I’m Graduating from Harvard…Here’s What I’ve Learned About Smart People

Attending college for the past four years has given me the amazing opportunity to be around a lot of smart people. Now, when I say “smart people,” I’m not merely describing that guy who always wins trivia night. He’s probably here too, but I refer here to the fact that I’ve taken classes with professors who are regarded as the pre-eminent scholars in their field and eaten lunch with Turing Award winners. Hell, I’ve even peed next to Steven Pinker.

My experiences here have taught me a rather unsurprising fact: I am not one of these smart people. This simple realization has been perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned after four years here. Our world, and not just universities, is home to some incredibly smart people, and right this second, I can give you a long list of students and faculty who I know I will never be as smart as, no matter how hard I try. What that means, though, is that I would be doing a disservice to the Financial Aid and Admissions Offices (among others I’m sure) if I didn’t learn from these smart people. I don’t want to simply learn from these people in an academic setting, but I want to figure out what makes them tick. Today, I’d like to share three things I’ve learned about smart people.

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 as if I know what they’re talking about. In the very likely event that I don’t understand something, I’ll just Google it later. After all, I don’t want this person to think any less of me. Smart people are different. Smart people ask questions. 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 the tenured professor in the back of the room who had undoubtedly seen this material hundreds of times 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 they didn’t. Now, I am confident that this professor did not ask a question just to make the guest lecturer feel better, to start a discussion, or anything else. No, this smart person was constantly challenging their understanding and looking for new things to learn.

Based on my experiences with some of the many smart people here, it’s clear that this trend is no coincidence. 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 they 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.

Asking questions isn’t the only thing that I’ve learned from the smart people here. Let me return to my earlier statement about the Financial Aid Office for just a moment to tell you about one of the most humbling lessons I’ve ever learned. You may be surprised to hear that it was taught to me by someone whose name I cannot tell you. This isn’t because I don’t want to, because believe me, I really do; it’s because I don’t know who they are. According to Donor Relations, my financial aid is covered by an anonymous donor. Let’s think about that for just a moment. That means that someone out there has chosen to give me close to a quarter of a million dollars without so much as meeting me. This act of pure selflessness is incredible. As a bit of context, that much money will buy you about 500 iPads, a 2013 Lamborghini Gallardo, or 30,000 bacon cheeseburgers at Tasty Burger. On top of that, my donor doesn’t want anyone to know of their frankly absurd generosity, which is perhaps the greatest act of humility that I’ve ever been a part of.

So, how is it that I’m so confident that someone I’ve never met is such a smart person? My donor is smart because he or she knows what it takes to make a positive impact on the lives of others. It’s one thing to call for change, but it is something else entirely to actually do something, and my benefactor knows the difference. My donor knows that the action they’ve taken is what will produce results that will teach and inspire others, and that’s why my donor’s anonymity is so smart. It allows us to focus only on their action, the positive change that resulted, and nothing else. And so, financial aid donor, in generously giving me the opportunity to attend a place as amazing as this (and I do want to emphasize that I wouldn’t be here without you), you have perhaps taught me as much as the classes you’ve paid for. Thank you.

Smart people, however, can be found far beyond the walls of academia, and the smartest people among us may not be considered pre-eminent scholars by most. In fact, I’d like to share one last thing I’ve learned about smart people, this time not from a faculty member or student, but from a security guard in the DeWolfe apartments. As I’m sure many of you know, this person is my grandfather, and he started working as a security guard here before I even thought about applying to college. When anyone asked him why he decided to do that, he had a very simple answer: “so I can see Tommy when he goes there.” Sure enough, he was right. This anecdote perfectly captures my grandfather’s attitude towards life, which can be summarized in something he’s told me hundreds of times: “you never know until you try.” It is with this attitude that he’s shown me what it’s like to live a fulfilling life. In the years to come, we’ll be presented with challenges and opportunities, many of which will seem impossible or simply not meant to be. These feelings have never stopped my grandfather from trying anyway, and I think his outlook is key to finding success in life. We can’t know what we’re capable of until we try, and we’ll often surprise ourselves with what we can do. Even then, we have much to learn from success and failure alike.

Maybe someday, people will call me a smart person. For now, I’m going to keep asking them questions.

This article was also published on Medium and appears here with the permission of the author
Title photo credit: flickr