Why do we hate the “S-word?”

A few years back I was in a writing class. In that writing class, I was given an interesting assignment. I was asked to write an incredibly short memoir describing my experience living my life. Initially, I did not take the assignment too seriously, but what I found myself writing was very enlightening for me. It evoked a lot of feelings I did not know I had.

In my writing I decided to go all out, and write all my feelings on the page, no emotions censored. What came out was anger, frustration, and guilt. I was angry that I was able to live such a good life, when others had to struggle. Even more so, I felt guilt that I was smart and could breeze through life, when others couldn’t. The feeling was bad enough that I struggled writing my paper, because I constantly felt like I was going “oh look at me. Boo-hoo, I’m so smart. It’s so hard being smart.”

That feeling was my big enlightenment. I began to think of everybody I was friends with and I could see them experiencing the same thing. Anybody intelligent I knew treated “smart” as the “S-word”. It was a word you didn’t use. You weren’t allowed to believe that you were smart. Anybody I asked about intelligence gave me the same reaction. There was discomfort, a need to lie, a complete inability to acknowledge that you might have a really awesome quality you shouldn’t want to hide.

So, why do we hate the S-word? You’d think if you were smart, you’d want to be proud of it.

The problem comes down to how intelligence is treated. Intelligence in it’s more dictionary form is just the ability to process, understand, and memorize information, but this is not how intelligence is treated. Intelligence is treated as being some sort of super-power.

When society talks about somebody being smart, it doesn’t just talk about that person’s ability to understand information. Instead, there is talk about how that person will become a lawyer, CEO, or scientist. Likewise, there is fretting over how that person might be better than you, more successful than you, maybe even more likable than you.

To put it simply, society obsesses over intelligence. It’s not treated the same way as other personal qualities. If somebody is unusually kind, trustworthy, or hardworking there’s not that same level of fussing. It’s something unique to intelligence and talent.

So, the reason we hate the S-word is that society obsesses and we learn from it. We also learn to worry about our futures, to become frantic over whether we can be that scientist everybody expects us to be. We worry about being better than others, about making others insecure enough that they’ll lash out at us. We get pulled into this balancing act where we are supposed to fear our own arrogance, yet at the same somehow believe in ourselves enough to become something amazing. We get trapped, and we get lost.

So, my bit of advice to you is to stop obsessing. Stop worrying about becoming a scientist and just let yourself become whoever you wind up becoming. Let go of your worries about your own intelligence. If you are smart, be comfortable showing it and trust yourself to respect others regardless. Recognize that intelligence is just a quality you have just like being kind, trustworthy, or hardworking. It’s useful, but it’s not the world, nor should it ever be. Be yourself, and love yourself.

Image provided by Celine Julie


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