THE BLOG
11/01/2013 12:08 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Why I Don't Think of Myself As Intelligent

There's something I have to admit: I have a very severe case of the "Impostor Syndrome." I don't think I'm smart, and sometimes I feel that my academic "successes" (I use that term very, very lightly and under the shaky assumption that high school students can even have academic successes) have simply been a combination of elbow grease and luck. I often feel like I'm just riding wave after wave of good fortune and cosmic favor, but eventually and inevitably I will wipe out. Yeah, you were right all along Holden Caulfield; I am a phony.

I guess I should give some pretext to what this "Impostor Syndrome" actually is. According to Wikipedia, my ever-dependable go-to source of information, the Impostor Syndrome is "a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments." Essentially, those afflicted with this condition don't believe that they deserve what's come their way, despite evidence to the contrary. I'm not exactly sure why this afflicts me, but this is what I believe it boils down to:

We live in a culture that celebrates intelligence. High-IQ, intrinsic, didn't-study-aced-the-exam intelligence. I'll illustrate with a personal anecdote. On the first day of my senior year, my economics teacher addressed our class, "Raise your hand if you think you're smart." I didn't raise my hand. "Nobody will believe that you're smart if you don't believe it," she emphatically asserted, not directly at me yet I could feel the rebuke in her words. It's not that I believe I am unintelligent; I don't believe in celebrating intelligence as an accomplishment. Intelligence is a gift. Hard-work and dedication, these are choices, and these choices are much more worthy of praise than the gift of intelligence is. Yet, we as a society don't see it this way. Why does the term "genius" have such positive connotations, while the term "try hard" is almost invariably used as in insult? OK, somebody puts a lot of effort into something they care about? Oooh, what else you got?

On an individual level, society's glorification of intelligence fosters a certain arrogance that often develops into complacency and a fixed mindset. Fixed mindset refers to the fear of failure and apprehension towards intimidating tasks that results from repeatedly being praised for one's intelligence. (For more on fixed mindset and its antipode, growth mindset, please refer to here.) In a wider context, the exaltation of "natural" intelligence promotes an environment in which the Imposter Syndrome only flourishes.

Still, I'd rather think of myself as a phony than think of myself as intelligent. The former mindset at least pushes me to constantly try harder, while I have observed no significant benefits from the latter. Don't get me wrong, I'm not cripplingly unconfident. I am content with myself, but I will not give credit for my past, present, or future accomplishments to "intelligence," fought for them with blood, sweat and tears.