On being a “smart” kid

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A deeper pretending

Try to write a bad poem before breakfast.
– William Stafford, as quoted by Naomi Shihab Nye

OK, I’ll try,
but I have never been much good at being bad.

No, it’s not like that!
It’s not that I am good at everything, or think I am.

It is a deeper pretending,
a tacit avoidance of things not yet known or mastered,
a nodding along sometimes
when people talk about that book I should have read by now.

It started early.
“You’re so quiet,” they told me.
“So good at knowing things. So smart. That’s good!”

They told me so often it’s all I thought I was,
held up a trick mirror to show only one edge of my humanity.

Why do we tell children they are anything?

I am still unraveling it,
the tight ball formed around
that one kernel of identity,

like today,
unsure of every word here,
catching myself thinking
I should get better at being bad
before doing it in front of anybody.

Growing up, I was labeled as a “smart kid.” I was known by my peers for being “good at school.” In truth, I was good at memorization and spelling, could listen quietly, and could work quickly– all traditionally valued academic traits at the time. While this meant I had a relatively easy time of it in school, being labeled “smart” also had long-term negative impacts on my confidence and sense of self.

To be clear, I know that I benefitted massively from having traditionally valued academic traits. My intelligence was never questioned by my peers. I “fit in” with teachers’ idea of a good student, so I received their positive attention. I didn’t have to deal with the many stressors that can affect children whose innate strengths are less valued, or are not seen as assets, in the classroom. I did not have significant trauma and persistent hits to self-confidence that can come from being labeled “not smart.”

But over time I realized that the rigid identity I developed around being “good” and “smart” also had significant negative impacts on my experience and identity as a learner (I’d also argue that developing any rigid identity as a child can have lasting negative impacts, but that’s an idea for another day).

Getting attention for being “smart” led me to build a sense of self worth that was contingent on already knowing the answers. While I couldn’t have articulated this as a child, a teen, or even a young adult, my internal dialogue was “If I don’t know the answer, I’m not smart. If I’m not smart, I’m not worthy.” This belief worked itself into unconscious patterns of behavior that subsumed every interaction. Even out of school, my strategy for getting positive attention was rooted in trying to demonstrate my intelligence, in trying to appear faultless, in feeling like I needed to have all the answers– which led to a lot of social anxiety.

As an adult, I have been able to shift this identity around being “good” and “smart” to instead build a sense of self rooted in curiosity, humility, and resilience– but it took time, and required shifting my worldview and developing new skill sets.

There is a growing dialogue and body of research showing that having a “fixed” mindset– believing that our characteristics and capacities are innate, and cannot be changed– severely limits our capacities as learners and humans. The concepts of growth mindset and neuroplasticity– that brains and talent are just a starting point; that we can develop new skills and build on existing ones with deliberate practice and support; and our minds can literally build new connections as we do so– are particularly transformative for anyone who’s ever been told they couldn’t do something because they were not smart enough; or that they can’t draw, can’t write, didn’t have a musical bone in their body, or whatever.

The idea of a growth mindset (and an approach to learning that values the process and actions involved in learning) was also transformative for me. Because I equated learning with remembering and knowing facts, I felt like I needed to already know everything in order to be seen as smart. Adopting a growth mindset transformed my relationship with learning. It shifted the goalposts. No longer did I have to focus on showing what I did know already– it was now about engaging joyfully with what I didn’t know, and resting on a core belief that I could always find something to learn.

In her book Limitless Mind, Jo Boaler shares research and practical advice for shifting from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Boaler writes, “One of the reasons that it can be damaging to receive the “gifted” label is that you do not expect to struggle, and when you do, it is absolutely devastating.”

This was certainly true for me. In the context of classroom environments that framed learning as being able to recall facts, I never had to struggle much to get by or to succeed. This environment also led me to develop an inaccurate idea of what learning really means. Research shows us deep learning involves “productive struggle.” It is an active process of figuring out, making connections to what we already know, of shifting our thinking. This requires creativity, critical thinking skills, flexibility, patience, and many other competencies far beyond being able to memorize and recall facts. I got good grades in high school, but I struggled massively in a college environment when asked to think critically, build understanding of complex subjects, and go beyond just regurgitating what the professor said. Because I’d always been told I was “smart” and had never struggled academically before, my central identity was threatened, as was my main strategy for receiving positive attention – which was, as Boaler writes, “devastating.”

If I had been aware of the brain science behind learning, and had a different, more accurate definition of learning, I think I would have had a different reaction. I think I would have realized that effort and struggle are essential to the learning process, and would have met challenges as opportunities, not as threats to my identity. Moreover, I might have developed an identity around other traits, such as curiosity or effort, which would be reinforced in the act of learning (not threatened by it).

But even with this new definition of “learning,” it took many years of focused work to notice all the many ways I was still trying to appear “smart,” and felt threatened if I didn’t know something. It has taken effort to recognize all the places this outdated set of beliefs about learning and intelligence was directing my responses. It has taken intention to heal the anxiety that came from shifting my relationship with learning, and building a different set of core beliefs and identities. I am grateful that two threads of my professional life have fundamentally altered the way I experience the world as a learner, and have offered me practices to take the reins of my own learning: nature journaling and being an educator.

Stay tuned for future blogs on nature journaling, leading discussions, and curiosity!

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  • Joanne Kelleher

    I love this Em. I copied it for Sierra…not sure if she’ll read it but I hope she will. It fits her pretty closely and she’s right at the point where struggle can become “devastating.” Beautiful writing–so clear. I really love your poems too–For the Students–goes right to the heart. xoxo

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