By Michael Drury
MOST people are smarter than they think-on two levels smarter than they suppose themselves to be, and smarter than they habitually allow themselves to function. I don’t wholly know why this is so, but one reason may be that a disclaimer to brains has a democratic sound. It isn’t fashionable to be bright. Another reason is that people slide into disparaging their minds without realizing what they’re doing. Soon they are persuaded.
If you are determined to scuttle your own intelligence, here are ten ways to do it.
- Whatever the idea, decide that you haven’t got time. People who have time make it out of the same hours-per-day allotted to everyone else. As a beginning writer, I had to learn that it was better to write one paragraph standing up, en route to somewhere else than to wait for unlimited tie. That great day light come when I didn’t have to go an office or keep house, but I should have nothing to put into it-no craft no knowledge no habit even.
- Make hasty judgments of your ideas. Every mind generates ideas all day long, because life by definition is a series of problems and solutions. Some ideas aare merely operational: whether to have an egg for breakfast or go to Rome on your vacation. Others have potential for growth and control: maybe you want a college degree; or a new job; or to study law, the piano, golf.
At once the arguments set in. it will never work. You have a tin ear; you’ve never been good at sports; your family will disapprove; above all, it’s a bit late in the day for making changes.
I’m not suggesting that pros and cons don’t have to be weighed. But give an idea a chance to grow; cultivate it; get some facts. You don’t trample all over a seedling and then wonder why it died.
- Never give your mind anything to chew on. Nobody stops eating at age 20, but starved imaginations are common-place. If you never read a book, ask questions or travel, no wonder your intellect is undernourished. One of the simplest remedies for this-and it’s free-is to take a book out of the library that you are fairly sure you either won’t like or won’t understand, and read it all the way through.
The other side of this coin-equally ruinous to using your head-is to become a perpetual student, forever taking courses, in the delusion that someday you will know enough to begin to think on your own. Storing up information in an intellectual silo without ever using it will cause fermentation, nothing more. Both ways-starving or stuffing your mind-are delaying tactics, ways to avoid thinking.
- Hide your talent under a bushel. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright once said that between arrogance and false modesty he would take arrogance any day. Arrogance at least accomplishes something, and false modesty never does. If you really want to stifle your mind, smother it with statements like, “It’s nothing; anybody can do it; it’s just common sense.”
- Do something else instead. If you want to try something alarming, sit down with the intention of thinking about something for ten minutes-a decision that’s been facing you, a report you have to make, even such a mundane thing as planning menus for a week. In 30 seconds you will have discovered a job requiring your urgent attention. It is the cleaner’s day, and you haven’t got the clothes ready; you promised your neighbor a check for the charity drive; the library books are due.
The task is legitimate and not exactly mindless, which is why it effectively blocks your mental exercise. Nobody can think of two things at once. Tomorrow will do for using your mind, and tomorrow and tomorrow.
- Expect instant acclaim. I once interviewed actor Paul Newman after he was hailed as an overnight success in a Broadway show. He laughed hollowly at the term. “Oh, sure,” he said, “ ‘Overnight’ after ten years in plays that folded and road companies where you were lucky to get bus fare to the next town.”
Two things easily defeat the would-be thinker: anger at an unresponsive public, and fear that somebody else will make a dollar. The city councilman who suggests a fund-raising scheme that is voted down, and announces that he won’t waste his energies on a new plan, is undermining his own intelligence. A man I know had a fresh idea for a new local business, but dropped it when the man willing to finance it wanted half the profits.
- Foist half-formed ideas on somebody else. To suppose that other people never have ideas and that all one has to do is waft his brainstorms out to dazzled menials waiting for something to work on is sheer ego-patting. Ideas are cheap; any mind sprouts them like mushrooms unless it is trained out of doing so.
Writer Goodman Ace told of an amateur who once offered him a premise for a radio comedy show that Ace was producing. It was a pretty good beginning, and Ace said so, adding, “What happens next?” The other man was incredulous. “Why, I’ve given you the idea,” he said. “What more do you want?”
- Don’t be specific. Unfocused thinking is aimless, a first cousin to daydreaming. I admire handcrafts of all kinds, but it took me 30 years to discover that admiration and even faint talent were not production. I could not weave and do wood-working and make pottery, and at the same time devote my energies to my own work.
Nobody can do everything. When I accepted that, I felt pounds lighter and let loose to think about the things that really were my business.
- Assume that everything has already been thought of. It has, of course, in a sense, but as an editor I worked for used to say, “Nothing has been done our way till we do it.”
Twenty years ago, a friend of mine who had had three babies tried to interest someone in pre-packaging formula in throw-away containers. After months of research with the Department of Agriculture, milk companies and chemists, she concluded that her modest brain was no match for the experts. The idea had been discarded as unworkable. Today the product is on supermarket shelves.
10. Suppose that thinking is cold and not quite human. Watch a child who has just learned to read, and you will know how false that supposition is. Your mind is your most exciting asset. The ugliest men and women can be the most attractive because of their minds. Your mind is the one thing that never grows old and never has to. Its resilience is astounding. It can lie dormant for decades and still spring forth like the morning.
I have given ten tested ways to keep this from happening. If you fail to follow them, you will find out that what I said in the beginning is true: you are smarter than you think.