Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Being and Not-Being Smart

At a recent gathering of like-minded postgrad lady folk we got to the topic of being, and not being, smart. Specifically the kind of smart that makes one postgrad or academic stand out from the rest: we can assume some basic level of intelligence in the cohort as a whole, but there are some people who make the rest of us wistfully sigh with an envious "She's really smart (not fake-smart like me or even normal-smart like him)."

Yes, academic-types are high-achieving perfectionists with unrealistic expectations and low self-esteem, yadda yadda. We know that, we accept it, we move on. I think we also do know that no-one is really exceptionally smart-smart, but people have different ways of performing smart. Some of those methods are more convincing than others, particularly for people who are not fluent in that particular kind of performance. I don't mean that the performance would necessarily be calculated in a negative sense (although I'm sure there are people who work on appearing smart-smart for the sake of it), but that it tends to reflect preferred work methods, a way of thinking or a career strategy (are you going to get A-ranked publications, finish the thesis in three years, get that teaching award, have the baby, go to exotic conferences and make the Olympic team, or are you going to have to make some tough choices?).

Someone is very good at knowing facts, often bamboozling the conceptual thinker who can't ever be as definite about what they know. Some are good presenters, others couldn't cope with the 3-minute thesis challenge but could knock out a decent article in no time. Someone organises conferences and networks very well, another hasn't socialised much during their candidacy, but has an impressive publications list. I know people who fit all broad categories. Apparantly I can sometimes appear smart-smart for asking useful questions (I am available for weddings and other parties).

I wonder how often people realise they give that smart-smart vibe? Maybe you do, but are too crippled by fear and caffeine to know it. What is it that you do, how you perform, that makes others wish they could do it, too? Next time you catch up with a fellow thesis wrangler, try this for a conversation starter: "What makes you think I'm smarter than you?"

1 comment:

  1. My supervisor often uses the term "smart" to mean savy or canny, he's used it to describe someone who got their publication in exactly the right place, or delivered the right talk on the most topical-but-surprisingly-different subject to attract the attention of the most useful people... that's the kind of "smart" that makes me think of someone as "smarter than me".