[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

Embracing Your Inner Idiot

When J. Robert Oppenheimer left Harvard College and went to study experimental physics at the famous Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge (England), he showed up and was, for the first time, surrounded by lots of people that were better than him at something. This is the guy who ended up knowing more about quantum physics than all but a handful of people in the US by the age of 25.  The same man who in the early 1940s helped figure out how to harness the recent discovery of nuclear fission and build an almost unimaginably destructive bomb out of comparatively tiny amounts of material.  Which is to say that he changed the course of the 20th century.  Oppenheimer was by all accounts a certifiable genius, but he was clumsy enough in a lab that he was apparently unable to conduct the high level experiments that he wanted to pursue.  He was so thunderstruck by this realization that he became depressed and suicidal.

What’s the point of all this, you ask? Well, this little parable is meant to illustrate one of the ineluctable facts of life: you are not as smart or good at stuff as you think you are.  Most of us, however, do not need didactic stories from the pre-Internet days to hammer this point home.  The closely related corollary is that at some point in your life–and for many of you law school is that point–you will in fact realize that you are not as spectacularly, effortlessly brilliant as your Mom led you to believe.  But the good news is that you can’t, and don’t have to be, good at everything.  What matters is what you do when confronted with these abrupt confirmations of your own vulnerability, inadequacy, ultimate meaninglessness, untreatable athlete’s foot, etc.

Oppenheimer ended up moving to Germany to become a golden god of theoretical physics.  Those of us with slightly more pedestrian brains don’t have that option.  But all but the very lucky or delusional will have to make similar choices.  We can either plow ahead, camouflage our deficiencies and become consumed by desperately trying not to be found a fraud, or we can embrace our own particular level of incompetence and harness it.

I know there’s a special kind of marrow-level sadness that accompanies the end of what, for many of us, was a prolonged period of adolescent self-regard.  But there are few people who go on to do great things without abandoning this egoistic perception of their own intelligence.  Even if you’re the second coming of Eve Brensike-Primus, there’s value in assuming the position of the dull student and asking questions accordingly.  Hell, even Socrates is believed to have said, “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”  Now, you can quibble with the meaning of the phrase in context all you want, but I’m choosing to give the middle finger to the intentional fallacy and use it here in accordance with its popular deployment in countless self-help books.

For all their faults, many of the students often derided as gunners are on to something.  The first year of law school is full of collections of simple words that give way to entire subfields of incredibly complex scholarship.  Some of it is probably so much tenure-track onanism, but scholars in these areas aren’t completely inventing all of the difficulties in deciphering phrases like “to regulate Commerce.” The law isn’t rocket science, but neither is it tiddlywinks, and a merely superficial understanding of a deceptively simple concept will frequently manifest itself further up the pyramid where the really interesting and important stuff is happening.  So, follow the lead of your local gunner: take a foundational concept and assume, if necessary, that you’re too dense to understand it.  Ask questions, break it apart, roll it around up there.

To unburden oneself from this idea that you either immediately get something and are smart or don’t and are a moron is really liberating.  There’s no shame in failing to understand something the first time around.  In fact, I would argue that a kind of willed idiocy is a virtue.  This can obviously be taken to an extreme, and I wouldn’t recommend walking into Kroger and demanding to know why Grape Nuts have neither grapes nor nuts.  Some of our zany language’s logic-defying quirks are in fact better left a mystery.

But there’s a reason why that annoying, extroverted person in your Spanish class was able to learn things much more quickly.  For better or worse, they weren’t worried about looking like a buffoon, like they didn’t know something.  And most areas of study are the same way.  If you can get rid of your preconceptions about what you’re supposed to be able to effortlessly understand and stop worrying about how that might directly reflect on your intellectual capacity, you will find a measure of comfort and, paradoxically, self-belief in the embrace of your own idiocy.