In its simplest form, it meant instead of being the kid at the front of the class, with hand upraised wherever possible, I resigned myself to suffer in silence or moved myself further to the back. It meant adopting an approach that allowed me to perform and succeed but not to the extent that it put me in the spotlight, front and center, in a way that would create friction. It also meant coming to terms with the reality that many people would misinterpret my eagerness and excitement for arrogance or showboating. It would take years more before I learned that often, the delivery was irrelevant and that misinterpretation was more the triggering of their own insecurities or fears and embarrassment than anything within my control.
Over time I developed a mask. That mask was a persona I could slip into. One that spoke slightly less eloquently, that used a slightly more limited vocabulary, that avoided topics prone to triggering resentment or issues. But, with it, also came a certain level of avoidance. It became a motivation to be that A-/B+ student, instead of securing that A+. It became motivation to avoid the spotlight or to draw attention for the sake of humor or bravado instead of intellectual insights and raw achievement. And more than that, it became a reason to downplay and rapidly move on from successes and recognition tied to intellectual success instead of reveling in them
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Now, twenty years later, I still catch myself falling back into some of these techniques. Unfortunately, at a certain level, like any mask or persona, that identity eventually merges into who you are and how you see yourself. Even when you move beyond it, when you largely discard it, and as the world around you changes—the things that were rewarded in high school become irrelevant or even detrimental to success.
In general, this tends to take many forms. One that I often observed among my peers was among young women, particularly those who were particularly attractive. The iconic dumb blond stereotype was inevitably an oppressive weight which has been discussed at great lengths within elements of the feminist movement. At university, where I was participating in the honors college and surrounded by highly intelligent women, and later in the professional workplace, it often created a web of significant insecurities and confused identities. Similar to my experience, but in a much more potent and vitriolic way, intelligent women often subconsciously found the best way to success was to obscure their intelligence, downplay the expression of that intelligence and turn up the outward bimbo.
The challenge becomes that even when you tell yourself that you’re protecting your inner focus and identity, and only playing a role, doing so is impossible. That mask truly does become part of you and your own self-voice. While it lubricates general social interactions when it comes to things like dating it ultimately creates inferior relationships. While you may be able to attract a wider cross section of potential partners, some of whom you can then truly convert and engage with at a more intellectual level, it also tends to add a lot of static, replacing quality interactions and good fit with general noise.
It’s also both exciting and frustrating that, over time, the metrics for success necessarily pivot and reverse. That as we advance into our twenties, thirties and beyond, those who intellectually excel and own their intelligence have a tendency to outperform those who never developed it, were less capable, or who sought to downplay those abilities. I hope that over time we get better at educating students about the importance of striking a balance and developing proper social skills, but also fully nurturing and embracing their curiosity and intellect. The amount of angst, agonies, and hopelessness, as well as emotional scarring and complex baggage that marks many of the world’s most successful people, relates back directly to the challenges that arise in striking this balance.
It’s also clear that many either lose themselves fully and just leave the mask on permanently, are broken, or never manage to acknowledge and then do the self-work to properly discard that mask or overcome the insecurities or low-output behaviors that result. As you navigate your own journey, I encourage each of you to consider your own path, your own narrative, and how that has evolved in recent years—or, if you’re still early in that process—the direction that you’re eager to chart.
As I reflect on where I am in my own personal journey, I fully appreciate and value the ability to engage in the less serious or more casual. I’ve come to understand the social value that shared experiences and commentary on things like fashion or art or music bring and how they help us find similar people and to form valuable in-groups. At the same time, I’ve also come to focus on being more transparent in embracing my curious and intellectual self and less apologetic about it. I still endeavor to strike a balance that brings with it humility and curiosity, not knowledge weaponized for social impact absent the ability to engage with and learn from everyone.