There were a number of people who asked for a version of my article, Understanding Very, Very Smart People, written for a younger audience. As I sat down to write one, one of my first thoughts was if my younger self thought for a moment that he was being offered the “kids version” of an idea, he would likely ignore it completely. With that in mind, what follows is less of a re-write and more of a list of things that I wish someone had told me.
I use the term covert assumptions a lot as a way to talk to people about the assumptions that they are not aware that they have made. Acknowledging and paying attention to covert assumptions can fundamentally change the way that you live your life. Here are a few examples:
• The covert assumption that there is a correct answer to something can be problematic. It is important to entertain the idea that some things may not have a correct answer.
• The assumption that people are logical can get you into trouble. People do not make decisions logically. If they did, everyone would be doing the most logical thing all of the time.
• If someone is making you angry, let your first thoughts be how is this person different from me? Let your second thought be what have I assumed about them? All you are really doing when you do this exercise is trying to become aware of the assumption that you have made.
There are also assumptions that some people might be making about you.
• People may assume that you are okay when you aren’t. People may have a hard time knowing what you are feeling or how deeply you are feeling it. Please remember that they are not doing this on purpose. Hopefully, you find a few people who get you. For the people who don’t, it may be helpful to let them know how and what you are feeling from time to time.
• There will be times that people will assume that you are just being difficult/lazy/rebellious when you can’t do something. People equate intelligence with ability even though these are completely different things. When this happens, it may be a good time to remind them that there are some things that are easy for you and some things that are not; just like everyone else.
• Nobody wakes up thinking: I’m going to be the biggest jerk I can be today! In general, people are doing the best that they can. If you want to understand people, start by thinking to yourself: how does the idea that this person is doing the best that they can make sense right now?
• Nobody gets to choose how smart they are. Remember that.
• The Dunning Kruger effect is a real thing (although some would argue that the idea is flawed or specific to our culture). You assume that people are much more capable and competent than they are. One of the reasons that you think the world is unfair is that you are assuming that people are competent but withholding when the more simple and accurate explanation is that they are less competent than you think.
“The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Why You’re Dumber Than You Think” by MindfulThinks
• Having to be right and having the right answer is not the same thing. Life gets a lot easier when you start valuing the answer over having to prove your correctness. Trust me on that one.
• Trying is a skill. Find something that you are truly terrible at, and do it a lot. Pay attention to the process of how you learn to do the thing. You are teaching yourself how to try, and the more you do this, the more doors will open to you. “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” – Pablo Picasso. But you’re learning more than how to do the thing; you’re learning how to learn in a fundamentally different way than you are used to.
Living in a World Run by Adults
• While you are aware that you are a kid, you can’t remember ever feeling like a kid. That will not change. One of the biggest differences between being a kid and being an adult is realizing and really understanding how little control grownups have over things. Like, virtually none. It’s super weird.
Related idea/side note: adults who talk about how kids feel immortal/invincible probably don’t remember what it was like to be your age. It’s not that you feel invincible, it’s that adults have a more felt sense of mortality coupled with a physiologically different setting in their brains when it comes to risk assessment.
• I know school is dumb. You’re going to have to do it anyway. There is much to be learned, but the real value of the experience involves figuring things out like how to deal with people who aren’t very bright but get to tell you what to do. If you want to have a happy life, this is a skill that you need to figure out, and school is the perfect environment for that. Each time that someone less intelligent than you tells you to do something seemingly pointless is an opportunity to practice how to handle that situation in a way that requires less unpleasantness and aggravation.
• Just because someone is an expert or teacher does not mean that they understand their subject. I am going to say that again. Just because someone is an expert or teacher does not mean that they understand their subject. It is often the case that they have just memorized a lot of stuff about it, and expect you to do the same. This is a trap. Please, for pity’s sake, do not conflate expertise with actual understanding or utility. If you value understanding things (I am terrible at memorizing things, but if I understand something then it’s in my mind forever), look for explanations on youtube. You might be surprised and delighted to find that watching the right video online may teach you enough in a matter of seconds to do the equations that you were unable to do five minutes ago.
“Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)” by Baz Luhrmann
Questions or suggestions? Please leave a comment. Thanks for reading.