Embracing the Imperfect

Do you ever feel like your best isn't good enough? Are the people around you just waiting for you to fail? Sometimes, you need to work smarter—but more often, it's a crisis of self-esteem. 

Rant: The Smart Gap

It is a poignant feature of our species that we can contemplate intellectual work that we can't quite accomplish. A person in possession of an IQ of 160 is not a better person than someone who has an IQ of 120, but she is better equipped to do abstract math. However, she herself is less equipped than someone with an IQ of 180. That is all natural.

It is also natural that we will experience emotional pain when we recognize that the work we would love to do—whether it's physics, constitutional law, or psychological fiction at the highest levels—is, if not completely unavailable to us, just unavailable enough to make it doubtful that we can proceed, and just unavailable enough to make our efforts feel like torment.

Your brain needs just this much more horsepower for you to succeed, and as a result of this knowledge you may decide that life is a cheat, blame your upbringing for robbing you of some measure of your native intelligence, and in other powerful ways experience sadness and frustration, all because of a naturally occurring gap between what you need and what you have. This is an emotional suffering that researchers haven't examined: the pain of wanting to do certain intellectual work but not being capable of it.

It is easy to empathize with the pain of a minor league ballplayer who is just not quite good enough to make it to the big leagues. Indeed, excellent films have been made following the plight of exactly such players. We've seen stories of dancers who aren't quite able to rise to the top because they lack some physical endowment. We've watched similar dramas about pianists, violinists, singers—that is, professionals in fields where the natural diversity of talent is obvious. But what would we see if we followed five mathematicians? Because there would be nothing to see, the plight of these mathematicians would have little power to provoke public discussion.

In part because such challenges are invisible, we do not think or talk about them. But they remain painfully real for the mathematicians, or others like them, who suffer. It's in the American DNA to act as if there is an answer to every problem, but what happy face can we put on this particular dilemma? That short, stout man, while he may make the occasional beautiful shot from mid-court, really can't play center for the Celtics. That singer with an ordinary voice can't compete for the lead in Tosca. Some things really are a matter of endowment.

You may not be fast enough, beautiful enough, or smart enough for your ambitions. But, while there is no good solution to this quandary, there are ways to reduce the emotional pain of falling short.

First, you can help your brain to be its best. This means many things, from not drinking to silencing the self-talk that robs you of confidence and the motivation to tackle your chosen intellectual subject in a disciplined way. It means getting a grip on your mind, thinking fewer small thoughts for the sake of your big thoughts, distracting yourself less, fleeing from the work less, and making fewer excuses about why you don't have the time, patience, or ability to think.

Second, you can choose the intellectual work that matches your native ability. It is entirely possible that devising a complicated plot serves you less well than choosing a simple narrative that allows you to write a deep, lovely, but also straightforward novel. Maybe there is a puzzle in your field that suits your brainpower, a corner of your area that is delicious but not too difficult, a way to do the work you want to do that makes use of all your strengths. You will know if any of this is possible only if you admit that there is a problem and consider solutions.

Third, you want to be kinder to yourself. How many smart people end up torturing themselves because they can't create summations like Clarence Darrow? You can pester yourself and threaten your mental health, or you can decide that such actions hardly serve you and strive to stop.

Intelligence is not fixed. We are brighter on some days and duller on others, and sometimes we get good ideas several steps above our intellectual pay grade. You can build a little optimism into your considerations about whether you are smart enough for the work you want to do. Tempering that optimism, however, must be the clear-eyed understanding that we have not been built for the purpose of solving puzzles that are too puzzling for us. We all feel the gap between the fantasy of pitching in the seventh game of the World Series and the reality of who we are. Well, it turns out that we may not be Newton or Einstein either.

Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist, author of PT Blog: Rethinking Psychology and a best-selling author of 40 books; his latest is Why Smart People Hurt.

Read Eric's original post on his PT Blog, Rethinking Psychology.

 

Embracing the Imperfect