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I'll skip the humility. I'm smart. Always have been. My parents realized it early on and praised me for it. I pretty much slept through high school because after a couple of minutes of explanation of any math, science or computer science concept I grasped it. I never did any work, although I read a lot about the subjects I enjoyed, because I enjoyed them.

The non-STEM stuff was confusingly ill-defined and in those subjects I was average, at best. And because I wasn't good at them, I avoided them: I didn't do anything to be smart, I always had been, so what could I do to become smart at reading Shakespeare? I had no idea how I could learn to understand something I didn't understand because understanding seemed to have been something I was just born with.

I did well enough on the SATs to get into a top college and decided to major in electrical engineering. I skated through freshman year, earning a low B average.

Towards the end of the year I met with my advisor, the head of the department for the first time. Without preamble he said "We made a mistake. You're not really the person you looked like you'd be in your application." I didn't really grasp what he was saying. "You're not getting the grades your record indicates you could get. You're not working hard enough. You should think about transferring to a less demanding school. In any case, EE requires a commitment and I think you should pick a different major."

I was stunned. This was the first time in my life that anyone had ever done anything but praise my academics. I was angry. How could this adult, who claimed to be some sort of mentor, talk to me like that? In fact, writing this years and years later, I'm still a little pissed off.

But looking around, all my friends and classmates were working their asses off, getting ready for finals. The guy may have been a jerk, but he was right: I wasn't working hard and I wasn't learning very much. Much as I dislike the guy, I have to admit he did me an enormous service. He recognized that I needed a kick in the teeth to take his advice seriously. The next three years I made sure I worked harder than everyone else around me, if only to prove that he was wrong, that I hadn't been a mistake. I stayed in EE and would have graduated near the top of my class if I hadn't had to factor in my freshman year grades.

So what does that prove? That you can make a kid neurotic if you push him hard enough? Maybe. But I know that if I had tried to skate through my post-college life being smart and not working, I would have got nowhere and done nothing interesting. Being super intelligent is like having giant biceps: impressive, but rarely useful. People admire intelligence, but they reward getting things done. Getting things done requires some intelligence, but much more it requires hard work and stick-to-itiveness. I'm not faulting my parents one bit: they manifestly loved me, found me good schools and interesting activities and fed my eagerness to do useful things. But I'm careful with my kids to praise the things they control and can change--like hard work and not being deterred when things are hard--and let the being smart thing take care of itself.




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