You can be smart, or you can look smart. Choose.
It had to have been elementary school, no later than third grade. I’d come home badly frustrated and upset at my fellow class-mates, which was starting to become a pattern. But this time was worse, because I knew I was in the right. I’d stopped the teacher to ask a question because I hadn’t understood something. I was supposed to be the smart one, always sitting in the corner with his books while other kids did…well, whatever kids did in 3rd grade. I wasn’t really paying attention.
So I described what had happened to my parents, because I wouldn’t turn surly and withdrawn for a few more years yet. They asked a few questions, before getting to the meat of the matter.
“So, now you understand what you asked?”
“Yes.” I said, with a sniffle.
“And those kids who made fun of you, do you think they understand it?”
Mom shrugged. “Robert, in this life, you can be smart, or you can look smart.” she told me. “Choose.”
And I chose. Fuck those kids and their laughing, anyway. Who needed ’em? I didn’t! Being liked was for loser suck-ups!
So I went back and asked more questions the next day, in that class and others. And I got laughed at more, but now it was my choice. And with each chuckle, what I actually heard was “I choose looking smart over being smart! I’m a moron! If you ever cared about my opinion before, you have free license not to do so now!”
Yeah, I was a wordy little tyke in elementary school. Blame the parents, who taught me to read before I made it to first grade and had absolutely no idea of age-appropriate reading material for me.
So I asked questions. And I learned. And teachers, as teachers do, responded to the one kid who asked questions, and thought, and learned, and asked more questions. I got called on more. I volunteered to answer questions when asked, because again, fuck those kids. And I learned more.
In elementary school, I noticed that I was asking fewer questions. I also noticed that they seemed to be having more of an effect. A lot of my teachers seemed like they would settle for having one engaged student. I talked more with my teachers. (My parents, who were goddamn education-ninjas and made damn sure to put as many of my teachers on their tennis buddy, social acquaintance, and similar, encouraged this.) This tanked my cred among my student peers, but I learned a way around that, too. And again, my attitude was still very much “Fuck those ignorant assholes.”
By the time I’d made it to high school, I’d noticed something odd. I wasn’t asking that many questions, because I was genuinely understanding the bulk of what was being said. And, inexplicably, the questions I was asking enhanced my reputation for intelligence. High school, apparently, is right at the age where people start to get the hang of countersignalling, and apparently, it was then that I realized that if you give precisely zero fucks about how smart you look…a lot of people will assume you’re pretty damn smart.
After all, my parents had said that I needed to choose one. They didn’t say I’d only get one.
The story is a bit more complicated than this, however. I basked in my social identity as the Smart One for a while in high school; happily, I had friends much smarter than me, to knock me back into being-smart mode before I could get too much of an ego. (Too much of an ego to get back to learning, that is, not too much of an ego to be a pretentious asshole. But then I was a teenager, so I repeat myself.)
But this strategy worked in high school because I was a teenager, and because I had good teachers. I was being evaluated by people who were better at evaluating than the people who never asked questions were at looking smart.
When I went to college, this faded a bit. When I got into the adult working world, this assumption went away entirely. There was the same choice there, but there was no happy ending for those who walked the path of intellectual virtue. People who focused with laserlike intensity on looking smart, and put their effort into avoiding technical problems and taking credit for random crap, won the promotion game. They worked their way up, while I worked my way along.
I think there might still be one in the end, though. I’ve laid some investments, some metaphorical and some literal, that will pay off in some year’s time. I’ve got my IRA, I’ve got my mortgage (refinanced at the height of the property panic for the lowest rate), I’ve got my health, and with a bit more diet and a bit less olive oil, I can make that healthier. See, you can sometimes fool a teacher, and you can often fool a boss, but you can’t fool Mother Nature.
We live in a real world, with real things, that exist whether or not you ignore them or scorn them. People are powerful, and our collective will can be harnessed to great and terrible things. For a lot of things, you can get by if you can take the right and popular side, and let the goodwill of your fellow man carry you.
But there are some things that will reach up and strike you down if you do not pay attention to them, if you do not watch for them, observe them, understand them, and react to them, with eyes that see the world and a mind that thinks thoughts of the real world. Sometimes, this isn’t popular. Sometimes, even the crowd of radical rebel freethinkers looks at what you’re saying and goes “Dude, that’s just weird and beyond the pale.”
But ultimately, you can be smart, or you can look smart. You might get both, but you can only focus your efforts on one at a time. So, what do you choose?