Too Smart for Their Own Good

Most of us have heard the comment at one time or another that certain people are “too smart for their own good.” What does this mean? The best definition I have heard* is “high intelligence and low wisdom.” So here is an equation for you:

High intelligence + low wisdom = lack of self-discipline, which is an accurate description of a number of my students. And I have often found that the smarter and more coordinated they are, the lower the wisdom and self discipline. This not only makes teaching them quite challenging, it may also predict future problems for the student. Why?

The reasons a child may have for not wanting to practice the violin are myriad (including low wisdom), but among the “too smart for their own good” set there is an overriding one: because it’s hard – it may in fact be the first thing they have ever tried that is difficult and they don’t have the self-discipline to deal with it. Many students who have had some difficulty at school, such as having had to study a lot to understand mathematics, for example, don’t have much trouble applying themselves to practicing an instrument because they are used to dealing with problems and working hard to overcome them. They also have a realistic idea of their own abilities. The intellectually gifted students, however, present quite another story. Yes, they may study a lot, but it’s mostly “busy work” for them. They do not have to struggle to understand and complete their homework. They are used to things being easy. So what happens sometimes when they confront the difficulties of learning to play a musical instrument? They discover something that is hard for them and:

  1. They rise to the occasion, somewhat shocked at finding something difficult for the first time in their lives or:
  2. They decide that if it is difficult, an unusual experience for them, it must be because they don’t like it, so they give up the instrument and turn to something easy like advanced calculus or:
  3. Their self-confidence is so shaken by the possibility that there is something they are actually not capable of doing – a thought too horrific to consider – that they want to give up.

My academically gifted students usually fall into the latter two categories.

My point here is that ALL students should develop self-discipline, of course – but especially the intellectually gifted ones, because sooner or later everyone encounters some kind of road block. If we don’t have the mechanisms in place, such as self-discipline and a realistic faith in our already proven ability to overcome problems, we may run into trouble and flit about from one thing to another without ever realizing our potential. Remember the adage, “Use it or lose it.” Brain power is like a muscle. So is self-discipline. If you don’t exercise BOTH brains and discipline, which studying the violin will make you do, you may well lose the natural advantage that nature gave you in the first place.

I have a fifth-grade student who gets 10s (a perfect score) in all her subjects in elementary school. Here in Italy, they almost never give a 10 in anything, but with this little girl they have no choice. She is simply too good, head and shoulders above the others. Schoolwork is no problem for her. Neither are sports. She excels easily in any sport she tries. Did I say that she is also very good-looking? She was perfect in everything, never giving her teachers, trainers or parents a cause for concern – until she decided to play the violin. What happened then? With the first difficulty came tragedy, temper tantrums, and horrific fights with her mother. Why? Playing the violin is hard and she wasn’t used to anything that presented a real intellectual or physical challenge. She announced that she hated the violin, her mother, etc. After many phone consultations, I managed to convince her very worried parents (whose perfect child had turned into a virago) of the value of continuing and insisting on discipline and now, finally, the child is turning into little Miss Perfect on the violin too. Well, almost. She doesn’t practice enough but she has discovered the value of discipline and her own capacity for hard work. Really hard work. She knows now that she can conquer something difficult and not to give up at the first bump in the road.

To prove the point, her mother told me the other day that her daughter had just won a tennis tournament and that she was amazed at how completely calm and composed her child was during the whole thing – in total contrast to other contestants. “Sure,” I said. “What’s hard is playing a piece on your violin from memory and in public. What’s a tennis tournament by comparison?” The little girl just laughed and nodded her head in agreement.


*by Ethan Hein in


post author: Eloise Hellyer Registered & Protected  MSSU-D6QY-TKLN-JYT7

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17 August 2015

4 thoughts on “Too Smart for Their Own Good

  1. Virgil T. Morant

    That little girl reminds me quite of myself in my youth, except of course that I was not a girl and my instrument was the piano. And I was not good-looking … or intelligent. But, really, practically my identical twin, I tell you.

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Well that leaves only lack of discipline and temper tantrums that you have in common with her! Now if your mom had made you play the violin………..

      Seriously, thanks for your comment. By the way, I know you are very intelligent (I read your blog) and if you would just shave off that beard we could see for ourselves what an adorable little boy you were. So stop being so modest!!

  2. Edemir Rossi

    How brilliant is this blog. An everyday lesson for daily life. Reading this article we can see the wisdom and intelligence behind it. Analyzing our life we recognize that in all subjects we excel , it’s related with persistence and training. And I could overcome many areas I didn’t have the skill , neither intelligence or wisdom for that just using persistence and training. When I was younger I had the ability to understand complex texts of philosophy , psychology and spirituality. Could explain to friends in a simple away they could understand . But when invited to speak to a large auditorium I just got frozen. My mind was foggy and I was in panic . Had to leave the stage , excusing myself I was not feeling well. I was defeated by fear and panic and thought I’d never been able to speak in public. Better to write my ideas….but something inside me was just saying…you can overcome with training and persistence … And in all occasions my church , or philosophical circles or parties invited someone to talk , I was ready to jump on the stage and put myself at risk . Don’t need to say. After a while I was completely at easy playing my instrument to any audience . My voice…

    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Wow, I’m blushing!! Thanks so much for your kind comment. A lot of talent can really almost hold you back if you don’t get the discipline and hard work part down pat. Many teachers will tell you that the discipline and hard work are more important than the talent. Talent alone will not get you too far, but discipline and hard work will always help you amount to something. You didn’t play the violin as a youngster, did you? Thanks again.


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