How many times have we heard, or even said with spite and gloat, “He isn’t smart. He just works really hard,” or “he tries way too hard,” or “he’s just a nerd”? We say so with a condescending air, as if we are somehow better and somehow smarter, indeed, for not working so hard, not trying so hard, and not being a nerd. Somehow, we have vindicated our superior intelligence by stigmatizing another’s superior diligence. We have arranged intrinsic intellect and extrinsic conscientiousness in an inverse relation, the more of one, the less the other. And we have based everything on the patrician notion that hereditary intellect is infinitely better than acquired intellect. Thus, he who works really, really hard will be nothing more than he who works really, really hard. We procure the illusory comfort of presuming ourselves smarter by refuting the smartness of another.
By the same line of reasoning, yet in a more direct fashion, we sometimes seek to exalt our own genius not by relegating another’s, but by shirking work ourselves. In the hot milieu of a Harkness discussion, we sometimes choose to bask in a deliberate indolence, shun our pen and paper, and feign a cool, carefree panache, all the while relying on our supposed brilliance to internalize important information and eke out a few noteworthy remarks. We suppress our assiduous selves and thus appear plainly smart to ourselves and hopefully to others.
Then there are the more duplicitous ones who understand the system inside and out: those of us who practice the art of diligence, as well as the art of appearing intelligent. Here comes the one who nebulously insists that he did not study much at all only to ace the test, and the one who claims that the test was ridiculously easy when he in fact struggled. Again, we prefer a façade of intelligence over a disclosure of veritable diligence.
True intelligence may be more elusive since it is, after all, purely genetic, but is that reason for believing that it is superior to the universal industry we can all muster? If genius is a fountain, diligence is the fountainhead. Genius is a fountain inasmuch as we can supply it by means of diligent exercise. One who is born with intellectual potential can only seek to further this advantage through its conscientious application. Diligence necessarily cultivates genius.
Diligence is also the bastion of all learning. We make the effort to go to school and do homework and twist our brains in the most uncomfortable ways in order to learn. A $50,000 investment in education logically expects a considerable return on our behalf. We play, have fun, and above all, work at Lawrenceville to improve ourselves. To allow the phobia of appearing “not smart” mistakenly obstruct our education is to do ourselves an ignoble disservice.
Those of us who tend to resign themselves to the assumption of unalterable intellect ought to rework their mindset. We should not cite an unlucky distribution of immanent intelligence as a reason to forsake ambition and lapse into laziness. We should not wholly accredit our academic successes and failures to the fortuitous mysticism of intelligence, but we should attribute them for the most part to our diligence. Failure only means we must work harder to catch success.
There is nothing wrong with being a nerd or working hard. Our world depends on the exertion of its constituents. Things don’t just happen. Genius can give an extra boost, though only in conjunction with striving. In Leon Battista Alberti’s words, “Man can do all things if he will;” those who say otherwise are truly dim-witted.