Being Smart and Being Successful

I’ve never been told I was smart.

I’ve never thought it to be true either.

I didn’t graduate from high school in the top ten percentile. I graduated in the lower half. And, many people never knew that school was a struggle. Always. But more so ninth through twelfth grades were when the struggles started as more math and science (science involving more math) and standardized testing became even more important.

I’ve been called kind, nice, arrogant, an asshole, a jokester, a nigger, handsome, cute, goofy, artistic. I’ve been called those and many other names, but I’ve never been called smart. I’ve never heard one person say it.

The other day, while on the beach talking to a friend, she mentioned how her father and mother kept insisting how smart she was. They encouraged her to apply to more colleges than she wanted. They told her she was smart. She suggested that was the motivation she needed to keep doing better for herself. It was ingrained in her skull–she was definitely smart. There was no doubt about it. People convinced her, she believed it to be true and it worked.

I don’t recall being told that by anyone. And, I pride myself with an accurate memory.

My friend turned the table and asked what was my drive for my success? I retorted, “I’m successful?” We both laughed. I guess I am. There’s a time in our lives where we must take ownership of our success even if we are not where we truly want to be at the moment. But at that moment, I immediately realized that my success was based on proving other people wrong. Despite the fact that I kept my dyslexia secret from many and became a writer and editor as a career (ironically), I struggled.

But before this career happened, I was always told I could do better, and what could I do with that specific college degree I wanted to pursue–it wasn’t practical in others’ eyes. It was nothing to brag or boast about. I knew my learning ability was a struggle so I overcompensated by being talented–I was a painter, a writer, one of the quickest runners, a great public speaker. I was well-dressed and well-spoken and at times parents and my peers misconstrued those characteristics with being smart. But with the small mixup, I was never told I was smart.

Even during the times when the faculty and staff had to designate someone (who should have been in the top ten percentile) for a summer honors camp, I was selected. I was selected because I was (I admit) a good representative. Not because I was smart (and surely they didn’t tell me that either), but because I fulfilled the role that needed to be filled and I would act the part and not humiliate the school.

Even my admission into college was calculated and truly wasn’t based on my smarts. I felt that because no one told me I’d be admitted into a good school that I had to prove them wrong. For two yaers I literally stalked the chairwoman of the Humanities Department at my soon-to-be-school. For two yaers I sent her many writing portfolios and she returned my stories and poems with her critiques. I ended up getting a performance-based scholarship due to my stalking ability for two years. I’m sure she gave me the scholarship only to keep me from sending her mail even more so or show up at her door. It paid off–it was the only school for which I applied, and I got in. And, I did it because everyone said I could not; not because I was smart, but because I had the determination. It didn’t come easy for me. I didn’t just apply, and get an acceptance letter. I sent dozens of short stories and poems for two years, bugged everyone in the department so much that they knew me before I even arrived.

Then one day I woke up.

Years later, many struggles later, many laughs and many tears later, I woke up. Public opinion didn’t matter. I had nothing to prove to anyone. I had to answer to no one. Where I lacked in particular areas, I realized I surpassed others in certain areas–such as determination and motivation. That was the moment I became a better person–the moment I stopped trying to prove people wrong and actually do it because I truly wanted.

About Stephen Earley Jordan II

Author of "Beyond Bougie", "Cold, Black, and Hungry" and many other books.
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