Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s social media editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.
I was an eager learner from the time I was young. I remember being in elementary school getting a letter of invitation to my school district's gifted and talented program and feeling as if I had been accepted into an elite society. I took part in my library's summer reading challenges, I played instruments, I got good grades and did extracurriculars, and I studied abroad in early high school. For nearly my entire life, I have followed a path that people told me I was deserving of: I went to a magnet school in middle and high school where I took advanced classes, I went to college and received national scholarships and grants, graduated with honors, and am now attending graduate school at a top 10 university in Asia on a competitive fellowship. Or, I was, until I stopped going to school and doing really anything at all roughly six months ago.
My recent truancy isn't the result of any sudden tragedy, but because I realized that I am not as smart, capable, or creative as I thought I was, and that I have no business being where I am. Of course, it is something that I have felt for much longer than six months, but something that became even clearer when I failed to write a thesis and graduate on time and my fellowship was cut off.
I think that all the times I was told I was smart, told I had a bright future as a kid, I used those remarks as a substitute for cultivating a real personality or actually challenging myself in any meaningful way. At some point, people were ready to believe that I was smart without me ever having to prove it to them, and so I let them believe that, and let myself believe it as well. I feel stupid, and I feel even more stupid (and incredibly embarrassed!) for ever thinking that I was kind of smart.
I have talked to friends and to professors about how I feel and their responses are generally 'It's a gendered problem!' or they will say, “It's imposter syndrome!” or “You're just burnt out!” But, even if these are to some extent true, I feel crushed by this sense of inadequacy, and find it hard to motivate myself to do or care about anything, especially anything related to school.
What's a dummy to do?
All the best,
An Idiot Abroad
Dear Idiot Abroad,
The single most disorienting experience of my life was not any of the multiple times I lost a job, or my parents’ divorce, or even my own, but realizing that I needed to drop out of graduate school. Don’t get me wrong — leaving my marriage felt like a distinct personal failure, but leaving the path I had assumed was carved out for me felt like a failure to be a person.
So I understand how it might feel like the earth is suddenly off its axis, and how it’s strangely comforting to blame yourself. Because it’s obvious that the problem is not your intelligence — you are very clearly a smart and accomplished person — and the fact that you aren’t seeing that is probably because deciding you’re stupid is more appealing than the harder truth.
Maybe you are an academic con, but here’s what seems far more likely to me: it’s easier for you to hold on to some sense that you are still special, even if that means thinking of yourself as especially stupid or especially duplicitous. Because two things tend to happen to people like us: The further you proceed in your academic career, the more you are surrounded with other people who earned their identities the same way you did. If everyone in the room is gifted, then nobody is. The second thing is that the longer you exist as an adult, the more it becomes thuddingly apparent that being smart doesn’t matter in the ways we’re told it does.
I mean, just look at the people we often consider to be smart. What we call intellect is more often a way of saying “good at making money” which itself is better understood as either “lucky” or “benefits from generational wealth.” Or worse, we fall prey to the sort of deranged credentialism that says an advanced degree in one subject makes you wise in all others. That’s how you get people taking seriously the political opinion of this Yale professor who is probably only still alive because there are no open manholes in New Haven. The world is run by absolute shit-for-brains morons and even the genuinely smart people too often value being right over being good.
In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that the important work of a curious mind is not uncovering nuance or introducing complexity so much as it is developing a sensitive moral conscience. As you note in your letter, testing well is not a replacement for a personality, nor is it enough to feel like you are adequate to the task of personhood.
So yes, you were told that you’re bright and creative, and those things remain true! What’s false is the assumption that being smart would make everything else easier for you. That intelligence and accomplishment can unlock the problems of a life. I’m not sure what losing your fellowship means in your current scenario, but I would advise you to defer if possible, drop out if it’s not. Spend the next months or even years learning to get validation from the things that make us human, like being a loyal friend and a compassionate neighbor. Try to remember what you loved about reading and learning before what you loved about it was how it made other people say you are remarkable.
Because that’s the more difficult work. I say this in the most compassionate way possible: you have to learn to get over yourself. This is so hard! I know because at heart I am a hideous narcissist. It is my earnest belief that the whole world should weep for each wound delivered to me; that in a just universe my most minor achievements would be widely celebrated; that it is profoundly unfair everyone will just carry on after my death.
Perhaps it is unfair that you were told life would be easier than it turned out to be. But people realize this every day in all sorts of ways and the real bitch of it is that you aren’t even unique in your disappointment. Not uniquely smart, not uniquely stupid, just one of many. And we’re all hurtling toward oblivion — the one thing nobody can think their way out of — just trying to make the best of it while we’re here. That can be more than enough, if you let it.
Have a question for A Fuck-up? Email DearFuckup@theoutline.com