Not Having Any Idea How Smart You Are Is More Fun

I don’t know how smart I am. And not in an ordinary way, either. As a kid, I never learned where I fit into the hierarchy of intelligence.

There is a lot of debate about intelligence. Remember that book The Bell Curve, by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray? It is really, really thick. It has a big rainbow lump on the cover. It’s all about intelligence, and how a person’s success is pretty much determinable by how smart a standardized test says they are. As it turns out, according to The Bell Curve, Jews are definitely, on average, smarter than black people. Or at least, that’s what I got out of the section on race. Stephen Jay Gould wrote a book called The Mismeasure of Man about fifteen years before Herrnstein and Murray came out with The Bell Curve, but, laughing sadly to himself, Gould stuck a few more chapters on Mismeasure and republished, saying, “Seriously? We’re still talking about this?” He also said something along the lines of, “One of the big problems here is that people think intelligence is only one thing, and that thing is measurable by a single method.”

People think that intelligence is quantifiable. Well, I’m sure parts of it are. But the whole thing? Isn’t that a little too complex to summarize in a number?

I didn’t take any tests as a kid. None.

Maybe that doesn’t even seem like a big deal. Maybe it’s like, Ok, so you didn’t take tests…So what? Maybe you wonder how my progress was tracked. What if I never got better at anything? Oh my god! It’s true! I still can’t name the organelles. My fiancé and I were trying to remember them all the other day. Every time he came up with one, I’d be like, “Yeah! The Golgi apparatus! Totally! I was about to remember that one!”


I got good at sketching, and then painting. I did it every day. When you do something every day, you get better at it, no matter what it is. Which is why you should be careful if you’re yelling at people everyday. That’s not something it’s good to be good at. And if you love something, or at least enjoy doing it, or feel motivated at all to keep doing it of your own volition, then you’re going to get even better at it than you otherwise would.

There wasn’t a test for painting. There were plenty of tests for other things, but I didn’t take them either. What would the point have been? I wasn’t being compared to anyone else, I wasn’t in a grade, and I didn’t have to move on to another grade. And progress, believe it or not, is pretty self-evident. It also happens at different rates for different areas of learning. I didn’t learn how to read at the same rate that I learned how to recognize individual birdsong. I didn’t learn how to draw hands at the same rate that I learned how to play a Chopin Nocturne. In fact, it took me at least a decade before I could capture hands with any real accuracy. But I wonder if I ever would’ve gotten there at all if I’d failed the hand drawing test after the first year of trying. Maybe I would’ve thought I was just inherently bad at drawing hands. Maybe it wouldn’t have felt worthwhile anymore.

Absolutely everyone learns. Almost anyone is capable of learning anything. It might take an incredibly long time. It might take a really good teacher. It might take a ton of dedication. A lot of successful learning is the result of feeling capable of learning. At least, that’s what I think. And when you learn that you’re bad at learning something, well—why would you ever want to keep trying? The kids who keep trying amaze me. They’re incredible.

There are things I know absolutely nothing about. Topics I sound idiotic on. I’m unpredictable, rather than well-rounded. But not knowing how smart I am is pretty nice. I feel like I have a lot of potential. I feel like I might be able to do anything.


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What are you really smart at? What else do you think you might secretly be really smart at?

Un-roast: Today I love the contrast between my chipping blue, girlish nails and my grownup face.

P.S. I’m sorry if my posting is a little off-schedule (not that I was ever very good with a schedule) these days. I’m getting ready for Rosh Hashanah and simultaneously getting buried in wedding stuff.

P.P.S. Thank you to Penelope Trunk for choosing me as her mentee! I almost died of joy. She calls herself lost, but I’m pretty happy just following her around anyway.

P.P.P.S Seriously, send me photos of you and cake. Don’t make me beg. I bought one of those slices of cake in a box the other day, and then I ate it before I could take a picture. I am not cut out to be a food blogger. How do they do it?


Kate on August 24th 2010 in being different, homeschooling

11 Responses to “Not Having Any Idea How Smart You Are Is More Fun”

  1. Amy responded on 24 Aug 2010 at 1:05 pm #

    Wow! Penelope’s mentee! High praise. Way to go. Very jealous here.

    You know what popped out a me in this post? The idea of getting better at something you do every day. That’s because many people, I think most probably, do something every day that they don’t really like. (maybe that’s why they end up being yellers everyday – like maybe the mean cab driver!).

    It also really made me think about people who are critical or talk down to others when they ask a question or make a mistake. When someone does that within earshot of me I flip. I mean I really flip. I will call them out right then and there to ask them if there is anything that they do not know or anything they are not good at. And, how would they like it if someone made them feel stupid just for what they didn’t know. (the reaction is usually a lot of back tracking…and shame…which makes me feel better).

    The point is…we all don’t know something and we should treat each other as we would want to be treated if we dared to ask a question or tried to learn something new.

    I bet Penelope chose to mentor you because she sees that you get this, and she knows that you will mentor others in time.

    You have a lot to learn — and so do I. Lucky us!!

    Thanks as always,


  2. Diane responded on 24 Aug 2010 at 3:18 pm #

    “Absolutely everyone learns. Almost anyone is capable of learning anything. It might take an incredibly long time. It might take a really good teacher. It might take a ton of dedication. A lot of successful learning is the result of feeling capable of learning.”

    I love this. As a teacher of children with learning disabilities, it is vital that I believe that they can learn, and that they believe it too. Unfortunately, while I start with that belief, they have to be convinced, often after/because of years of failure in the classroom. I love designing lessons that allow them to genuinely achieve success, because that’s when they start to believe me. It’s the greatest part of my job.

    Absolutely nothing in teaching frustrates me more than a classroom teacher who writes off my students as “unable” to participate because they learn differently. All it does is reinforce to the kids that they can’t do what the other kids can do. With some simple modifications (or sometimes none at all, depending on their strengths), they could definitely participate. Seeing my students sit at the back of the classroom with separate work breaks my heart – and undoes so much of my work with their self-concept.

    In traditional public schools, “intelligence” seems to be pretty narrowly defined, and kids are measuring themselves against that standard. If my students never had to compare themselves to others and get an idea of how “smart” they are, they would approach learning so differently. There would be a lot more joy and excitement.

  3. B.T. responded on 24 Aug 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    So jealous. Wish I hadn’t had to take tests. I never believed in the results.

    And this was a great post.

  4. Wei-Wei responded on 24 Aug 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    I think that homeschooling definitely helps with preventing the toxic comparing that sometimes comes with knowing yours and others’ results in tests homework, or just schoolwork in general. I know I certainly have had my fair share of unpleasant comparing, but I’ll open that can of worms another day… Let’s just say my best friend and I broke up for a while because of my comparing.

  5. Hayley responded on 25 Aug 2010 at 12:29 am #

    It sounds so much more fun. And it would take away the risk of “oh, the test said I was dumb so I am. I’m going to stop trying now.”

  6. Kate responded on 25 Aug 2010 at 1:43 pm #

    I know! I am so thrilled!
    And good for you for calling people out on being ridiculously critical in pointless ways. I wish I was more like you. The world needs more people who are willing to do that!

  7. Eat the Damn Cake » By Tomorrow You Will Probably Disagree With Everything You Decided Today responded on 26 Aug 2010 at 10:58 am #

    [...] It’s scary how little I know myself. How little we all know ourselves. I mean, I’m terrified. I’m always waiting for myself to do something awful to me. And mess up my whole life. I’m unpredictable. I’m wild and dangerous and I don’t know exactly what I’m capable of. Which is sort of the negative side to the end of my post about not knowing how smart I am. [...]

  8. I’m a Bad Atheist « NonProphet Status responded on 09 Sep 2010 at 10:50 am #

    [...] if I don’t call myself a feminist. They tell me I can’t be as social as I am, because I didn’t go to school as a kid. There are a lot of rules I seem to be breaking just by living my life. Just by being myself. And [...]

  9. Eat the Damn Cake » No Makeup Week responded on 21 Sep 2010 at 12:03 pm #

    [...] not enough….Whatever little girls are supposed to like. I didn’t know what that was. I was homeschooled. I thought other little girls were cool for being good at math. I thought I was cool for thinking [...]

  10. » Blog Archive » Kate Fridkis: Race to Nowhere : Are Successful High Schools Hurting Students? responded on 15 Dec 2010 at 10:59 am #

    [...] The first test I ever took was the SAT. It was terrifying. I sat in a room with a bunch of other teenagers, clutching a number 2 pencil until my entire hand ached, and feeling as though something huge was about to happen. The sense of impending doom was palpable. But for me, the sense that my fate was being decided was vague. I was home-schooled. Where I went to college didn’t seem very important, because school had never been important. It seemed more critical that I prove to myself and the world that I could take a test. [...]

  11. Kelsey responded on 29 Jan 2012 at 12:28 am #

    God, I love this post. I was homeschooled too, but maybe not enough. (My mom wanted to unschool me, but she’d been a public school teacher too long to let go of the norms) I did take tests and was told I was far smarter than I felt and it gave me a big reputation that I’m struggling with in college.

    I’m really smart at interacting with people. I know how to navigate conversations in a way that will make them feel comfortable and entertained.