05/19/2014 11:18 pm ET Updated Jul 20, 2014

I'm Not as Smart as You Think I Think I Am, Part 1

I have become rather aggressive about pointing out how stupid I am. I do that to goad myself into humility. But I also want others to be assured that I am not as smart as they think I think I am. To me, maturity is all about realizing the limits of one's own skill set, and, as a direct consequence, being motivated toward continuous self-improvement.

When I was a kid growing up in Detroit, I was one of the smartest people I knew. As I became older, I realized I simply didn't know very many people. (Don't diss my hometown either: more engineering talent there than anywhere else in the world; it's not called the Motor City for nothing.)

As someone who now heads an institution of higher education, I am surrounded by people who know much more than I do about almost any subject that I care about; since my curiosity is unbounded, that foretells my relative ignorance is as well. My colleagues impress me.

I had no choice but to become an administrator. As a new professor years ago, I met a fellow who was just like me and doing virtually the same research I was. Except his credentials were slightly superior at every level: higher-ranked college and law school, more awards at each stage, and then better placement of his initial article. My resume wasn't shabby; it's just that matched up side by side, his was a cut above. He was, what's more, a martial artist who, approaching middle age, was fearsome enough to be the cover story for a magazine dedicated to his sport. Ergo he likely could beat me up if it came to that.

My favorite anecdote of my own intellectual inadequacy concerns the only test I have ever failed. I tried out for Jeopardy!.

This occurred years ago, before the internet took off. The producers of the popular quiz show regularly toured the country back then, setting up shop in hotel suites. I had always been one of those fans who, as a nuisance to other viewers nearby, would call out the answers before serious-minded host Alex Trebek would finish reciting the questions. People would encourage me, likely out of annoyance: "You should be a contestant."

In a room with perhaps one hundred other wannabes, no doubt each of them confident he was a compendium of more trivia than any of his peers, I was issued pen and paper. We were to play a lightning round with fifty categories. It was all there, the subjects such as "potent potables."

As soon as we started, I knew I was in trouble. Among the queries was "Who is Hamlet's uncle?"

By way of background, I should say I have seen every one of Shakespeare's plays on stage -- that isn't bragging; it's additional embarrassment given how the story turns out. I occasionally memorize soliloquies to while away time during ceremonial occasions.

But I was stumped. Maybe it was premature stage fright.

At the time, the sitcom Seinfeld was popular. A minor character was Jerry's uncle, Leo, he of the exuberant hello. Aware that the melancholy Dane could not have been a relation, I nonetheless jotted down, "Leo."

I believe they played the theme music to the show -- one of those tunes that echoes in your head against your will -- as they graded. At least that's my idealized memory.

I did not make it. I was crushed not to have the opportunity to win the respect of nerds everywhere. (The correct response was, by the way, "Who was Claudius?" -- second husband to Gertrude, guilty of fratricide and regicide, employer of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I had blocked the name, despite having read not long before John Updike's revisionist novel sympathetic to the new king.)

As the organizers congratulated a half dozen aspirants on moving forward to the round where they would play a mock game, they told the many more of us who were disappointed that, regrettably, they could not tally individual scores for us but we were expressly authorized to tell everyone afterward that we had fallen short by one point. We were to be like Maxwell Smart of the 1960s spy spoof: "Missed it by that much."

They sent us home with the logo pen they'd provided to us as a souvenir. It rests on the mantle alongside the presidential pen I was given when I visited the White House.

When I catch Jeopardy! on the television, I wonder about trying again. I would need to do it soon, before I start forgetting facts at a faster pace than I learn them.

I have tried to explain all of this to students, without success. The further you proceed in any competition, not that life is a tournament, the more formidable your rivals. That's both a sign and a means of progress. You have to face the challenge.