The truth about the smarter kids

Princeton, East Pyne Hall, photo by Joel Achenbach
Princeton, East Pyne Hall, photo by Joel Achenbach

We had a big weekend — a graduation, a milestone birthday, lots of festivities. Plus there was Father’s Day, a great American ritual in which, every year, families gather together in front of the television set to watch Phil come in second at the U.S. Open.

Transitions can be hard for everyone: For the student going from high school to college, from the graduate going from college to the real world of work and adult responsibilites, and for the middle-age man going from social relevance to biological obsolescence at the cusp of oblivion. Finessing these transitions is a worthy goal.

To that end I recommend Emma Brown’s story on the front page today about high-achieving kids from inner city schools who have gone to elite colleges and discovered that they’re fundamentally unprepared. They are smart and driven, but they haven’t experienced challenging classes before, and don’t know how to write a paper with an original argument. They’re surrounded by kids from superb suburban schools and prep schools.

This is bringing back memories…. Yeah, I was lucky: I went to the best high school in my hometown, and had great teachers, great friends, supportive parents. Still, I felt completely unprepared when I got to college. After three weeks I was certain I’d have to drop out.

This wasn’t me being dramatic and emotional and insecure. This was me looking realistically at the data. I was out of my league. I was the dumbest person in the school. I didn’t look right, didn’t talk right, and, most terrifyingly, didn’t think right. In the English literature class, I’d squirm in my seat with nothing a thing in the world to say about Thomas Mann’s story “Tonio Kroger.” Or about “Death in Venice.”  I was an obvious fraud, an imposter, a mistake of the Admissions Office, a glitch in the system now exposed for all to see. An error.

Of course, over time you learn that the Imposter Complex is universal. Apparently we’re not as pathetic as we think. We just need time to find our comfort zone. Our sea legs.

Yes, there are people out there who are smarter than you, but here’s a secret: There’s really not that many of them. And they’re not that much smarter. And in some ways you can outflank them, if you find the right place to operate. You just have to find a leverage point and work from there. Find something you’re good at, and then do it a lot. To a remarkable degree we have the ability to get better at things, particularly if we are willing to plug away at it, and can persuade ourselves that our condition isn’t hopeless.

So, freshman year, sitting terrified in class, don’t be intimidated by the guy across the room who has the perfect haircut and the perfect sweater and looks like he stepped out of “Dead Poets Society.” Don’t be insecure when he uses words like “eschatological” and “chthonic.” Understand that he’s been trained to talk that way. You can ask him for help with the homework. And years from now, you’ll remember how he helped you, and maybe you’ll give him a job.

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · June 12, 2013