Playing small doesn’t serve the world

For me intelligence is one of the most beautiful things there is. To see that spark in someone’s eyes that shows they’re alive to the world, that they are dedicating themselves and whatever capacities they have to living life to the full. The delights of one of those conversations where two minds dance together in a world of ideas – serious or plain silly, it doesn’t matter – what matters is that living intelligence. The essence of humanity.

That light seems to shine brightest in young children, with their endless curiosity. I think it’s sad that, for some people, that light gets turned off as they grow up. They learn to feel stupid, or are told that certain interests are not for them. They are told not to ask certain questions, or give up asking questions because they never get answers.

Some types of elitism do have the effect of stifling that interest. But actually I think anti-elitism has a far more serious effect. In a society where knowledge and learning is valued but kept for the few, it is still there to be aspired to, and the excluded can fight for their just deserts. In a society where knowledge and learning is not valued, people learn to hide their intelligence in order to fit in. (I remember crying my eyes out on receiving the results of a school chemistry test – because I felt that everyone would hate me for getting full marks!). And this limits everyone. It strikes me as very patronising to dumb down for someone because it says implicitly or explicitly that their intelligence is insufficient to go any further.

Yes, some artforms or fields of study do require quite a bit of time and effort before you can really appreciate what is going on. But I do believe that often the difference between people who enjoy “elite” artforms and those who don’t is twofold – a feeling that it’s “not for people like them” and a lack of the experience needed to get into it. That’s not to say that they “ought to” enjoy these things… but I think it’s sad when people are cut off from things that they might enjoy for such limiting reasons.

I would like to live in a society filled with adults with the curious and unselfconscious fascination with the world that children have. A world where intellectual enquiry and pursuit of excellence is valued – not just because of the results, but because of the journey. Where everyone, regardless of their basic intellectual capacity, is inspired to become more, to bring their own special qualities to fruition.

For me this is expressed beautifully in the very famous Nelson Mandela quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure….

“It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?…

“Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…

“And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

This post was inspired by the various posts on En tequila es verdad and Cafe philos about the new Carnival of Elitist Bastards.

I encourage you to follow up the links above – I think Dana’s still looking for more contributions now and in the future. In the meantime I thought this quote from Dana rather neatly explains what the carnival’s about:

“…Elitist Bastards, who have no trouble simultaneously being common as muck and smart as all get-out. We’re not a pretentious elite, but a more populist one. We think intelligence is something to be celebrated, but I doubt any of us think it’s something reserved to a select few, and we certainly don’t think it has to make you a stuffy, proper, boring git. Calling ourselves bastards is a joyful way of announcing we’re out to have fun with our elitist tendencies.”

The beautiful photo was taken by Jose Maria Tan and uploaded to flickr.


10 responses to “Playing small doesn’t serve the world

  1. Wow… simply, utterly, wow.

    This is it. This is what it’s all about.

    I can only quote Neil Gaiman, who was speaking of a Sandman story written by Susanna Clarke:

    “I wish I had written this story. But I’m even more pleased that I got to read it.”


    (And yes, absolutely right Dana’s still looking for submissions: now, in the future, and forever. Bring ’em on!)

  2. Hi Dana – glad it struck such a chord with you. I’m looking forward to reading the other articles… such an interesting idea for a carnival.

    Oh, and it’s always good to discover another Neil Gaiman fan! Not that there’s any real shortage!

  3. Yes, I’m afraid we are not encouraged to shine, and I know just what you mean about the light in the eyes of young children getting dimmed as they grow up and are made to fit in. Thanks for bringing out the Mandela quote again. It’s one we all ought to peruse every day.

    Actually, there’s a strange paradox: we are not encouraged to shine and yet at the same time, part of society is constantly egging us on to compete against one another, all this “be the best” type thing! I believe in being the best we can be, but I think competition is wrong. My feeling is that there is a balance to be found… or rather a different way of living that pursuit of excellence: it should be encouraged in all and the triumphs should be seen as collective. That is: whenever you accomplish something new and extraordinary, I should exult, because you are bringing us all to a new level and expanding our realm of possibilities. Such an attitude, if it were seriously cultivated among us, would not only free us from self-consciousness if we succeed, or from dejection if we feel we ought to be doing the same, it would actually make us all profit from everyone’s advances. For example, you may share with me the beauty of your singing progress, and I may share with you something totally different, like the joy of my dancing or any kind of positive success in whatever domain. But we are groomed in this current society to live too much as individuals: your happiness surely clouds mine! Personally, seeing others beam with joy, laugh, and enjoy whatever they are doing has always procurred me endless well-being. May you all be well and happy! 🙂

  4. I think the conflict arises when we are told that shining is a zero-sum game – that if one person shines the others must therefore be dim! Perhaps it starts with exam results in school – someone has to come top when you give out percentage results…

    And yet at the same time we instinctively feel bad about making others feel inadequate, and so all hide our lights under bushels.

    I love that Mandela quote for pointing out that it really doesn’t need to be so – as you say, a different way of living that pursuit of excellence!

    Writing this made me realise just how much I value intelligence, and especially playful intelligent conversation… it’s something I find particularly attractive in men. Have seriously been considering joining mensa when I get back to the UK… 😉

  5. What a beautiful article, Lirone! Thoughtful, graceful, and engaging. Thank you especially for this one!

  6. Pingback: Maiden Voyage « Words that sing

  7. That Mandela quote solidifies one of the most important things I’ve ever learned. And you’re absolutely right about competition – there’s this unwritten law that you are required to crush your competitors in order to get ahead, but it’s a complete fallacy. You’ll get infinitely further if you encourage and support others as much as you do (or ought to!) yourself.

    But as an aside, I think Mensa’s a joke of an organization. The only boundary between us “elitist bastards” and anyone else should be pure curiosity, not some arbtrary line-in-the-sand like IQ. Otherwise the anti-elitists probably have a good point.

  8. John – thanks for your comment.

    I love the Mandela quote – for me it’s inspiring because it challenges everyone to become their best, regardless of what that is, and regardless of how capable you feel.

    You could well be right about Mensa – having never been a member or knowingly met anyone who was, I don’t know much about it yet. If I find it’s full of people who are snobbish about high IQ, I suspect I won’t feel at all at home, but the only way I know to find out is to give it a try…

    Having said that, I don’t know of any groups that celebrate general non-IQ linked intellectual curiosity that I might explore instead… suggestions welcome!

  9. In contrast to all this inspiration, it could be that the reason some lights are hidden under bushels is not to avoid making other feel insecure, but to simply avoid the retributions of the insecure.

    The fear that your full marks on a chemistry test may incite cruelty or violence are all too often well founded. What one can expect to accomplish in such an environment is a sad thought.

    But I agree whole-heartedly with the idea of Elitist Bastards. Everyone likes a Devil-May-Care attitude that is subtly inclusive. Sure, the person may be saying things you can’t quite understand, but he’s also swilling a beer and belching to knock over the bleachers. Plus, it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a test later.

    That’s a person you can get behind, a Good Joe. And the different perspectives he has on things is kinda cool.

    It might rub off on ya.

  10. Great post.

    Just wanted to point out that the Mandela quote comes from a speech in which he quoted the true author of that passage.

    Her name is Marianne Williamson and it’s taken from her work, “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles”

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