Image by Mariana Vusiatytska, 2016–12–12 — on Wikimedia Commons.

Intellect, Smarts, and Identity: Naming and Claiming my value

Today, I was thinking about how I’ve always seen my potential. I never thought of myself as intelligent. Kinda smart in some ways, maybe. But not intelligent. And I think that lots of kids out there right now may be increasingly struggling with the same thing.

I was the creative child, the artistic child. I struggled with math — A LOT — and that made me feel stupid. I got a C in Algebra, cheated my way through Geometry, and then finally had to take Pre-Cal twice because I got a D the first time. (Got an A the second time with tutoring).

So when I was voted “Most Intellectual” in 9th, 10th, 11th grade, I shrugged it off, knowing deep inside that it was just because I used big words, not because I was actually smart.

I was in honors classes, but I got a mix of As and Bs, not the straight As that smart kids got.

I really enjoyed speaking and learning Romantic languages — but I only got a B in Spanish IV so clearly I wasn’t that good at it.

I got a 40 on the US states test and I still can’t, for the life of me, figure out where all the states are.

Freaking Michigan.

And I had to study for tests. Ohhhhh, did I study. I would get people to come over and actually study with me, quiz each other, etc. I did this in college, too; I was a notetaker, note studier, study group organizer — and with all of that focus, I *still* didn’t make all As — although others in the study group did. Flashcards, memorization — it didn’t come easy.

I took the SAT FIVE TIMES and still got a composite score that was disappointing, but enough to get me into my college of choice.

I went to college specifically interested in Chemistry. I’d only gotten a B in AP Chemistry, so I felt I might not be *that* good at it, but I’d been a youth representative on a citizen board that interacted with the chemical plants in the Gulf Coast, and my interest in chemistry and toxicology was a driving force in my school choice.

But then Freshman year Chem 1 was MWF at 8:00, Chem lab was TuTh at 8:30, and I honestly didn’t feel like I was good enough at it to commit myself to getting up that early.

I probably wasn’t going to do super well at it anyway. It would probably be too hard. Maybe something else would be a better fit for me.

I had settled into what I expected of myself so many years ago. I was good at art and music. I was a great writer and a champion reader. I had an ear for languages. I was the creative person. I wasn’t the technical person - I wasn’t good at technical things. I recognized that Intelligence and Creativity could thrive together, but I acknowledged that I was a Creative person rather than an Intelligent one. I compared myself to those around me and found this to be my truth. This is how I defined myself.

There were occasional exceptions. I got a 100 in my KOBOL class (which I took as a math credit). I got an A in Astrophysics. But those small successes didn’t do much to influence the way I saw myself.

Looking in hindsight, I’m fascinated by where I started in comparison to where I am today. My job now entails a really wide and deep understanding of lots and lots of things, with a solid foundation of strategic and technical knowledge required. What I am able to accomplish, guide, explore, build — all of these are things fall so far outside what I would have ever imagined myself capable of accomplishing decades ago, when academics were tough and I disappointed myself.

I work with some of the most intelligent, brilliant minds in the world — engineers with patents upon patents to show — and we are collaborating on projects together. Together. As in, I have something to offer. As in, I have value, not only as a Creative, but as an Intellectual. I’m clearly doing a job that could only be done by someone Intelligent. And I recognize that.

So, clearly, I must be Intelligent.

Folks, it’s taken a long time to get here.

I don’t really have it as a personal goal to learn the location of all the states and state capitols. Math — especially complex math — is still a weakness and I have to hand it off to Jonathan when the kids need math help. However, I manage our family budget and family portfolio and am a total economics geek. And I assemble all the furniture we buy, with hammers and screwdrivers and power tools or whatever else is needed, so I can brand that image into my children’s minds — the one where mom is technically adept, happily doing technical work.

(Except for that time that one dang screw broke when I was assembling a KALLAX shelf. That wasn’t the “I’m happy building things!” Mom.)

Outside of my questionable skill with power tools, there are other things I’m great at — but I’ve only come to recognize and accept them as I’ve grown older. This process of recognizing the fallibility of how I perceived my value years ago is something of which I’m keenly aware — especially because I’m raising two young daughters and a son.

There are so many complexities in helping someone — especially a young girl — to feel capable and intelligent. To understand that intelligence is not predefined by a set of tests at school or a scholar-sized box in college.

It’s okay to be great at some things and not at others — and a weakness in one area doesn’t destroy your capacity for intelligence.

Getting a B doesn’t mean you’re not good at something.

Struggling to learn doesn’t mean you’re not smart.

Today, our children attempt to navigate this crazy environment of online learning and social distancing. And as we all struggle with this new reality, some students are actually really suffering, believing that because they can’t do this well, there is something wrong with them. Because they can’t seem to get their mind wrapped around this online school thing, they are failing at life.

Not finishing your work this week doesn’t mean you’re going to fail.

Struggling to keep your attention on that audiobook doesn’t mean you’re dumb.

I need to remind myself to keep in touch with my kids and how they feel, specifically about who they are and what they’re good at. I need to keep a conversation flowing. And I need to share with them my own vulnerabilities, the places where I lack confidence, so that they can understand that perfection isn’t an ideal — self-exploration, compassion, and connectedness should be our focus right now.

May you all find your self-exploration revelatory, and may you all stay safe and connected as we all, collectively, compassionately, protect the least of these.

Founder of zeet insights, an Austin-based market & design research firm; design thinker, diversity advocate, tech geek, proud mom.