Embrace this indisputable fact: You're not as smart as you think you are. You're not. Even if you're really, really, really smart. Smartest kid in your high school. Smarter than your parents. Smarter than your smart-ass friends. Smarter than everyone you have ever met. Smarter than the author of the words you're reading.
You just aren't. If you were, you'd already know you weren't. But you don't, so I'm here to tell you, because it's the one thing I truly wish I had known when I was your age.
Not that lots of people didn't tell me. Everybody did. Smart people, too. But I didn't believe them. See if you can guess why. Instead, I set about trying to prove how clever and special I was. I even succeeded lots of the time. But in that effort lay the seed of every truly catastrophic mistake I ever made, every ounce of pain I caused others, every hour of time I wasted, every relationship I ever destroyed, and every wrongheaded philosophical notion I ever adopted as a dogma—either because I believed it or because I knew it would piss people off. (Because what harm ever came from people simply being mischievously contrary?)
I spent my college years believing my obvious intellectual superiority was a suit of armor that exempted me from observing the rules that applied to my peers and other normals like them. I'm hardly alone in this. And in a sense, I was correct—by wearing this armor, I chose the shelter of arrogance over the deeper pleasures earned by those who take the moral and intellectual risk of not believing they already know everything worth knowing.
Two recent examples of people forswearing those kinds of moral and intellectual risks: the protesters who shut down the Greece and the Ancient Mediterranean class at Reed College because of the supposed racism inherent in a Western Civilization requirement, and the kid who wounded three classmates and killed another at Freeman High School in Spokane. (And no, I'm not suggesting those two actions were equal, but if you can't see the connection between them, maybe you really aren't the smartest kid in the class.)
It follows that this advice is just as useful when offered to a 30-, 40-, and 50-year-old, but it also tends to be less necessary. One of the most conspicuous (and least publicized) benefits of getting older is that you can't help but realize how wrong you have always been about everything.
The older you get, the larger the world becomes, and the clearer one can see that most of the real work of learning consists of shutting the fuck up for five minutes. So do yourself a favor and shut the fuck up for five minutes, will you please? Because we need you more than we ever have.
Students who can afford a college education are on a weirdly auspicious pedestal at the moment. Social media has both distorted and usurped human discourse. The government and its constituents appear to be deadlocked in a tit-for-tat stalemate. The only language anyone can muster by way of solution is mired in irrelevant anachronisms. Everyone thinks they're right about every goddamn thing.
Someone is going to have to come up with a better framework. Who better than a generation of people who can still dedicate themselves to purely intellectual pursuits?
The chief ingredient will be the ability to listen, which requires humility.
Contrary to what you may have been taught: Being wrong is a sign of intellectual strength, not weakness. There are worse things than feeling offended; an easily offended intellect is a shallow one. People who compare intelligences as though they can be measured like dry goods are almost always assholes.
Most of all: There's no way to measure intelligence that isn't relative to experience, interest, and, most important of all, the capacity for empathy, sacrifice, and love.
People like to say the world is on fire. Maybe it is. But it's also filling up with water. In either case, this is no time for the best young minds to shroud themselves in suits of armor.