“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.

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