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I Used to be Intelligent… Kinda… I think

Yesterday I was thinking about how smart I used to feel. When I was young. Okay, I’m not so old yet or anything. But the older I’ve gotten the less I have realized I know. I’m not too concerned about it. In fact I feel a lot less pressure.

The real trick has been pinpointing when and how this happened. I was smart in high school. I was a slacker, but I was smart. I was smart in college for a while, too. Though still a slacker…

I’ve always been well-read. But there are still billions of things I have not and will never read. I feel similarly about art, music, film, and literally any other topic under the sun.

I think a lot about my lack of intelligence when I read posts by the other writers here at Big Other. Which makes me honored to be among them, and a little self-conscious as well.

I remember a girl my freshman year calling me the smartest person she’d ever met. I instantly felt embarrassed, but also sad for her. This is maybe when I started realizing how uncomfortable it made me to be called “smart.” Actually I’m not sure I really started recognizing this until my college made me see the school therapist the second semester of my sophomore year. (But that’s a different story).

I grew to know less, and inherently, I think, became more comfortable with myself when I was doing construction in the Arctic. I marveled at the way my coworkers were comfortable with their lives and who they were. Almost as if they didn’t question these things or even think about them. Because chances were they didn’t. I still admire the hell out of that.

But I really accepted that I knew nothing when I stumbled upon my wife and we were married. And then in the process of having a child together. Nothing teaches you how little you know like abandoning all your pretentions for the sake of someone else.

So what’s the point of all this? Is it merely a meditation on aging and maturing? Is it an existential question? Is it really about not knowing anything, or feeling less intelligent than I once did?

I don’t know, is it?

  • Ryan W. Bradley has pumped gas, changed oil, painted houses, swept the floor of a mechanic's shop, worked on a construction crew in the Arctic Circle, fronted a punk band, and managed an independent children's bookstore. He now works in marketing. His latest book is Nothing but the Dead and Dying, a collection of stories set in Alaska. He lives in southern Oregon with his wife and two sons.

28 thoughts on “I Used to be Intelligent… Kinda… I think

  1. I can totally sympathize, though maybe in a slightly different way.

    I feel in recent years I have ever more frequent little breakdowns in which I wonder what I’m doing with my life and how I went from being in the top 1% of my high school class to working interminable retail. I think I’m still intellectually engaged, though now that I’m out of school I feel like I read less theory – but I’m still picking up books that qualify as ‘tough.’ I can’t for the life of me though, think of an occupation I would like to do for the rest of my life.

    And here are all these people I went to school with, who I silently felt superior to, getting law degrees and becoming dentists and running companies. They all know what they want to do. Shame on me.

    1. I get that as well, the feeling of being uncertain there’s an occupation for me. I mean, obviously I could be a writer, unfortunately that’s not really a choice as an occupation for many of us. But when I try to think of a “career” the closest i can imagine is teaching, but that’s not really a viable option currently.

  2. I feel this too in a way. What happens to us as we grow older? Why do certain things make us more angry and we do we not really care one way or another about other things? I think: how can I sit here safely on a computer while in Haiti there is such devastation? I don’t know. No easy answers, but perhaps it’s more important to ask the questions.

    1. Sometimes all we can do is ask the questions. I have no answers in life, I’m trying to understand it all like the rest of us, and I’m not sure that there will ever be a level of true understanding. But maybe that’s not the point. I’m open to that possibility.

  3. First of all: I’m certainly far less intelligent than I was ten years ago, if by intelligence you’re referring to the ability to quickly form associations between disparate subjects. My brain simply slowed down. That said, I wasn’t very productive during those earlier years. So I think there’s a benefit to being slow.

    Secondly: how much do you think other people’s use of specialized vocabulary has to do with this feeling? Sometimes I can feel alienated by someone’s use of technical/theoretical jargon–any language associated with specific disciplines or thinkers I may not have read. The ideas these words are being used to convey, however, are often another matter entirely, should I take time to parse them.

    1. Those are both part of it, I think. But I feel less intelligent in the most general of ways, too. Part of it, too, for me is that when I started recognizing my lack of intelligence when I was in college I felt like a fraud because I wasn’t willing to cop to it. Now I’ve grown comfortable with talking about not being intelligent, as evidenced by this post. And even when I get some things such as technical jargon, I don’t feel like I get them in terms of my brain understanding it, sometimes it feels instinctual and I don’t fully trust it because I still feel confused mentally.

  4. When I was of grade school age, I was made to take the IQ test over again as my initial score seemed too high. I gave the graduation speech in 8th grade even though I failed to qualify for some fancy award thingy, as I got busted for skipping school and wolfing down Big Macs instead. Then I went a fancy boarding school and did lots of drugs and only did OK- except for in english and geometry, where I continued to excell. Then in college I did well, but also became a billiards addict (that would be geometry related), also known as a “sign of a wasted youth”. Then I moved to NYC, worked in publishing, played pool in a league and hated my job. Then I tended bar…aahh. Loved it. Multi-tasking, people who weren’t awful (sorry publishing world) and floundered (haha, or foundered- I do sort of care which word is better here).

    Then, as Ryan said, I had kids. That’s a whole five million posts right there. I’m 41, I’m not at all doing what I thought I would be doing, but the arrogance and expectations are gone. This is good. (Unfortunately the wasted youth thing doesn’t go away, it just gets..absorbed.) The fact that I accomplish much less than others, or much less than I hoped, is a blessing in some ways. Being humbled is good. And being just OK with where I am is fine. I still strive. But my failures and/or successes are just a part of me. One thing is- I care very little how intelligent people are. I just want them to not be assholes. I’d rather be with good people than “intelligent” people and I’m not sure I even know what the latter means anymore. I used to be impresssed too easily. That is not the case anymore.

    1. i’m amazed, looking back, even though it hasn’t been that long, how much being married and having kids has made me okay with things, dropping my pretenses about who i was or what i was supposed to do. maybe because i’m content to get home after work and make my baby laugh or sit on the couch and watch tv with my wife.

    2. i used to be into billiards too (though in no way an addict or all that good), my uncle started ‘cuestix’ out of his cabin in the woods, which has become an international wholesaler of all things billiards, and he used to play at a level of zen meditation that i had hoped to acquire, but the only time i did was once when i was on mushrooms and by studying the table for a few moments before each shot i was able to see the path (literally a visual trail of the ball i was aiming at) that the target ball would travel depending on how i altered the angle of impact. i also sometimes played best drunk, which i theorized was because the alcohol slowed my brainwaves down to a mellow alpha rhythm rather than the busy chatter of beta waves which would interfere with and over-ride the intrinsic intelligence of the body. i think the body can execute the geometry of actions, the inworld embodied geometry, better when the mind is not involved, or alternately when the mind is so proficient that it becomes invisible in the action. i was good at the former, but not the latter. hi pr. <3

  5. around september last year, i had this epiphany that i wasn’t nearly as smart as i thought i was. so i started to read. & i read & i read & i read & then, i realized i’d never be able to read even enough to understand what i was reading–its lineage, its historicity. that was lame.

    also, woolf thought the ideal reading age ends by yr very early 20s. doubly lame.

  6. the worst is when youlook back on your past and exaggerate the potential you had. I mean, maybe you once possessed a great deal of potential, and were intelligent enough and enthusiastic enough to do something with that potential, but what I find more and more as I get older is that I’m able to admit that my memory of what once was (and could have been) is skewed (glorified) and perhaps I’m really not all that different now in my thoughts and ideas. My 5 year old reminds me of this daily in ways only a child can remind you that you actually still have a brain that is up and running beyond automatic pilot.

    1. this is something i’ve slowly stopped doing as well, romanticizing my past. i had some moments that could have led to very different life paths for me. some nearly “big” things that could have happened. but in the end they didn’t, and that’s the point that we sometimes miss when romanticizing, i think. they didn’t happen and not because of shit luck or timing or anything else. they just didn’t happen and i’m at a point where i’m okay with all that.

      i’m pretty certain at his point that it is impossible to do anything greater than make my 18-month old laugh, and when i do that i don’t feel the need to do anything greater either.

  7. this is used to weigh very heavily on me. i used to have visions while intoxicated and unintoxicated of accessing the collective unconscious, the morphic field, the quantum void, call it what you will, wherein the knowledge of the universe could be grasped if only the filtering function of the ego could be suspended however temporarily, and while there i could metaphorically scoop in and bring back handfuls of radiant molten understanding that would then need to be hammered into shape by the existing edifices of knowledge, in whatever field it pertained to, which itself would then be illuminated by the integration of the newfound terror of molten symbols whose body and warmth were still cooling off from having been transported back over to this divide of the boundary. the main problem was i wasn’t strong enough to wield the hammer, unable to assimilate the necessary knowledgebase which would then help define the form that the raw understanding would be worked and sculpted into. constant reminder of this weakness would lead to brief and usually minor episodes of self-mutilation. to lighten the self-loathing i took fondly to repeating brando’s classic line in ‘on the waterfront’ where he said, ‘i coulda been somebody. i coulda been a contender.’ and that would always make me feel better. fortunately now i’m disabled and chronically ill, so i’ve stopped taking myself seriously. and i agree, i feel a lot less pressure. i know that there’s many people out there far more intelligent than me who are more equipped to engage with the matters that once concerned me. my mother used to say i had nice abbs like jesus, but there’s something very comforting about a pot-belly, if only to lie your head on.

    1. i still have the occasional “i coulda been” moments, but now i just take them as confidence in my abilities and laugh off the insinuation that there is perhaps more value to doing something other than what i’m doing.

      1. something you said came to mind a couple times today. i think you nailed it with, “Nothing teaches you how little you know like abandoning all your pretentions for the sake of someone else.”

        i’ve never questioned the need for compassion, but i’ve never understood it as a central tenet in a path of enlightenment (as in mahayana buddhism). but for some reason, hearing that statement of yours within the context of this discussion, as well as just having read this ‘quarter life crisis’ article: http://www.eyeweekly.com/article/55882 which was linked over at htmlg, it now seems like the pursuit of happiness within the ‘quarter life crisis’ context is more akin to hinayana buddhism (which is equivalent to enlightenment for the sake of oneself), and yet (to continue this metaphor in a loose fashion) it is only through others, as you said, “for the sake of someone else,” (comparable to mahayana) that we cut through the bullshit of interiority and the narratives we use to bolster it all the more forcefully, and when that parapet structure is breached for the sake of someone else, we are in essence being freed from the narcissus and neuroses of our insular, singular self. there seems to be so much more to life than happiness, and yet happiness is undeniably profound when put in its place. when the sake of another comes first, whatever happiness might occur in such an instance seems to become something more and other than itself due to its nature as an unintended byproduct and its larger-than-self shared quality. i’m not sure what i’m talking about, but your statement has served as a catalyst this evening, helping to clarify some undeveloped sentiments that i haven’t been able to resolve yet, and still aren’t, but at least now have a tangibility, a grainyness, that was always slipped my grasp before. thanks.

  8. For me, the challenge is to try to make things add up—to find connections in the things that I experience (in all walks of life). What do the books I read have to do with the city I live in? What connections exist between some anecdote I’ve heard and the politics of here and now? Between the food I eat and the movies I watch, my job, the writing I do, my childhood, and so on.

    Thinking this way helps me to apply what knowledge I have—which really isn’t very much. How many books have I really read? One thousand? If that? How many films have I seen? Two thousand? There are many more I’ll never, ever get to. I can’t experience all that life has to offer. I can’t meet everyone, go everywhere, etc. Knowledge only takes one so far.

    Knowledge is important, to be sure, but more important than knowledge is the ability to think critically. That’s a problem I have with too many school programs I see (at all levels): they’re too much about transmitting knowledge (a lot of which can be looked up by anyone at any time), but they rarely instill good critical thinking skills.

    The other challenge, I think, is to find a diversity of opinions/perspectives/ideologies/bodies of knowledge. You need to be able to see, or at least perceive, the limitations of what you know. I’m happy now to know that I don’t know all that much. I think that’s progress. It’s more honest.

    (When I was twenty, I actually feared that I’d run out of interesting movies to watch. How funny that idea is to me now! I’ll never even come close to seeing everything that I want to see.)

    Well, that’s some of what I think.

    1. Thanks, Adam. I agree, thinking critically is more important than the actual knowledge. I’ve applied this line of thinking to other things as well. When I was freaking out about becoming a father, I would remind myself that I was hyper-aware of what kind of father I didn’t want to be, and believed that by recognizing such a thing I was taking the first step to being the kind of father I did want to be.

  9. I think it was actor/ director Stanislavski’s theory – BE IN THE MOMENT – that’s my solace.

    There’s also that thing that happens when you reread notes or a journal of yours from long ago, and you discover, geez, I had that thought then.

    1. I’m not great at being in the moment. Which is probably why I carry a lot of stress, I’m always looking too far forward, trying to anticipate and be prepared for anything and everything.

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