Are You Smart Enough to Be at MIT?
Attacking the smart versus non-smart cliché
It is mid-April. You receive an email from the MIT graduate office congratulating you on your admission to MIT. You are overjoyed. You tell your family and friends about it. A few days pass by. The news sinks in, and a cloud of doubts appears as you browse through the MIT webpages, the course listings, and maybe even MIT OCW. You listen to some of the MIT professors and students talk on YouTube. You begin to question. Did MIT make the right choice? Maybe I am not competent enough. Perhaps it was all a big mistake, a fluke on their part. You are reminded of the conversation between Harry Potter and Hagrid :
Hagrid: You are a wizard Harry
Harry: I am a what?!
Hagrid: A wizard
Harry: No, there must have been a mistake … I am Harry … just Harry!
This feeling continues to fester, at least during the course of the first semester. How does one address this question? Are you really a wizard? Are you really smart enough to be at MIT?
A Mental Model:
Most people that I have come across have a mental model that classifies people as either smart or non-smart. When you are in school and doing well, it must be because you are smart. If you are good in mathematics and science, you must count as smart.
These presuppositions exist in almost all societies today, and differ only in flavor and extent. However, some life experiences have taught me that this picture is not correct. We are being fooled into believing this the same way that an audience is fooled into believing a magic trick.
What do we see when someone solves a hard mathematical equation? Or when someone is able to perform a task so quickly that it amazes us? Or when we see creativity radiating out of a person right in front of us? Just their success, and nothing more.
What is hidden from us is their past. We don’t see the hours of work and thought the person has put in, the time honing skills, and the sheer dedication. Only with these ingredients are such people able to perform these “magic tricks.”
Smartness is a condition derived from a long experience that involves dedicated hard work, seeking and making good use of the opportunities that come upon us, and doing so consistently over time. All of this, almost always, is built over a firm and sound support system provided by parents, extended family, friends, mentors, and, often, a better half. Smartness vanishes into thin air if any of these pieces go missing.
In order to perform the magic trick, or to be a wizard, or to know whether you are smart enough to be at MIT, you need to focus on these four muggle traits: hard work, opportunities, perseverance, and a support system. These have been the constituents that made the magic trick possible in the past, and that is what is going to make you a wizard in the future. If you do not have those, it would be wise to put some effort into acquiring them, even if it temporarily comes at the cost of your career.
Lesson for life:
I have evolved to think in terms of these four traits, and not in terms of the smart versus non-smart cliché.
This view not only helps in self-advancement, but also has a positive effect on how one sees others. I have seen friends and colleagues demarcating other people based on a smart versus non-smart mental model. I have seen many interviewers apply the same model to job candidates. In doing so, one always runs into a danger of missing out on a friend, a prospective colleague, or an employee who might have been a hardworking and persevering person but did not get the right opportunities at the right time.
This has been a lesson for life, at least for me. I do not for once think that graduating from MIT is going to automatically make me qualify for any career path that shall come my way. Far from it. However, I shall not get into a self-doubt mode and wonder whether I am smart enough for the challenges at hand or not. Rather, I will focus on the four traits. It may take a while to perform the new magic trick, but I shall succeed at it in time, and so shall you.
 For Harry Potter fans (and for accuracy): this dialogue appears in the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and is differently worded in the book.
This story was originally posted on the MIT Grad Admissions blog.