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.

Teachers Are Human Too

A tired teacher trying her best to manage everything

I’ve often written about the need to give yourself and others permission to be human. Normally, the message is for students – that it’s okay to be a beginner, to make mistakes, and to ask for help. Or the message is for parents – that it’s okay to not be a perfect parent or to feel frustrated by how difficult parenting can be.

This time around, the message is for both students and parents, but it’s about teachers. Teachers are human too. So just as you must strive to give yourself permission to be imperfect, please do the same for teachers.

Teachers make mistakes.

They misspell things. They misspeak. They misplace things. They lose things. They forget things. They have bad days. All of this is normal and completely okay, so when it happens, don’t get upset with them. If you want them to be kind to you when you screw up, extend that same kindness to them.

Teachers are busy.

They’re short on time. They have lives outside of school. Granted, they spend much of that time planning lessons and grading, but they even have lives outside of that. Don’t expect instantaneous grade updates. Be patient. And just because you can message them outside of school hours doesn’t mean they’re obligated to reply right away.

Communicate.

Teachers can’t read your mind, and you can’t read theirs. Sometimes instructions or questions will be written in a confusing manner. Ask clarifying questions. Sometimes it won’t be clear why you received the grade you did. Ask for better feedback.

When you need help, ask. Show that you care by paying attention in class, taking notes, and attempting the homework. Do so, and they’ll be much more inclined to help you. Be nice to them, and they’ll probably be nice to you in return. It’s human nature to reciprocate.

Be kind.

Give them the benefit of the doubt, especially if you want them to give you the same. Assume they’re trying their best. Don’t assume they’re out to get you. Instead, assume they’d like to help you because, odds are, they do. And if it becomes clear that one of your teachers really isn’t trying their best and really doesn’t want to help you, remember that even bad teachers come with an upside.

How to Stop Being Ashamed of Failure

a ginger cat covering its face in shame

Failure is never fun, but it doesn’t have to be a source of shame. If you fail at something, it doesn’t make you a failure; it’s an event, not an identity. And we all fail, so why not give yourself permission to be human?

In Everything Is Figureoutable, Marie Forleo offers a lovely way of redefining failure:

F.A.I.L. = “Faithful Attempt In Learning”1

So when we fail, we can understand that it just means we were attempting to grow. Growth is often a struggle, and that struggle often involves failure, but it’s worth it. Remember, struggle makes you stronger.

As I’ve said before, mistakes and failures are learning opportunities – they’re actually good. That doesn’t mean they feel good, but if we understand their value, then we can feel a little better about them. Learning requires risk, and sometimes learning hurts (and not just when you fall off your bike).

So move forward with both humility and confidence: the humility to know you’ll sometimes fail and the confidence to know that you’ll eventually figure it out.

Don’t avoid failure and don’t fear it. When you inevitably do fail, don’t be ashamed. Instead, heed the wisdom of Samuel Beckett:

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

1 Forleo, Marie. Everything Is Figureoutable. Porfolio, 2019.

2  Schlottman, Andrea. Samuel Beckett: Fail Better and “Worstward Ho!”