It's not smartness

How life experience shapes our perception

Published 24 July 2021 - Updated 22 August 2021 - by Alvar Lagerlöf

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a geek—always interested in technical things. Meanwhile, my peers played different kinds of video games, Pokémon, or football. They followed the performances on Eurovision, talking about their bets and scores of the different countries. No one seemed to do what I did.

When I was in primary school, I would build all kinds of mechanical contraptions. Cableways between beds. Tall Lego towers. Robots. By no means was I good at it, but I kept trying until I at least partially succeeded. My tall constructions would quickly look like the leaning tower of Pisa.

Then one day, we had an electronics workshop. We were supposed to turn on a light bulb using three components: a cable, battery, and a bulb. The key here was to create a closed-circuit that lets electrons flow through each component.

I completed the task in seconds. Meanwhile, my peers struggled with the task for several minutes. To be explicit, I don’t blame them. You see, I had spent a similar amount of time solving the same problem at home, long before. I was already familiar with it and comfortable with electronics.

That day changed how many of my classmates saw me. Suddenly, I was the "smart" kid. This attention was delightful at first, because who doesn't want to be called smart, right? Since I was “smart”, I should also know what 9×13 is, right? Spoiler: I didn't, I was terrible at math. And how was it possible that I also didn't know all the winners in Eurovision? The list goes on and on—so many things the “smart” kid didn’t actually know. The label proved inaccurate, and everyone moved on.

But this situation puzzled me. In my own mind, I was hardly smart at all. I had simply spent all the time they spent on what they liked (like football) on things I liked, like electronics.

So if I’m not “smart”, then what? I prefer “experienced”. Being interested in a niche problem space all my life made me more experienced, not smart. I consider someone smart if they can solve a novel problem in some area they are unfamiliar with.

Still, there are situations where I believe someone did something astonishing. But even there, it’s worthwhile to consider that you don’t know what they’re experienced in. It reminds me of the word “Sonder,” described by The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows as the following:

n. The realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed …

The next time you're impressed by the abilities of someone, you might be even more amazed to consider what it took to get there. There is often much more to what they know than you think.