Alexas Fotos/Pixabay CCO Public Domain
Source: Alexas Fotos/Pixabay CCO Public Domain

Do you see yourself as smart, or not smart? And just how smart must you be to be smart enough?

Admittedly, your intellect may not rank above most others—at least not sufficiently to view yourself as bright or brilliant. But if that’s the case, what, finally, do you think this says about you?

How you answer this question is crucial. For in many ways it serves as a gauge of your self-esteem, how positively you regard yourself. Which is why it’s so curious that there’s a dearth of literature on this subject.

Many (maybe most?) individuals who deem themselves as not particularly swift learners—as (horrors!) average—periodically experience a painful awareness of their cognitive limitations. Sadly, this is what comparing ourselves to others does to us. So, if you compare yourself to someone so fortunate as to have been born—that is to say, “gifted”—with a significantly higher IQ than yours, you could, deep down, be haunted by a certain self-disparaging sense of inferiority.

For better or worse, we live in a meritocracy. Throughout our childhood and adolescent and, for many of us, college, too, we’re exposed to an educational system constantly evaluating our performance. So it’s virtually impossible that over time we wouldn’t develop a self-critical habit of grading ourselves. However unintentionally, our culture has systematically prompted us to “internalize” the external measurements imposed on us through all our requisite schooling.

We could hardly help but be aware that the really smart kids were assigned to special AP classes, and that they were to be seen by us as special. (Certainly, a lot more so than we were.) It didn’t take long for us to figure out that we’d never make that grade. For our innate intelligence just didn’t measure up to these smarter kids and, despite our most heroic efforts, never could.

Gifted in other ways, or just trying to compensate, we might have striven to match them by becoming superior in athletics, or developing superior social skills and amassing a large group of friends. Still, we might not have been able to bury the thought that, as regards basic brain functioning, we’d be forever “less than” these smart kids. Moreover, we may have felt that their intellectual gifts guaranteed them success in life, that it gave them permanent advantage over us. And that there was nothing, realistically, we could do about this.

But must such a situation culminate in the conclusion that we—possibly, you—need somehow to see yourself as (between your ears) inadequate?!

To such a question, I’d respond with an emphatic No! You don’t need to—nor should you—compare yourself to those “blessed” with a superior intellect. After all, it’s not something they actually earned. It’s analogous to your running full speed but still unable to run as fast as someone destined to outrun you because their “gifted” physical structure ensured it. Or, say, someone born with exquisitely sculpted features, and you yourself having neither the face nor bodily form to successfully compete with them for some humongously paying modeling job. And so on, and so on.

The point I’m getting at is that “average” in intelligence as most of us are, we’re still smart enough to manage our affairs (and to hire others to assist us in things not  representing our strengths). And we’re unquestionably smart enough to create a life for ourselves that’s rich, adventurous, satisfying, and joyful. Obviously, nothing obliges us to regard ourselves negatively simply because we’re not superlative (or even competent) in certain areas.

So, rather than doubting yourself, or feeling bad that you don’t excel in ways that some others “naturally” can, might you instead consider whether you have it within you to succeed in domains that matter most to you?

Not good in math, fine. Comparatively few occupations and professions require you to do much more than add and subtract. And besides, there are always calculators to lean on (!). Not proficient in the so-called “hard” sciences? You might still be adept in learning, and finding a professional position in, one of the “softer” social sciences.

In other words, you should be able to find your niche in some field where, whether  you’re of superior intelligence or not, you’re definitely smart enough to do well in.

Generally, it’s very uncommon to feel attracted to areas unsuited to your capabilities. Conversely, what’s most likely to appeal to you is also what’s most likely to be at your competency level. And if you have to strain a bit to become adequately skilled at it, such a “stretch” is healthy for you. It will do you good to propel your abilities to the next level. Such an added expenditure of cognitive energy will likely help you better both your confidence and self-esteem. Additionally, as self-help writer Bill Borcherdt astutely remarks: “Because something is hard doesn’t make it too hard” (You Can Control Your Feelings, 1993).

And that’s where I’d like to conclude this discussion. Given the law of averages, only a small percentage of us can be really smart. But undoubtedly, almost all of us can be smart enough. It’s in our developing the will, motivation, and self-discipline to become our personal best that allows us to show ourselves—and the world—that what we set our minds to do we can do.

In a sense, we can transcend what we’ve assumed are our “natural” mental limits simply by pushing through them. If we repeatedly tell ourselves that with enough dedication and commitment we can break through many of our barriers—that what may be intellectually hard for us isn’t too hard—we’ll find that usually our efforts will be richly rewarded.

So, endeavor regularly to confront your challenges with what represents your cerebral “personal best.” And, in time, you’ll discover that—mentally gifted or not—you’re absolutely smart enough to succeed.

If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link.

To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

Finally, to be notified whenever I post something new, I invite readers to join me on Facebook—as well as on Twitter where, additionally, you can follow my various psychological and philosophical musings.

You are reading

Evolution of the Self

It’s Not Really About Control: Tips for Frustrated Couples

What’s the best way to resolve power struggles with your partner?

Covering Up Negative Emotions Doesn’t Work. So What Does?

It’s crucial to grasp what your unwanted emotions protect you from. Enter IFS.

How and Why You Compromise Your Integrity

Internal Family Systems Therapy can free you from self-sabotaging defenses.