“I’m Not as Smart as I Thought I Was”

How do you deal with feelings of intellectual inadequacy?

A high school student applying to MIT is struggling with these feelings. Here's one reply on this Reddit thread via Cal Newport:

The people who fail to graduate from MIT, fail because they come in, encounter problems that are harder than anything they’ve had to do before, and not knowing how to look for help or how to go about wrestling those problems, burn out.

The students who are successful, by contrast, look at that challenge, wrestle with feelings of inadequacy and stupidity, and then begin to take steps hiking that mountain, knowing that bruised pride is a small price to pay for getting to see the view from the top. They ask for help, they acknowledge their inadequacies. They don’t blame their lack of intelligence, they blame their lack of motivation.

During my freshman year, I almost failed out of differential equations.  I was able to recover and go on to be very successful in my studies. When I was a senior, I would sit down with the freshmen in my dorm and show them the same things that had been shown to me, and I would watch them struggle with the same feelings, and overcome them. By the time I graduated MIT, I had become the person I looked up to when I first got in.

You feel like you are burnt out or that you are on the verge of burning out, but in reality you are on the verge of deciding whether or not you will burn out. It’s scary to acknowledge that it’s a decision because it puts the onus on you to to do something about it, but it’s empowering because it means there is something you can do about it.

So do it.


I am hyperaware of situations where I feel intellectually outmatched. When I do, I don't think the solution is only "deciding" that I will improve myself to meet the challenge, per the comment excerpted above. That's necessary–and it's why surrounding yourself with people who push you to do this is key–but it's not enough.

Feeling intellectually outmached also forces me to think harder about my unique combination of abilities–where I have a comparative advantage in the specific situation. No one is smarter than you in every possible way. Smart is very context specific.

12 Responses to “I’m Not as Smart as I Thought I Was”

  1. Janet says:

    Totally agree with your comment when we feel intellectually outmatched … it’s also helpful to reframe your thoughts by challenging them and forcing yourself to seek help, ask questions and overcome that hurdle.

    The only way to learn is to ask. I was the new person at my job almost 2 years ago who didn’t know anything about how a freight forwarding and logistics business operates. I asked very basic questions and even though it raised some eyebrows, little by little my knowledge and understanding of the business became more complete. I set aside any feelings of pride or embarrassment. At the end of the day it’s your loss by not asking.

  2. James A says:

    When talking about intelligence I think it’s important to distinguish “knowledge” from “intellectual horsepower”. It’s like the difference between software and hardware.
    I’ve had people tell me I was “smarter than them” simply because I had certain facts at my command that I’d absorbed from reading books. I wouldn’t classify this as intelligence per se. Horsepower is something else entirely: hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.

  3. Brad Feld says:

    Powerful post. As a freshman at MIT, the first thing I heard (at the freshman picnic on the first day) was “50% of you will be in the bottom half of the class.” That set the tone at MIT.

    About a month into things I had my first Physics test. Every freshman takes Physics – at the time it was 8.01 or 8.02 (if you placed out of Physics on the AP Physics test, which I didn’t – I think you needed a 5 to place out and I got a 3 or a 4). I thought I was pretty good at Physics and I liked it a lot.

    I got a 20 on that first test. When I took the test, I knew I wasn’t doing very well, but when I got my grade (a 20 – seriously – a 20 out of 100) I didn’t know what to do. I went back to my room, locked my door, and cried for an hour.

    Once I got that out of my system I went for a long run. I remember the run well – I just kept playing over and over in my mind that I had just gotten a 20 on my first Physics test. It was at that moment that I realized I wasn’t the smartest person in the room anymore and I needed to figure out my special magic.

    It turned out that class average was a 32 (I remember this like it was yesterday) so I didn’t actually do that horrible relative to everyone else (probably a “C”). But it shook me to my core, and had a profound impact on everything from that moment forward.

    • Derek Scruggs says:

      I remember once taking a test in a class that was decidedly easier than MIT physics. It was sort of like “Physics for Poets” – a class about relativity.

      Anyhoo, I got a 60 out of 100. Freaked out for a couple days until I learned the class average was 50.

  4. BrandonAlter says:

    That’s interesting. Breaking the idea of intelligence down from a mysterious black box into actionable traits like resilience and engagement seems like one of the most useful changes we can make to our thinking. It also makes us better advisers for friends and colleagues.

  5. Jude says:

    I’m rapidly approaching 60, and the interesting thing I’ve discovered lately is how intelligent I am compared to a lot of people. I never thought of myself as being all that smart, perhaps because my brothers were so much smarter than I am, but now I realize that I *am* intelligent. The experience of encountering information that you find too challenging is an acknowledged aspect of gifted education.

  6. Xoch says:

    Totally agree that “deciding” is not enough, willpower will only take you so far.
    Pride is the first thing that needs to go, but you also have to reframe questions and try to use your other abilities and experiences, that other people might not have, and try to apply them to the problem (IMHO).

    What I wanted to comment on actually, was the new template/design, I quite like it! And the new pic is also great, reflects that you’re more adult now. ;-)

  7. en135 says:

    This reminds me somehow of Dweck’s book titled “Mindeset”. I have not read the book advertised here, but in “Mindset” the author differentiates between the fixed and the growth mindsets. If you are in the growth one – as the author here is – you are more likely to forget your pride and admit your inadequacies in order to succeed in the future. Check “Mindset” if you need to switch. I’d eagerly read the book presented here.

  8. Liz says:

    Great post! I’m in med school and constantly feel inadequate (though I think we all do). You helped me look at things with a different perspective.

  9. Eyel says:

    I used to feel like I was the smartest person in the school since I get good grades in math and some other subjects. This year, I am taking Ap chemistry, Ap Us politics and Ap Computer Science and Calculus. I met so many people smarter than i am which literally made me feel like a useless trash and stopped getting the grades that i used to get. That is why i am reading this passage lol

  10. Mark says:

    Students are really going to go through this tough times. For as part of being young, we tend to neglect some things that are crucial to pursuing their studies and hoped to win it through and be part of the “successful people” who managed to graduate.
    But a lot of factors also are behind such devastating experience. One is that their personal problems like that of themselves or they are alone and they had a hard time coping and eventually focus on their studies but are bugged by their ability to be smart enough due to the problem itself.
    But if they could just not give up yet. There are lots of ways to start or move on. It is unto the student to find that motivation.


  11. T says:

    Easier said than done. Its easy saying its your fault if you dont succeed but try to succed when you are left to yourself.

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