Going to Harvard means I have the very unique opportunity to be around a lot of smart people. Now, when I say “smart people,” I don’t mean that guy who always wins trivia night. I mean, blazingly intelligent individuals who are regarded as the pre-eminent scholars in their field. It’s pretty amazing to pass by Turing Award winners and leading political science scholars grabbing a sandwich.
Before I go anywhere, let me make one thing clear: I am not one of these smart people. This is perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned after 3 years here. There is an absolutely incredible number of smart people in the world, and I can name a whole bunch of students and professors alike who I know for a fact I will never ever ever be as smart as, no matter how hard I try. But honestly, that’s okay—-I don’t need to be (and perhaps that’s a story for another day). What that does mean, though, is that I would be doing a disservice to the ever-so-generous Financial Aid Office if I didn’t learn from them. I don’t mean learning in a lecture hall, but I refer to a more personal sense of learning. What is it that separates a “smart” person from me? How do they conduct themselves? What drives them?
I can of course make no authoritative claims here, but I have noticed one overarching theme among smart people: they ask questions. When someone explains something new to me, I’ll usually just nod my head like I know what they’re talking about. If I don’t understand something, I’ll just Google it later. After all, I don’t want this person to think I’m a moron. Smart people are different. If they don’t understand something, or even if they think they understand something, they’ll ask questions. I distinctly remember, as an immature and perhaps arrogant freshman, a guest lecture in one of my classes. After explaining what I thought was a straightforward concept, the guest lecturer asked if anyone had any questions. Looking around the room, every student simply nodded, indicating everything was clear. A question, however, came from a tenured professor who had undoubtedly been exposed to the material before. At the time, I thought nothing of it, and perhaps even thought that I was smarter than the professor because I understood a concept he/she didn’t. Now, I am confident that this professor did not ask the question just to make the guest lecturer feel better, to start a discussion, or anything else. The intonation of the question and the intensity with which the professor listened to the response definitively suggested that the professor’s question was genuine, and that the answer was of great importance.
Based on the research and findings of so many of the students and professors here, it’s clear that this trend is no accident. Not only do smart people ask questions when they don’t understand something, but they also ask questions when the world thinks it understands something. Smart people challenge the very limit of human understanding, and push the envelope of what’s possible farther than many people would argue it’s meant to be pushed. Smart people don't take claims at face value, and smart people don’t rest until they find an explanation they’re comfortable accepting and understanding.
Smart people challenge everything. (You know who taught me that? A smart person.)
Maybe someday, people will call me a smart person. For now, I'm going to keep asking them questions.