When I was younger, I was one of the smart kids. You can be smart in different ways, but I’m talking about the “nerdy” kind of smart. The kind of smart which gets you good grades and makes you a favourite amongst the teachers. Being that kind of smart is simultaneously a gift and a curse. Lonely as it could be, at the time, I enjoyed having the bragging rights of doing well and having evidence to show for it. If I’m being honest, the older I’ve got, the more I’ve begun to feel like it’s a curse.
There are flaws to being smart.
I was proud of being smart, but it came at a cost. When you’re a child, it’s not cool to be smart. People either want to be your friend so they can borrow your brain, or they don’t want to know you at all. If you’re lucky, you do find a few friends along the way but, for the most part, you are an outcast. Teachers love you, but that’s about it.
You would rather have your head stuck in a book than go chasing other children around the playground. While others avoided their homework, you would make sure it was done and done well. Being the smart kid was a central part of who you were, even if it didn’t make you popular.
But it’s not just about popularity.
When you’re a smart kid, there’s a lot of pressure and expectation placed on you – by yourself, by your teachers and sometimes by your parents (although, thankfully, not in my case.) If you don’t achieve a high grade, it is seen, and often expressed, as disappointing. Yet, everyone else in your class is getting Bs and Cs, so why isn’t it acceptable that you did? Everyone was expecting you to get an A, that’s why. In some cases, people may voice their concerns and ask you what was going on. Other times, they seem to frown upon you for missing the mark that time.
Everything is fine as long as you are getting the grades, but then when you’re not, there’s confusion. No one ever seems to ask why, though. They just think you didn’t try as hard as you normally do.
Nobody was harder on me than I was on myself. If I didn’t achieve the grade I was striving for, I would view myself as a failure. As I mentioned earlier, being smart was a central part of who I was. When that was taken away from me, I felt like I had nothing to offer because so much emphasis had been placed on the value of being smart.
When you do well and achieve the expected results, people sing your praises. You get compliments and remarks on how well you are doing. Sometimes, you get awards. You believe that there must be a reason for that. If everyone is encouraging you to achieve good grades, they must be worth it in the long run. Why else would people become so invested in it? It must matter. So, you go through the schooling system with the belief that if you pass your exams, you’ll do well. All the hours spent studying and working your backside off will be worth it.
Sure, sometimes those good grades put you in a better position for a certain job, but truthfully, no one really cares. When you get out into the “real world”, being smart doesn’t count for much. There’s certainly nobody there to cheer you on because you understood something complex, or wrote a well-worded letter. While the school system heavily emphasised the importance of getting good grades, it doesn’t stand up much afterwards. It becomes about the experience.
The rejection you experienced for being smart when you were younger is actually a reflection of how society really treats smart people. Some smart people are celebrated but, for most of us, it is irrelevant. They don’t suddenly welcome you in with open arms. If anything, they simply find new ways for you to prove yourself.
Plus, it turns out school doesn’t teach you much about the things you need to know. By the time I left college, I could write a killer essay but I had no idea about life. I felt completely lost. It’s not that I came out expecting to use my skills in exactly the same way, but I thought they must have practical implications somewhere.
So far, I haven’t seen much benefit from it. Perhaps I would have felt differently if I’d gone to university. We’ll never know.
What I do know is, here I am, at 27 years old, school life long behind me, and truthfully, some days, it feels like my efforts were a complete waste of time. Nobody has asked me about my GCSE results since I was 19 and the only time my A level results have been discussed is in casual conversation with friends.
So, what has this got to do with depression?
Being smart is tied to an expectation that you will achieve. All eyes are on you and pressure can be unbearable. I think, when you grow up with this, it becomes ingrained in your mind. You have to do your best with everything. There’s a hint of perfectionism thrown in there. For all that it might drive you, it can also break you.
The other thing about being smart is it means you take in information in a different way. I do believe less intelligent people are happier, because they don’t process information in the same way. Usually, they don’t understand it or its implications. They fall for the nonsense they read and are blissfully unaware of what lies beneath. Smart people have a need to know more; to gather information and analyse the situation. It’s not always a good thing. Some of the most intelligent people I know have had experience with mental health issues, and I do believe this is one of the reasons why.
Depression can happen to anyone. Yet, just as traumatic events and difficult life situations can make us more susceptible, I think the same can be said of intelligence. I wouldn’t wish my intelligence away, it is still something I am thankful for, and I don’t know if it had anything to do with my personal diagnosis, but I do think it is a contributing factor for others.
What can we do about it?
I don’t want this to read as “boohoo, I’m smart and nobody cares.” I’m glad we live in a world where people can achieve brilliant things, irrespective of their grades. There are drop-outs going around who are proving, time and time again, that exam results do not define you.
The thing I struggle with is why these examples haven’t made their way into the classroom, and why the education system still insists on putting enormous pressure on people. I truly believe it’s dangerous, and it doesn’t set them up well for life later on.
Celebrate the smart kids, but let them know they are so much more than that. Acknowledge all of their other qualities, too. They are kind, caring and funny. If, one day, they woke up, had forgotten everything and could no longer nail their exams, they would still be incredible people, capable of anything.
While we’re at it, let’s quit pretending grades matter. I know they assess progress along the way, which is fine, but the attitude that they matter beyond that needs to go. Oh, and, of course, maybe thrown in a lesson or two which teaches you something that will be helpful. All the academic knowledge is great, but it’s probably not going to help you get a mortgage.