When we stop thinking about intelligence as a static and comparable trait, and start thinking about how we adapt to our circumstances, we will all be better off because we will open up a more inclusive space for personal growth. This new way of thinking may even help us to preserve the spirit and talents of more of our "square peg" kids, and in doing so, strengthens our country's hand as well.

For more by Ben Michaelis, Ph.D., click here.