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The True Meaning of “Stupid”

A cat questioning what "stupid" really means

Most people think “stupid” means being slow to learn, making lots of mistakes, struggling to remember things, or having a hard time figuring out problems.

I disagree.

I think these are normal human difficulties that all have mechanical solutions – the tools and strategies that can be implemented to overcome them.

What’s actually “stupid” is choosing not to use these things. It’s stupid to ignore the available resources. It’s stupid to reject help when it’s offered. It’s stupid to refuse to use the techniques and tactics that have been proven to help with learning and problem-solving. It’s stupid to avoid trying to learn from your mistakes.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging anyone who does this. In fact, we all do it from time to time. Nobody gets through life without occasionally being stupid.

It’s just that the point of school isn’t to show off how smart you are (or avoid looking stupid). You’re not supposed to just breeze through it using whatever genetic gifts you happen to be endowed with.

The true purpose of school is to develop a stronger brain while learning to be resourceful and proactive in the face of diverse challenges. You gradually get smarter by engaging with those challenges. And you instantly get a great deal smarter when you use helpful resources and effective strategies.

It’s okay to be confused when you’re learning something new. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to be a beginner. These are inevitable parts of going through school and growing up. When they happen, you’ll probably feel embarrassed that you look stupid. Other people might judge you and look down on you. But that will pass.

Don’t be afraid to look stupid. But please do your best to avoid being stupid in the sense that I’ve described here. Use the tools that are available to you. Be proactive. Accept good advice when it’s offered. And seek out help when you need it. As long as you’re doing those things, you can be sure that you’re actually being quite smart.

Why Calculus is Hard

A blackboard with calculus work in progress

Calculus is widely regarded as a very hard math class, and with good reason. The concepts take you far beyond the comfortable realms of algebra and geometry that you’ve explored in previous courses. Calculus asks you to think in ways that are more abstract, requiring more imagination. You have to wrestle with new vocabulary, new symbols, and new processes. The problems are often longer and more involved, sometimes taking a full page or more of written work to complete.

Those are the obvious reasons why calculus is hard. But there’s more to it than that.

The Main Reason Calculus is Hard

In my experience as a tutor, the primary reason calculus is so difficult is that it is sitting atop an upside-down pyramid of previous math concepts. Calculus ties together everything you’ve learned (or were supposed to have learned) in algebra, geometry, and precalculus, as well as the more basic math from elementary and middle school.

Everyone accumulates knowledge gaps as they progress through math, and for many students, calculus is the course where these gaps finally come back to haunt them. At the same time that they’re trying to learn the new, weird concepts that make calculus what it is, they’re also struggling with all the old things they don’t know. This makes new concepts more confusing. It makes it hard to keep up with lectures. And it makes doing the problems very challenging.

Why do students have so many knowledge gaps?

First of all, the way our school system does math makes knowledge gaps inevitable. Let’s say the average student finishes a typical math class with an 80%. We say to them, “You got at B-. Not bad. Now move on to the next course.” So next year, they start out missing 20% of the information they’re supposed to know! We do this year after year, until their math knowledge pyramid looks like Swiss cheese.

But it’s worse than that, of course, because students routinely forget things that they used to know. The mastery path is a muddy slope, so even if you understand a concept at test time, you’ll quickly forget it without additional practice. This forgetting happens during the school year as well as over the summer.

And right now, in 2022, knowledge gaps are at an all-time high because students didn’t learn as much as they were supposed to during COVID. So if you’re going into calculus this fall, you can be sure that you have knowledge gaps that are going to make your life difficult.

Don’t be ashamed of your knowledge gaps.

You might be ashamed to admit that you don’t remember quadratics or trigonometry, but it’s okay. I’ve worked with calculus students who didn’t know how to do basic algebra. I’ve worked with calculus students who didn’t know how to add or multiply fractions. I’ve worked with calculus students who didn’t know their multiplication facts.

Having these gaps doesn’t make calculus impossible, but it does make it a great deal more difficult. So if you’re about to take calculus, or even if you’re in the middle of the course, consider hopping on Khan Academy and patching up some of the holes in your math knowledge. Yes, it’s extra work now, but it will make things easier for you in the future.

Don’t be ashamed of your knowledge gaps; deal with them. If you do, calculus won’t be quite so hard. You’ll avoid slipping into a downward spiral of math avoidance by transforming this daunting course into a manageable, even enjoyable, challenge.

Ditch Body Image Issues by Focusing on Brain Health

A family gathered in the kitchen around healthy snacks.

A Valid Concern

We recently brought up the importance of eating well and exercising in our first Parenting for Academic Success class, and we got an interesting piece of feedback.

One of the parents was concerned that talking to her teenage daughters about diet and exercise could exacerbate their body image insecurities. And she’s not alone. Many parents, especially those with teenage girls are rightly concerned about body-image issues like unrealistic standards, low self-esteem, and eating disorders.

a teenage girl looking at herself in the mirror self-consciously

Even though we were only talking about the academic benefits of healthy habits, this parent’s response made sense since we normally frame eating well and exercising around how they impact your body. It’s hard to imagine talking about these things without referencing one’s appearance. We all know that people work out and avoid junk food in order to lose weight, get fit, and look attractive.

But getting in shape is only one of the many benefits of good nutrition and regular exercise. And it’s far better – and less problematic – to focus exclusively on how these healthy habits benefit your brain.

Focus on Brain Health

fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

Eating lots of vegetables and fruits gives your brain the micronutrients it needs to thrive. Meanwhile, highly processed foods, trans fats, and sugar are all harmful to the brain, so they should be limited or avoided. Nutritious meals that contain a mix of complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, fiber, and protein provide your brain with steady fuel, making it easier to learn and focus. Eating well can even make you feel happier.1

(For a deep dive into all things brain food, click here.)

Likewise, exercise is tremendously good for your brain. It helps you handle stress,2 improves your cognitive performance, and gives you longer mental endurance.3 Exercise is also excellent for your mental health, boosting happiness while reducing depression and anxiety.4 In other words, if you work out, you’ll simply have a better day.

Two people jogging and looking happy

(For a deep dive into all the brain benefits of exercise, click here.)

Leave the Body Out of It

The impact these healthy habits have on your body doesn’t ever need to be mentioned. What’s good for the brain is also good for the body, so if you’re taking care of your brain, your body will naturally benefit too.

This strategy allows parents to talk about the value of eating well and exercising without triggering the body-image issues that so many young people have. And there’s also another enormous benefit to thinking about nutrition and exercise in terms of brain health: motivation.

Brain Health is a Better Motivator

Losing weight and building muscle takes a long time, so if those are your reasons for eating well and exercising, you’ll need a lot of patience and willpower to keep up the regimen. Most of us just aren’t very good at delayed gratification.

But if your motivation to eat well and exercise is to boost your brain health, you’ll get to feel those benefits today, and that immediate reward makes it easier to do it again tomorrow. Indeed, researchers have found that people who exercise to feel good work out more often than people who exercise to look good.5

Modeling

You can also lead your children toward this lifestyle without ever directly talking to them about it. As all parents of teenagers know, the most well-reasoned and kindly delivered advice can be met with vicious resistance. The alternative strategy is modeling.

a mom doing yoga at home as her toddler tries to copy her moves

When you exercise and choose healthy foods, why do you do it? Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that the most powerful reason is to have a healthier brain.

Live that lifestyle and relish how good you feel when you do, thereby setting an example for your kids to follow. Don’t expect your behavior to immediately rub off on them, but trust that it is having a positive impact.

And when you inevitably falter, that’s an opportunity for modeling too. Don’t get upset about how you look in the mirror or the number on the bathroom scale. Instead, notice how your brain’s performance has slipped – how you think and feel worse – and use that as the motivation to get back on track.

And should you have an opening to speak with your kids (or simply in the presence of your kids) about why you choose to eat well and exercise, don’t talk about getting in shape or losing weight; talk about all the benefits you enjoy when you take good care of your brain.

1 Aubele, Teresa, and Susan Reynolds. “Have You Fed Your Brain Today?” Psychology Today. September 7, 2011.

“Exercise fuels the brain’s stress buffers.” American Psychological Association.

Hospital, Craig. “Exercise and Your Brain.” 

Monroe, Jamison Jr. “Get Moving: The Benefits of Exercise for Teen Mental Health.” US News & World Report. May 28, 2018.

5 Segar, Michelle, Ph.D. No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. AMACOM, 2015.