People Can Be All Kinds of Smart

My mother has always told me that “There are all kinds of smart.” Over the course of my life, in moments of disappointment or doubt, she has resorted back to this expression to remind me that intelligence cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional ideal.

For many years, I rolled my eyes at this notion, viewing it as her maternal attempt to dismiss any of my academic shortcomings. Only recently have I begun to recognize the true wisdom of her words.

As I approach the second semester of my sophomore year, it is becoming increasingly clear that college is a highly subjective experience. No two people share the exact same class schedule, workload, or academic aspirations. We each walk our own unique path, striving for whatever it is that grants us a sense of intellectual fulfillment.

For this reason, however, defining intelligence becomes very difficult. Knowledge to a nursing student means something very different than it does to an English major. What fills one person with passion and purpose may be the pinnacle of boredom to another individual.

Although such diversity should be celebrated, emphasis on finding and completing a major can often lead us to develop a narrow and insular understanding of what it means to be “smart.” Fixated solely on our own assignments and goals, we are unable to appreciate the value of another person’s path.

My brother is one of the smartest people I know, and I do not mean “smart” in in the conventional sense of the word. Diagnosed with Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD) and severe Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) at a very young age, he has an extremely difficult time paying attention in class, focusing on assigned tasks, and complying with many social norms.

In high school, he could not have survived a day in an AP class. When asked to perform on the spot and in a limited amount of time, as with standardized testing, he often succumbs to pure frustration and ends up reaching for his phone. Even to this day, at 21 years old, he struggles to grasp the concepts of time, money, and basic math.

There is, however, no one I know who can diffuse an awkward situation better than him. He has a unique ability to make people laugh in the most unexpected moments—to boldly voice that humorous thought that everybody else was too self-conscious to acknowledge. His presence has a way of softening you. He is unimpressed by your appearance, your status, or your GPA. He just wants to see you smile. He does not fret about what tomorrow will bring, for that is outside of his control. Rather, he takes each moment as it comes.

Growing up, there were times when I resented his inability to plan ahead and his disinterest in conforming to society’s mold. Today, however, I admire my brother’s aptitude to be himself and to unconditionally embrace people from all walks of life. He may not know how to ace the SAT or even how to perform long division, but he knows how to make people feel as though they belong, just as they are, and I don’t believe there is anything more brilliant than that.

Wisdom does not exist in one exclusive shape or color. It can be easy to believe that knowledge takes only one form and that there is a single ideal of intelligence which we must all strive for. That is no different, however, than claiming that there is only one standard of beauty in which we must all rearrange our faces and dye our hair in order to meet. Just as beauty cannot be reduced to a single set of characteristics, intelligence cannot possibly be represented by a one dimensional definition.

I do not believe it is possible to measure “smartness.” Of course, we can take standardized tests and determine who is most capable of acing an exam in a limited amount of time, but we cannot possibly affirm that one person is smarter than another, for we have not viewed the world through their eyes. How can we make any assumptions about anyone, if we do not know what they’ve seen, felt, and experienced?

Objective knowledge may be measurable, but true wisdom is not. I believe that every person we meet presents us with an opportunity to expand. There is a seed of insight to be gained in every human encounter.

This is not always easy to remember. Just as we judge books by their covers, we often prematurely dismiss others as unintelligent based on their appearance or our first impressions. In other cases, we reject people simply because they’re unfamiliar to us—perhaps their personality reads like a foreign language or they represent themselves to us in a starkly different manner than we are accustomed to.

By overlooking others in such way, however, we ultimately reject an expression of our very own aliveness, and thus prevent ourselves from reaching our maximum capacity for knowledge. If people truly are like books, then perhaps there is a way that we can translate the analogy into living action and commit ourselves to looking deeper, for the wisdom that breathes within every human story.

Featured Image by Zoe Fanning / Heights Editor