Why being a hard worker is better than being smart

If you’ve never watched 1980s sitcom Family Ties—all seven seasons are on Netflix streaming—I promise you won’t
regret it. While the show is a wonderful depiction of the decade, showing two former hippies coming to terms with the conservative, consumerist values of their Reagan-era teenage kids, it’s probably best known for making Michael J. Fox famous. His character, Alex P. Keaton, is the oldest son of the Keaton family, a money-obsessed young Republican who is cynical, politically incorrect and prodigiously intelligent.

During the fifth season, Alex flashes back to being seven years old and having no friends in his class. He sees his teacher repeat the same phrase over and over: “Alex knows the answer.” While the other kids are playing at recess, he is isolated—a freak. “Do you know how much pressure that is to put on a little kid?” he asks.

Even though I’m not a Republican and not smart in the same ways as Alex, I know I’m the Alex P. Keaton of my family: emotionally stunted, easily frustrated and perpetually isolated from the things other people seem to care about. When I was five, my cousin was working on her master’s degree in child psychology, and she gave me an IQ test. I scored so far off the charts that her professors needed to be convinced I was actually a real child. I learned to read before age three and read chapter books in kindergarten. My mother refused when the school offered to skip me a grade because she was afraid I’d have no friends. I didn’t have many anyway.

In fifth grade, the teacher moved our desks into groups of four, and she let everyone write down who they want to sit with most. All of my requests were ignored, and I found myself in a group with the three biggest delinquent, troublemaker boys in the class. They were isolated in a different way. When I asked her why she sat me with them, afraid that I had done something wrong, she said, “It’s because you’re so smart. They need someone to set a good example.”

I know it’s annoying when people profess awareness that they are smart or beautiful. To be fair, it probably would have gotten me farther in life to be beautiful. Also, I’m not smart about a variety of things, or even anything useful. I can’t do algebra to save my life, and I’d probably be a terrible urban developer or campaign manager. I’m trying to make a larger point. Childhood social issues aside, natural intelligence can do more harm than good, and it’s not often a quality that is rewarded. Rich kids have a hard time learning to work for their money, and smart kids have a hard time learning to work for their grades. The necessity just isn’t there.

Being a “brain” in college is not really any easier than being one in elementary school. I often get invited to study groups and have to awkwardly refuse. I honestly don’t study. Some people put on music, drink coffee and go through an entire ritual, but every time I try to do what other people do, I feel like I am going through the motions of what I think college should be. I already retain the material. I put in very little effort and get A’s, but I’m not necessarily proud of that.

As an English major, I live in fear of peer review day in class, too. Not because I don’t want to read other people’s essays or because I think I’m better than anyone, just because the other students tend to look at my essay reproachfully and tell me there is nothing they can suggest, or they suggest things just to have something to say. I get really frustrated when professors require a certain number of drafts or revisions because I feel like I have to purposefully make my first draft not as good as it could be. It’s the same isolating feeling. It’s time consuming and awkward. And above all, I feel like a total asshole if I say anything about it.

I’m jealous, though. Being smart may not get you as far as being rich or beautiful, but it also doesn’t get you as far as a good work ethic. And college seems to promote that fact. Maybe education has changed since Alex P. Keaton’s day or maybe it hasn’t, but it seems to me like putting in the work is much more highly valued than having the ability. This is how it is in the real world, as well, otherwise I’d be collecting my Pulitzer instead of whining about how hard it is to have a high IQ and making everyone who reads this hate me.

So if you’re watching a high school show on the CW and the brainy girl is just a pretty girl in glasses, and you think she is going to grow up to be the first female president or something, remember it’s not that simple. Being smart or talented is only as important as what you do with it, and nothing you didn’t work for will ever be worth having. And if we’re ever in class together, just know that I’m trying to fit in, the same way I’ve been trying since I was seven.