Does a degree measure intelligent?
July 9, 2013 8:13 AM   Subscribe

About a week ago I went through this horrible self-esteem crisis. It occurred to me that almost everyone I know has a degree from a university, but that I do not. In an organization I am a member of, everyone there is a lawyer, professor, teacher, engineer, etc., and the friends I have all have Bachelor's or Master's degrees. Here I am with no degree and having dropped out of three universities – it makes me feel like such a failure. In the next two weeks I'll be starting truck driving school – I feel like it is something I can do and be successful at? – but I still have accomplished nothing that compares to a degree!

People tell me I am intelligent (including those educated friends and members of that said organization), and I like to think I am somewhat knowledgeable on what interests me: I can recite all the world's capital cities in alphabetical order in about 3 minutes or I can type each country's name with correct spelling in about 6 minutes; I write articles (mostly on foreign policy) for a nationally distributed newspaper; I have about 30 feet of world maps and at least two dozen international flags; I raise tarantulas, true spiders, centipedes, and scorpions, with a strong interest in tarantulas of the subfamily Ornithoctoninae; I collect insects and do insect photography, with one of my photos coming in 2nd place in a competition; I taught myself chess when I was 12 and was known for my chess abilities in high school; and things like that.

But because I don't have a degree like all these other people, I feel like none of this matters and that I must be too stupid to be successful, and it makes me want to hide somewhere or put a paper bag on my face in shame for not having one.

When I am asked about why I stress so much about this, the answer to that is that I feel I am nothing if not intelligent, that I have no other redeeming or worthwhile attributes if I am not intelligent. I am not attractive, funny, social, charming, or anything like that, hence intelligence is possibly the only strength I have, and if I don't have that, I have no purpose or value whatsoever. The thought of everyone around me thinking of me as stupid or appearing stupid and uneducated to others is a worst nightmare scenario for me.

I've been told that it is possible my mental health issues and disabilities could have made it difficult for me to be successful at university – I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome/PDD, OCD, severe anxiety, major depression, PTSD, and I have a history of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and self-harm. When I was a child, I used to be beaten with belts, fists, and threatened for making mistakes in school by my dad, and so I became an extreme perfectionist at an earlier age. The thought of making a mistake or failing is unbearable to me.

Also, in addition to the perfectionism, I see myself only as valuable as what I have accomplished. If I receive a 60% on an assignment, it must mean I am worth 60%, not the assignment. Having or not having a degree must add or decrease my value as a person. What use am I if I have no accomplishments? The equation in my mind is like this: Degree = Valuable or Success. Me + Degree = Valuable or Successful Me. Or like this: 60% = Failure. Me + 60% = I am a failure. My therapist says it doesn't make sense but it does to me.

So, I conclude, can I be intelligent without a degree? How do I definitively know if I am intelligent or not? (If it helps I am 22 years old.) I feel like a useless failure.

(Please don't advise me about the need for medication or counseling – I have done 5 years of speech therapy, 10 years of behavioral therapy, over a month being institutionalized, and I am on medication.)
posted by 8LeggedFriend to Society & Culture (80 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Supposed to be 'intelligence' – I CAN'T BELIEVE I DID THAT!
posted by 8LeggedFriend at 8:14 AM on July 9, 2013 [22 favorites]

OMG, there are a million and one factors completely unrelated to intelligence that keep people from obtaining degrees. And if there's anything that working with college students has taught me, it's that many, many, oh, so many truly dumb people manage to get even advanced degrees from prestigious institutions every year, if their life circumstances are right. Yeah, it sucks mightily not having qualifications, but you can lay to rest any doubts you may have about them being intrinsically linked to individual intelligence.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 8:20 AM on July 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

A degree measures your ability to attend and complete college. That is all. I don't have a degree, my job title is "senior software engineer" at a large Internet company.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:20 AM on July 9, 2013 [27 favorites]

But because I don't have a degree like all these other people, I feel like none of this matters and that I must be too stupid to be successful, and it makes me want to hide somewhere or put a paper bag on my face in shame for not having one.

Before the invention of 'degrees', was every person on earth an idiot?
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:20 AM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

no, a degree proves nothing about IQ. Just hardwork, dedication, time, and $$$$$$$$.

Maybe check into Imposter Syndrome?

And be gentle on yourself, my friend. Pursuing perfection is a pretty futile and exhausting process that can kill you pretty quickly.
posted by Jacen at 8:21 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I have a PhD.

I don't hang out with dumb people. They irritate and exhaust me, and I separate myself from dumb people as quickly as possible and move on to doing more pleasant things.

I hang out with plenty of people who don't have degrees.
posted by BrashTech at 8:23 AM on July 9, 2013 [22 favorites]

Of course someone can be intelligent without a degree. You're doing it right now, if this eloquent question is any indication.
Plus, you sound interesting as hell, and curious about the world, which has been a lot more useful to me than any degree.
posted by Lemmy Caution at 8:23 AM on July 9, 2013 [6 favorites]

I can recite all the world's capital cities in alphabetical order in about 3 minutes or I can type each country's name with correct spelling in about 6 minutes; I write articles (mostly on foreign policy) for a nationally distributed newspaper; I have about 30 feet of world maps and at least two dozen international flags...

Some of these things are impressive, others less so. The important thing is that it is very good for your happiness and mental health to have strong interests and things that you truly enjoy doing for its own sake, rather than for how impressive it is to others (who probably will never fully appreciate the value of your particular interests anyhow).
posted by goethean at 8:24 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

I've been told that it is possible my mental health issues and disabilities could have made it difficult for me to be successful at university – I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome/PDD, OCD, severe anxiety, major depression, PTSD, and I have a history of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and self-harm. When I was a child, I used to be beaten with belts, fists, and threatened for making mistakes in school by my dad, and so I became an extreme perfectionist at an earlier age. The thought of making a mistake or failing is unbearable to me.

Well, ok, you said not to advise you on therapy, etc., but this is like asking "How do I be less upset with my leg hurting?" when you have a broken leg.

I guess outside of finding a better therapist, cultivate things that you really are good at, and learn to feel good about them. Buddhism is also nice for learning how to deal with stuff you can't change or control.

If it helps any, I sometimes feel bad about myself because I "just" have a degree and no real accomplishments. Anybody can get a degree and it really doesn't mean anything anymore.
posted by bleep at 8:26 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Consider this: if Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei did not have degrees, do you think they would have been any less intelligent?

What use am I if I have no accomplishments?

For what it's worth, just from reading this post I believe you to be interesting and accomplished and would sure as hell stand you a pint (or a cup of coffee) to sit and talk to you about spiders and foreign policy and all sorts of shit for hours. You've been through some really tough stuff and you're coming out the other side intact. Believe me, you are valuable.
posted by fight or flight at 8:27 AM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

Equating a degree to either intellect or success is a line of thinking flawed in its premise. Also, for what it's worth, the only people I've ever met who give a flying rat's ass what degree other people have are people without degrees.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:27 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Consider that one reason why some people put such importance in degrees is that they spent four to ten years of their life and tens of thousands of dollars in order to get the degree. Yes, they are going to consider having a degree important -- look at how much it cost them!
posted by goethean at 8:27 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

In the computer world it is super common for extremely highly paid people with a ton of responsibility to not have college degrees. Any interest?
posted by miyabo at 8:29 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

You don't have a degree? That means you dont have student loans...and are therefore one of the smartest people I know.
posted by Busmick at 8:29 AM on July 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

Do you realize how many stupid people there are out there with degrees? A degree by itself measures only that someone lasted 4 years somewhere and has a massive pile of debt.

Learning doesn't only mean something if you learn it at a university and get a sheepskin for it. Learning is valuable independently of that.
posted by inturnaround at 8:30 AM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

...and those with degrees may have been somewhat indoctrinated that their field of study (literature, art, etc) is inherently important. So they may look down on people who know nothing of literature and art. But contrariwise, they probably know nothing about Ornithoctoninae, which is also (I presume) fascinating and important.
posted by goethean at 8:31 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

And a persons 'value' is dependent on far, far more than looks, successes, or fancy pieces of paper. Some of these are some of the benchmarks that some people use to mark successes and status, but they are far from the only ones. I know people who have been spoon fed through fancy schools and destined to be a firefighter or clerk, and incredibly kind, nice and smart people with very little formal schooling or money who do a ton of good in the world.

Your father put unreasonable and impossible expectations on you because he had his own issues. You are carrying these issues into your future. I know it can be extremely hard to shake these childhood learnings, but the more you can rebuild and repair your foundations, the better life you can build for yourself in the future. You don't have to be perfect. You don't even have to be smart all the time. You are you, and you is a unique, interesting individual. You can forgive yourself for mistakes; nobody is perfect, nobody is hyper vigilant, and we are all humans, doing human things. It is ok to like and love yourself, despite any flaws you may or may not have.

May you find your peace.
posted by Jacen at 8:33 AM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

The equation in my mind is like this: Degree = Valuable or Success
This equation is the problem. As others have said there are plenty of morons that have degrees. And plenty of really intelligent successful people who don't (Bill Gates, Facebook Guy). And also plenty of happy successful people who are not famous and multi-millionaires.
Doing what makes you happy and doing it well = valuable or success.
posted by Busmick at 8:38 AM on July 9, 2013

You don't have a degree? That means you dont have student loans...and are therefore one of the smartest people I know.

This is not true at all. Ask any college junior.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:39 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm friends with people who have PhDs from Ivy League schools. I've occasionally expressed intimidation at their credentials, and they've all said something to the effect of, "oh, the degree means Nothing - you could have done the same". I don't know if that's true, but I know that it's true that one of the smartest, most knowledgeable (on certain subjects), most interesting, most self-reliant person I ever met was a woman who was ashamed that she'd never gone past 8th grade education.
posted by ldthomps at 8:39 AM on July 9, 2013

In my early 20's degrees were very important. A standard ice-breaker conversation would start with "so where do you go to school?" I am in my 30's now and no one cares that you got an anthropology degree ten years ago. When you are in the education game it seems like the only smart thing to do. But you later realize that things like work, family and what you do with you life are much more interesting.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:40 AM on July 9, 2013

To paraphrase Nick Hornby's line, 'graduating university is as easy as having a birthday -- stick around long enough, and it just happens'.

Having or not having a degree is not in itself a measure of intelligence. Having a degree means only that, because of whatever agreeable circumstances, you were able to stick around long enough.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:40 AM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Another thing...going to college (degree or not) often gives people a certain way of talking, acting, and writing that makes them sound smart. This is more being a member of a certain social class, and is not a function of intelligence, but is very commonly strongly associated with intelligence.
posted by goethean at 8:41 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

As I was reading your post, the parallel to women's issues struck me. Many women, indeed at one time most all women, were taught that something was wrong with them if they didn't have a husband and children. Then the marriage/family route became one choice among many. Without addressing the reasons you didn't achieve a degree, which is presumably being addressed in conjunction with your therapist, it seems that you made a choice (perhaps unconsciously) not to achieve a degree. This is as fine a choice as the choice to obtain a degree. At least at this time, it is apparently the right choice for you because it's the choice you made. Other people make different choices. So what?
posted by DrGail at 8:41 AM on July 9, 2013

Companies in the US can't give IQ tests or aptitude tests as a condition of employment, so they resorted to using college degrees as a substitute. I know plenty of people in film--mainly "below-the-line" workers who make a ton of money, have great careers and are creative as hell, who don't have degrees in anything much less film. Truck driving school is a good way to get a job that pays you decent wages, and then you can use your talents for whatever interests you.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:41 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

8LeggedFriend: "So, I conclude, can I be intelligent without a degree? How do I definitively know if I am intelligent or not?"

Of course you can. My grandfather never finished 8th grade, but nevertheless built a very successful business that provided for his family for many, many years. I've known a good number of folks (especially in the IT field) who never got a degree but were nevertheless very, very good at what they did. And I've known folks with degrees who couldn't find their own asses if you handed them a map.
posted by jquinby at 8:42 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some of the things that matter most in life are how well you treat other people and how much of your own potential you develop. There are many ways to do both of those things. A degree is usually a means to an end, and in many cases (but not all of course) that end can be achieved in different ways. People often point out that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn't finish college. There are also tons of examples of people who "only" had a degree from a middling university and achieved great things. There are just so many ways to reach your potential. The famous mathematician Paul Erdős was said to have never had a real home his entire adult life but instead was an academic vagabound. Reaching your potential can be done in your own way. In fact must be done in your own way.
posted by Dansaman at 8:44 AM on July 9, 2013

I don't have a degree --- heck, unless you count a children's concert at UConn one Saturday afternoon when I was 8 yrs old, I've never even gone to a college --- and I like to think I'm not stupid. I have a niece who attended college for seven years (what can I say: she enjoyed college) until her father refused to pay for an eighth year; she has a degree, and is assistant manager of a coffee shop.

"Intelligence" or IQ is merely one way of expressing a person's potential, not their success.
posted by easily confused at 8:45 AM on July 9, 2013

As I have said before on the site, academic degrees now stand in relation to learning as a knighthood does to the historical image of a knight: there is a chance that Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Paul McCartney might be good at the joust, but it is not required. Some of the most fascinating, articulate, thoughtful, succesful people I know are untouched by any degree; conversely, I know some dolts who have post-graduate degrees. I can see no correlation.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 8:45 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

A college class I'm teaching has a bunch of "non-traditional" students. These are successful people who didn't land in college immediately after high school. Some of them are taking a full time college course load, but others are taking one course at a time. As a professor, I really respect and enjoy non-traditional students.

I agree with everyone who says that a degree is not an indicator of success or intelligence. I also encourage you to pursue a degree if it interests you. There's no reason to think that door is closed to you. There are plenty of people who complete degrees when they are able to do so. (Online is one option, but a local university that has good student support systems would be my first choice. Real time with your peers and professors sounds like a better fit for you than going it alone online.)
posted by 26.2 at 8:45 AM on July 9, 2013

Andrew Carnegie was a bobbin boy in a textile factory and never even finished elementary school yet wound up one of the wealthiest and most powerful men on earth.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:46 AM on July 9, 2013

Many people have covered the basics here and it is pretty common for people of college age back in the late 90s to get swept off to incredibly high paying jobs that they stopped their studied. I have several friends who have went back to school at nights taking a class or two at a time to finally get that certificate. I don't see why you couldn't do the same. Perhaps taking a class or two at the time would be easier for you to manage and if you go to a local school it may not end up costing you all that much to finish your degree.
posted by mmascolino at 8:47 AM on July 9, 2013

I have two Bachelor's degrees. I can say, with conviction and honesty, that getting those degrees was way more about jumping through hoops and showing up than it was about being smart.
posted by gursky at 8:48 AM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

People who have degrees are socialized to display and measure intelligence in certain ways - they may or may not be able to recognize intelligence in people without degrees, they will talk in certain ways about "difficult" topics because they have been socialized to conduct those conversations in certain ways; they will at times mistake the format of "intelligent" conversation for actual intelligence. Think of them as people who speak a different language of intelligence than you. (And they probably do speak a different kind of language - I've certainly observed this difference between friends without degrees and me, and again between me and friends with graduate degrees.) Their language colors their perceptions just as your language colors yours.

Honestly, getting a college degree or a graduate degree can boost the complexity of your thinking, it can form you as a scholar in productive ways. Getting a degree can, if you work hard, give you some intense time to study in a community of like minds, a time to be mentored by people who have skills and expertise that you don't, a time to challenge yourself in ways that are very hard to manage in the workaday world. That doesn't have much to do with intelligence, per se, and you can also get a degree and come out of it without having been challenged, without having been formed as a scholar or with only a sham grasp of a bunch of jargon.

Also, if you're 22 and everyone around you has a PhD - well, you would need to have been a super-duper genius to have a PhD by the time you're 22 anyway, so no point in fussing.

Two things occur to me: First, is there any particular reason you can't get a degree given the proper support? You're 22, and that's still pretty young. Why not say that you're going to spend a couple of years getting more settled in your personality, do some serious thinking about what kind of support you need to succeed in school and then try again? Honestly, sometimes returning students are the best students, because they have more maturity and focus.

Second: in the event that you don't get a degree, why not focus on what a non-degreed person brings to the table? You know the world in a different way from people who have been shaped by academia. Your approach to "intelligence" is going to be different - this means that you will have new ideas and tackle problems from different angles; it means that when you sit down and read a difficult text, for example, you're going to have perceptions and insights that simply will not occur to someone who is reading the same text in a way that has been heavily shaped by academic practice. Non-academic and non-professional intellectuals are actually incredibly valuable, and it's a huge shame that our society supports so few of them. You might want to consider Allan Berube, the author of Coming Out Under Fire and - more importantly than that - probably the founding figure of community GLBTQ history. I have no idea if he ever graduated college, but he had no advanced degree, was not a trained historian and yet was insanely important as a scholar. Samuel Delany, Possibly The Most Important SF Author of the Mid/Late 20th Century, has no college degree at all, although he's probably collected an honorary PhD or two by now.

How can you know that you are intelligent? Really, only by what you do - and then only through a glass darkly. I've met people with all the trappings of intelligence - advanced degrees, lofty positions - who did not strike me as intelligent at all, or were intelligent only in a very narrow band. A lot of people tend to think that I'm pretty smart and have urged me to pursue various smart-person lines of work or scholarship...and yet what have I done? I'm a secretary with an anxiety disorder.

If I may give a gratuitous piece of advice: do everything you can to turn off that chant of "I am not good-looking, athletic, charming, etc, or anything but intelligent, that's all I have going for me". That's what I used to tell myself quite literally from the age of eight - I have old diary entries to back this up - and I got into a habit of repeating it to myself. What makes a human have worth is a larger question than one can sort out here...but it does you no good to reiterate that thought to yourself.

Now that I think about it, I went through a particularly stupid crisis in my twenties over whether I was intelligent and made some foolish life decisions. It sounds as though, if you're employed as a journalist, you're not making the same foolish decisions ("I must be stupid after all, I will never amount to anything, let's work in a call center even though other jobs are available!!!") so keep that up, anyway.
posted by Frowner at 8:52 AM on July 9, 2013 [11 favorites]

As someone who will have a PhD in a couple years and who knows a lot of very smart people, book smarts are overrated (valuable for many things, but still overrated relative to other personal qualities) and a degree is neither a guarantee nor a necessity for intelligence.

The hyperfocus on intelligence is concerning and if I were you I'd work on fixing that rather than worrying about your intelligence level, whatever it may be. Things like social skills and perseverance are far more relevant to success than intelligence is, and they are things that you can improve with effort.
posted by randomnity at 8:53 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have both an undergraduate and graduate degree and I can state unequivocally that they are not a measure of intelligence, of probability of success or anything other than I completed the necessary course work to earn the degree.

Do not define yourself by your job or your degree. Intelligence can certainly be a helpful thing, but I have seen some very successful people who are not particularly intelligent beyond the specialized talent or information needed for their jobs. Heck, one of my roommates one year in college is now a successful doctor and he had the least amount of common sense of any human being I ever encountered.

Intelligence is what it is and has nothing to do with a degree. I consider myself to be fairly intelligent and can tell you that my undergraduate gpa is only reflective of how much effort I put in, not how smart I may have been.

Along the lines of what you are doing, I have a good friend that is a route driver for Frito Lay. He delivers potato chips and the like to grocery stores. He graduated number two in my high school. He got into some very competitive colleges. He chose to play in a band and work for "a few years" rather than go right to college. He is still working and never went to college. He chose a life that was simpler for him yet gave him the freedom to pursue his love of playing music. Guy has one of the highest IQs of anyone I know.

There are lots of different types of intelligence. While some may think it is nice to be recognized for having some, others could not give a flying fuck about it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:54 AM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Having a college degree is not a measure of intelligence. That said, for many people, if you have a degree or not is a proxy for intelligence.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 8:54 AM on July 9, 2013

Well, I could tell you you can be intelligent without a degree (you can) and that you are wonderfully and fearfully made (you were) and that you were not put on this earth to hate yourself like this (you weren't) and that it's obvious that there is a host of psychological issues preventing you from getting out what's inside (it is) and that, even if you somehow don't have it in you to get a degree (some people don't, I think you probably do, but it's not my call) that that doesn't make you stupid (it doesn't) nor "less than" in any way (it doesn't).

But I wonder if this might resonate with you: I did get my degree the first time around, but it wasn't a good one, and I had been expected to do exceptionally well. Without going into details, I completely missed out not only on fulfilling my potential but on all the things that are supposed to make student life worthwhile.

For a long time afterwards, this was like having a hole in my chest, and yeah it was about self-esteem and stuff, but also, it was about getting out what's inside. I knew I could do more than I'd done, so it hurt to feel the difference between what I knew I was capable of on the inside and what I had put out into the outside world.

Time passed, I got diagnosis and treatment, I got a Master's degree with distinction, that beat the pants off that disappointing first degree, and some time after that the same university started paying me to do research for them, with which they are well pleased. So, I feel much better about it all. Not simply about getting a better degree, but about having done something unequivocal.

I am not saying that you will - or even should go on and get all manner of degrees and will then feel better about yourself. I think that could happen, based on the way you write, but I also think you could go a different way and do equally well.

What I am saying is that, I think you know you are capable of doing better than you have so far, and you will therefore have a certain amount of dissatisfaction about that until you start to get a handle on things and your ability to achieve.

You know what someone said to me when I was at a low ebb? They said "you have a right to be here". Well, you have a right to be here. With all your faults and fears.

I think truck driving school is a great idea and a good thing to start you off. Good luck with that! Please don't listen to any of your anxieties that tell you you should be doing something else or that truck school isn't good enough or whatever. Just focus on this first and after that remember that things will shape themselves. Figuring this stuff out is going to take a few years, not a few months, but you're off to a good start already so be patient with yourself.

(((((Hugs, bro.))))) You have a right to be here.
posted by tel3path at 8:55 AM on July 9, 2013 [16 favorites]

No, there is no strong correlation between having a degree and being intelligent. My husband dropped out of school at age 14, got his GED, and never went to college. He's been a senior-level manager at [big software company you have definitely heard of] for over 13 years now. He's fascinated by the world, constantly reading and learning new things, challenging norms, and generally being a brilliant person.

Meanwhile, I have a Masters degree from a prestigious university and I choose to spend my free time watching videos of cats on Youtube, and the last thing I read in detail was a lengthy debate about something stupid on Facebook. I hate keeping up with politics and world news or debating important social questions. I'm not saying I'm stupid, but just that I'm not exactly living the life of an intellectual just because I have a degree.
posted by joan_holloway at 8:58 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

A degree doesn't mean anything. I have two, a bachelors and a masters. Neither of them have factored into my career, at all.

What I am paid to do, I taught myself or was formally trained by my employer. The degrees just mean that a prospective employer can tick a box (Has MBA--tick!)

My MBA program was one of those things, you got out of it what you put into it. I graduated with some real idiots. Serious, dumbasses. I've worked for dumbasses. It happens every day.

So you're not cut out for college, it's not at all indicitive of your intelligence.

But you don't believe me. Keep going to therapy, keep taking your meds. Keep reading what interests you.

One day, you'll either not care what other people think, or you'll finally believe what you already know to be true, that you have a good head on your shoulders.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:01 AM on July 9, 2013

What a coincidence. I didn't have a degree (dropped out of 3 different schools) and I felt really terrible about it, and then I went to truck driving school because I thought I could be successful at it.

I was wrong. Learning to drive a truck was really fun. I was good at it, too. But actually driving for a company was a nightmare. The pay is terrible. It is all but impossible to keep a legal log and get your loads there on time. Get used to never sleeping, showering, or eating nutritious food. You will spend all your money on crap at truck stops. If you make any mistakes with your truck or your load, it will be your fault, and you will pay for it or get fired.

Eventually I remembered I knew how to type, and I got a job in a call center. I started saving money & went back to school, first with just one class, then a couple, and then a full load. Because I had failed a class years before, it was hard to get the 4 year college to accept my AA transfer from juco, but I persisted & they caved. Five years ago I graduated with honors. I took an add-on teaching cert & now I'm a teacher. I do a job that I think is useful, something that matters.

I always knew I was intelligent, but now I feel valuable. I don't know what you're good at, but you should try to find out, and do that. I don't think it's the degree - it's the social value, the feeling of usefulness. Be persistent, and see who you are.
posted by toodleydoodley at 9:03 AM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

My guess is that you have a core belief, stemming from your abuse, that says your worth (or anyone's worth) is based on what you do, rather than who you are.

Well, this is a lie. Getting a degree, like making a lot of money, backpacking across Europe, having children, publishing a novel, or any of the million other markers of "success" by certain measures -- these are all things that people do, but they say nothing about who people are. There are a lot of stupid, petty assholes who get degrees, make a lot of money, have kids, publish a book, etc., just as there are intelligent, curious, capable people who don't get degrees, don't make a lot of money, don't travel, don't have kids, etc.

Appreciate and cultivate in yourself (and notice in others) the personal qualities that you find valuable, and spend less time on worrying about external trappings (like degrees, or job titles, or any of the other things that seem like measures of success or worth). By qualities, I mean things like curiosity, creativity, resilience, open-mindedness, critical thinking, or any of the other values that are more meaningful markers of "intelligence." These are things that matter infinitely more -- not just as an employee but as a human being -- than any degree.

You are, and have always been, worthy of compassion and respect from others (and from yourself!) because of who you are, right now. What you do is entirely secondary to that.
posted by scody at 9:03 AM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity. Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the Earth or slinks through slimy seas has a brain. Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma. Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitartus Committiartum E Pluribus Unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of ThD... That's... Doctor of Thinkology."
posted by Floydd at 9:03 AM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

Higher education provides credentials for very specific knowledge, and indicates having spent a certain amount of time and money to do so.

Someone who has, say, a passing grade in calculus on their transcript can be confidently said to have understood calculus at some point, and have had enough focus in their life at that time to have demonstrated said understanding. A bachelor's degree is just a great number of such credentials back-to-back.

Does someone with a bachelor's degree have greater intelligence than someone who doesn't? Probably not; most of that knowledge can be acquired through persistence, and there are a lot of good reasons why someone perfectly capable would not or could not pursue higher education. At this point it might be worth mentioning that nobody really knows for certain what "intelligence" is anyways: there are quantifiable measures going by that name which are a subset of what's often thought of as actual intelligence, but there's a certain amount of dubiousness as to whether IQ, except in the very broadest terms, actually says much about people's capabilities.

Does someone with a bachelor's degree have greater knowledge than someone who doesn't? There it gets a bit sticky, because someone with a degree has verifiable records of knowledge acquisition in specific fields, which in a real sense trumps no verifiable records of knowledge acquisition. Of course (a) just because they once learned something once doesn't mean they know it now, and (b) everyone has knowledge which is not explicitly credentialed, and (c) whether certain knowledge is better or worse than other is very much a judgment call.

If we move into advanced degrees, there's a fair amount of variety both by types of degrees and individual subfields. Professional degrees are often primarily further knowledge acqusition, with a significant skills-based component, while masters and doctoral degrees in most fields involve creative labor. But by and large getting any degree, while an accomplishment, isn't a proof of intelligence so much as persistence.
posted by jackbishop at 9:10 AM on July 9, 2013

I see myself only as valuable as what I have accomplished.


I can recite all the world's capital cities in alphabetical order in about 3 minutes or I can type each country's name with correct spelling in about 6 minutes; I write articles (mostly on foreign policy) for a nationally distributed newspaper; I have about 30 feet of world maps and at least two dozen international flags; I raise tarantulas, true spiders, centipedes, and scorpions, with a strong interest in tarantulas of the subfamily Ornithoctoninae; I collect insects and do insect photography, with one of my photos coming in 2nd place in a competition; I taught myself chess when I was 12 and was known for my chess abilities in high school; and things like that.

I have two degrees and can't do/haven't done any of that. It's all relative. My father is a retired truck mechanic that never went to college and he is very intelligent. My husband did not finish college and he is very successful in his career, more so than most people who do have degrees. Success has much less to do with what you know and more to do with what (and how much) you do.
posted by desjardins at 9:11 AM on July 9, 2013

I feel like a useless failure.

You're 22. You aren't old enough to be a failure. You're only about a year past the earliest point at which you could reasonably expect to have a degree. Which you can be successful without, by the way. Tou haven't even really started your adult life, so it's way too soon for you--or anyone else--to be passing judgment on it. If the way you define "success" involves having a degree, you've got time to get one. But there are plenty of people who count as "successful" without degrees.

So what you need to do is figure out what you want your life to look like and go about doing what you can to make that happen. Maybe that involves getting a degree. Maybe it doesn't. But it's too early to be discouraged about that one way or the other.
posted by valkyryn at 9:12 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

You sound really interesting and intelligent to me. I have a master's degree. I care exactly not one whit about the education of people I associate with. In fact, it's honestly never really occurred to me to use it as a measure of intelligence. My ex was one of the most intelligent and well-read people I've ever known in my life, and he was a high school dropout. I have other very bright friends who did not attend college.

The only exception to the not-caring-about-education rule is that one occasionally meets the auto-didact with an incomplete education who sort of keeps reinventing the wheel and not understanding why his/her brilliant philosophical breakthroughs are not dazzling to everyone else, but to be honest, it's been years since I've met anyone like that--perhaps it is largely a phenomenon of youth.

I've known dummies from Ivy League universities and with PhDs. I wouldn't go so far as to say any idiot can get a college degree since getting a bachelor's degree requires a basic level of competence, but it's no marker of anything more than very average smarts.
posted by tiger tiger at 9:14 AM on July 9, 2013

Oh man, you're 22? Check back in like 20 years. If you spend all your time between now and then eating twinkies and watching reality shows, then we'll have a chat about accomplishments.
posted by desjardins at 9:15 AM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]

I'm going to take this from another angle-- intelligence doesn't matter. Your identity is tied up with being intelligent-- but big deal. There are lots of people who are intelligent. Heck, nothing personal, but the member of Mensa who is a truck driver is almost a stereotype. Your degree isn't a measure of your intelligence. But your intelligence isn't a measure of your accomplishments.

I feel I am nothing if not intelligent, that I have no other redeeming or worthwhile attributes if I am not intelligent

Being intelligent is not worth that much. It can help you do neat things (as you say, learning chess and being good at it, developing a keen memory, developing an encyclopedic knowledge of insects). But intelligence is not a measure of worth. Neither are degrees, because having a degree depends a lot on personal circumstances. Intelligent people are about as common as dirt, and not all of them completed college.

I would focus more on your own accomplishments (nurture your success at photography) and professional goals. Getting a degree along the way might be part of those goals and accomplishments, somewhere down the line, but they won't be directly tied up with your degrees or your innate intelligence.
posted by deanc at 9:16 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

What if you think about yourself as having a degree? You don't have to present yourself on, say, your resume as having a degree, but you can CERTAINLY present yourself as an expert on:

international relations
foreign policy
tarantulas; your specialty is Ornithoctoninae
animal husbandry (that might only apply to raising animals for monetary reasons? I'm not sure. But raising animals, yes)
photography, with an emphasis on insect photography

You listed all these things as your interests. You also listed explicit points of expertise in them. Those are certainly topics that are degree-worthy.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 9:17 AM on July 9, 2013

Oh, also:
For quite a while, my whole friend cohort (including Mr Meat) was in graduate school. I was the only one with a "real job", and that made me really interesting to all of them. It was like I was part of the fictional "real world" they'd heard of but never been in.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 9:18 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also also, I know several people with multiple degrees and real fancy jobs who have never sat down and examined their accomplishments, their successes, their happiness basically, and just keep striving to prove more and more. Next degree, better paycheck, better title, better house/car/whatever. This can be a black hole of Proving Yourself that never ends unless you step back and go 'waiiiiitttt a second......'
posted by Jacen at 9:25 AM on July 9, 2013

I'm a professor at a university; I can guaran-damn-tee you that many of the most "intelligent" people I know don't have degrees. If someone has a good degree from a good university then that tells you something about certain mental capacities that one can reasonably safely presume that they have, but the absence of a degree is no guide at all to any reasonable assumptions about "intelligence"--whatever you take that word to mean. Many of my brightest students (the ones with the most original and insightful approaches to the material I teach) are also the ones who struggle with the academic structure and its various bureaucratic and social demands. Very frequently they have a variety of psychological or other challenges in their lives that prevent them from completing their degrees or prevent them from doing so in a way that does justice to their very real abilities.

By the way, I have a close family member who drives trucks for a living; he's one of the smartest, most widely informed, amusing and all around "intelligent" people I know; certainly far, far more "intelligent" in most senses of the term than the vast majority of my colleagues at the university.
posted by yoink at 9:27 AM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think some people have fallen into the trap of equating career or financial success with intelligence, which is the same as equating having a degree with intelligence. You can be pretty stupid and highly paid, just like you can be pretty stupid and have a slew of impressive-sounding degrees.

Your friends and colleagues aren't thinking "Oh, 8LeggedFriend must be a bit thick because they didn't go to college", they're thinking "8LeggedFriend wrote a really interesting article recently." I'm one of those people with a master's degree. If I'm your friend, I want to have a conversation with you about international politics, I want you to tell me things that make me interested in bugs, even if only for five minutes before I go back to not caring about tarantulas (I know nothing), and so on. I want you tell me what appeals to you about driving a truck. If we're working together, I want you to have good ideas. (Or why you hate it if it doesn't work out.) Other than truck-driving, none of these things require you having some sort of paper qualification.
posted by hoyland at 9:34 AM on July 9, 2013

When I was a child, I used to be beaten with belts, fists, and threatened for making mistakes in school by my dad, and so I became an extreme perfectionist at an earlier age. The thought of making a mistake or failing is unbearable to me.

Dude, you are 22. You are not much more than a child now. That level of trauma can heal but it takes time. You haven't yet had that much time to resolve it.

Instead of therapy, let me suggest you move to a continent that your asshole father is not on and try to arrange a situation that makes you feel safe from him and also safe in the face of failure, mistakes, etc. Being on a different continent from my abusers when I was your age was one of the best things I ever did for my mental health.

I was one of the smart kids in school. I walked away from a national merit scholarship and dropped out of college to attend to my health and welfare and safety. I know people who are literally dying in part because they are so fucking hung up on needing everyone to think of them as "smart." Please don't be one of those dumbasses. Love yourself better than that.

What you need is love and respect. A degree is optional.

((((((big, huge hugs if you want them))))))
posted by Michele in California at 10:01 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

Well, this is a lie. Getting a degree, like making a lot of money, backpacking across Europe, having children, publishing a novel, or any of the million other markers of "success" by certain measures -- these are all things that people do, but they say nothing about who people are.

My dad had a degree, and a professional job. My mother did not - she left school at fifteen, which was the point at which non-academic pupils (especially if they were working class) went into work or apprenticeships in the early 60s. (The standard school leaving age here now is sixteen.) If my mother was at school today, she'd probably be classed as dyslexic, and her trouble with spelling has made her feel stupid all her life; she worked in a manual, minimum wage job.

I learned far more from my mother than my father. My mum read me poetry, took me to art galleries, and taught me to read until I had a reading age of 11 by the age of three. My dad tended to talk at people, and any effort to ask for help with my maths homework had me in tears because he could not comprehend how I could possibly be so stupid. He liked to feel like the smartest guy in the room, often at the expense of putting others down, and when I went to university to study a subject he knew nothing about, it made him uncomfortable as he couldn't 'prove' his knowledge (although he would often lecture on things he did know nothing about, such as The Americans being arrogant enough to invent a 'World Series' for their own sports). My mum, on the other hand, liked to learn about things from other people, and also understood people's feelings and was a great friend to people. If they were both strangers, I would much rather have spent time with my mum than my dad, even if she didn't always know the book I was reading or preferred things I found dull.

So I don't feel degrees really tell the whole story about people - in fact, I have met many peopel with them, and even on my course when I did mine, who had astonishing gaps in their knowledge; I also met a LOT of science students (mainly computer science, for some reason) who dismissed the arts entirely as being unworthy of their time, and so never learned the value of a good book, time spent with a great painting, or what 'soft subjects' could teach us about the way humans work. Also, despite having disabilities, you have managed to maintain some esoteric and time-dependent interests to the point where you ARE accomplishing things. If you feel that this is creating a mental block, then by all means study for a degree, but I think your anxiety about scores and numbers will make things harder than you need them to.
posted by mippy at 10:03 AM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Oof. I'm 31 and I could've written this question word for word.

Apparently, I must look young enough to be a college student, because I definitely run into the "degree = intelligent, worthwhile person" attitude on occasion. In addition to experiencing it in the real world, particularly when I'm attempting to date, I've read comments on MeFi that either imply or outright state that a college degree is absolutely necessary for intelligence, respect, personal growth, etc. Like you, being confronted with this opinion makes me feel pathetic and overwhelmingly worthless, since I'm a high school dropout who couldn't/can't afford college, ever; I will not be able to do anything except work until I die. Like you, I've seamlessly internalized the attitude that if I don't possess a modicum of intelligence, I don't have anything to offer anyone at all, and the looming shadows of self-doubt can get very discouraging.

On the flip side, many people, particularly those who went to grad school, express sincere jealousy when I tell them I did not attend college. I spent my teens and 20s working and traveling the world while they pulled all-nighters and lost weeks of sleep cramming for exams. We can certainly learn from each other, though; it takes all kinds!

The key that will open almost any door to you is the ability to communicate clearly, which you already have in spades. Your wealth of life experience and specialized knowledge base are what make you intelligent, not whether or not you had the time, health, and money to go to college for 4-10 years. There are no hard and fast rules outlining what makes someone smart, and there is likely very little that you can do to permanently convince yourself that you are smart, but if other people think you're smart (and they clearly do), that's about as good as it can get.

I'm a born rambler and the polar opposite of well-read, but people generally assume I'm college-educated because I can speak clearly and hold forth on a wide variety of nuanced topics. I've met an unsettlingly large number of intimidatingly book-smart people who hold advanced degrees, but distinctly lack what I would consider intelligence -- perspective, real-life experience, curiosity, abiding interests in multiple arenas. In my line of work, I am often confronted with the fact that the largest hurdle you need to clear to get a degree is not intellectual, but financial and/or organizational. (Translation: A lot of dumb people get degrees.)

How can you definitively know if you're intelligent? You can't, but fortunately, no one else can, either.

How can you learn how to comfortably acknowledge your own intelligence, as it exists today?
Continue to be clear and forthright in written and verbal communication, learn from your mistakes, take a genuine interest in your fellow travelers, embody compassion and empathy for all living creatures, dig deep into topics that interest you, go to the library and read like hell as often as you can, don't take on more debt than you can ably handle, get comfortable with discomfort, and try not to worry about it too much. Keep your eyes on the prize: What do you truly want out of this life? Make a list, and check back on it occasionally to see if you need to switch priorities or if you're still pointing in the right direction. Truck driving sounds great, you'll get to explore parts of our beautiful country that most people will never see!

The next decade is going to be a wild ride in terms of personal growth and exploration. Mostly, you'll just be learning how to live in your own skin, manage your symptoms, and navigate the choppy waters of nascent adulthood like everyone else does. It will be difficult, necessary, frightening, and awesome. What you consider "intelligence" today is almost certainly drastically different from what you will think about it in just a few years. Remember to take time to give yourself a breather no matter what, and try hard not to beat yourself up for your perceived failures.

Learning and adjusting our behavior to failures and mistakes is what makes us more intelligent. Scholastic success is not a requirement for leading a successful life. Good luck!
posted by divined by radio at 10:09 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can tell you that having a degree would not get rid of those "I'm not smart enough" or "I have accomplished nothing with my life" feelings. I know this from personal experience.
posted by Anne Neville at 10:24 AM on July 9, 2013 [8 favorites]

Yeah I hate to break it to you but inferiority complexes do not go away just because the sufferer gets a degree. They are often referred to as "imposter syndrome" and they are epidemic among high achieving people.

Your best bet is to try to remind yourself not to compare your insides to other people's outsides. If you can master this, it will help with everything from Facebook envy to your own insecurity about your education.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:33 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've met plenty of idiots with degrees. Just sayin'.
posted by windykites at 10:33 AM on July 9, 2013

If it makes you feel any better, I have a degree, but it's not the right degree for my field of work. And there are people in my field who look down on that. So I feel self-conscious about that all the time - a degree doesn't make it go away. And even if you did have the right degree, you might not be the right color or the right gender or the right height or weight, or whatever. The point is, there will always be smallminded people who find some dumb reason not to take you seriously.

An anecdote - I have been involved with interviewing and hiring people and you would be amazed at the number of people who have all the right degrees and advanced qualifications who are actually just pretty average. Not just in overall intelligence, but also in the field we work in, where you think their degrees would have conferred some kind of special, higher level knowledge upon them. Not the case at all. A lot of people with degrees still have no idea what they're talking about.

And finally, my mentor, the person who taught me this business and taught me to love it - did not have a college degree. He was the hardest worker and arguably the smartest person in our office. He was also the most successful according to our business metrics, and he was the most liked. I think that despite this, he still suffered in a small, almost indecipherable way from people who still had that little prejudice in their heads against people without a formal or the right qualifications. I sometimes get that too. But you know what? Fuck 'em. The good thing about people who will judge you based on that kind of thing rather than on any real measure of your intelligence or what kind of a person you are are showing you their lack of intelligence. And actually doing you kind of a favor by giving you ample notice that maybe you shouldn't take them all that seriously and maybe not hang around them that much. Because there is so much more to a person that a piece of paper and if someone doesn't know that then how much do they know, really?

You'll meet people throughout life who are like that and it sucks, I know. But you have my permission to ignore them. Just go about your business do what you love and do it the best you can and people will recognize that. It may seem hard now, but I do think that this will get easier as you get older. I was just as crippled by self-doubt and low self-esteem as you when I was that age. I still am sometimes. But I promise it gets easier and you sound like you have a good head on your shoulders so I think you'll be able to navigate through it.

And fwiw, I think you sound awesome and smart and super interesting and I think I would like you very much if I met you.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:57 AM on July 9, 2013

One of the dumbest people I've ever met has a master's degree. She had to look up the word IF in a dictionary. I wish I was kidding.

One of the most brilliant people I've ever met doesn't even have a high school diploma. He dropped out and started his own business at age 16.

Intelligence is not measured by a sheet of paper.
posted by 2oh1 at 11:00 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a high school dropout who couldn't/can't afford college, ever; I will not be able to do anything except work until I die.

If it makes you feel better, I'm an ivy league graduate and I *also* will not be able to do anything except work until I die. There are more degrees out there than there are good jobs for those degrees.

To the OP: More than a couple of times in my life people have heard about my degree and decided it means I'm an idiot, because their conception of the Ivy League is "nothing but coddled rich morons like GW Bush".

I say this not to be all, "damned if you do, damned if you don't," but rather to impress upon you that third party evaluations are mostly biased, often completely off-base, and in the end seldom matter. Your comment demonstrates substantial intelligence of a couple different varieties--intellectual and emotional. I'd wager your day-to-day interactions demonstrate the same. Some people may miss this, others may devalue it; those people are the real dopes.

Also, nthing what people have said above: in a few years nobody will ever bother to ask where you went to school or what your degree is.
posted by like_a_friend at 11:01 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is the phrase that helps most with the similar feelings I have:

There is only one success— to be able to spend your life in your own way. - Christpher Morley
posted by carsonb at 11:17 AM on July 9, 2013

Impostor syndrome is rampant in academia. Getting a degree is not a cure for feeling insecure or inferior.

Carole Dweck's book "Mindset" is very insightful on the conflation of accomplishments/intelligence, and self worth/identity.

Not sure where I read this, but having gone through the steps myself, I can confirm that when you finish high school, you think you know everything. When you graduate from university, you find out you know nothing. When you get a PhD, you realize that no one else knows anything either.
posted by meijusa at 11:21 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

We call degrees "certificates of compliance" in my culture. Yes you can spout back at whatever authority gave you the data to study, compile, lather, rinse and repeat until you've done enough to attain said certificates. You can have a great life without all the compliance certs, dude!
posted by Lynsey at 11:23 AM on July 9, 2013

I think other people have covered the degree = intelligent thing. For the record, you seem intelligent enough to me. That said, I agree with your therapist. Your thinking doesn't make sense regarding your self-worth and how tangled up it is with whether or not you're 'intelligent'. That isn't a mark against your intelligence. With your history it would be surprising if you didn't have difficulties with this stuff.

The thing is, I bet if you had a degree you'd feel the same way now. It would be some other barrier you'd have to overcome to feel 'intelligent' and thus happy. You'd be saying "Oh I don't have a masters degree, I can't be intelligent. I don't have a doctorate, I can't be intelligent. I didn't get a degree from a top institution, I can't be intelligent. I got the degree, but I don't use it so I can't be intelligent." If not that then some other defficiency will make itself known. On and on regardless of your actual accomplishments. Your brain has pulled off a great trick: it makes you feel you're not good enough and it won't easily give this up, even if you do exactly what it says will make you happy.

You may have heard this before. A man dies and gets sent to hell for all eternity. The devil makes the man a deal where he'll flip a coin once for every day he's been in hell. If it lands up heads just once he can go to heaven. He can only take the devil up on the offer once. If he waits 100 days before taking the deal he'll have 100 chances to escape hell. Every day he waits to take the deal increases his odds, but he'll never be 100% certain he'll get out... no matter how long he waits. When should the man take the deal? I tell this to illustrate how arbitrary 'success' can be. To be certain of success the man must wait all eternity! But that's not rational either, is it? Whatever answer you pick is going to be arbitrary.

Likewise, your own feelings of failure are tied up with an arbitrary metric of 'intelligence' and while it may make sense to you, it's not entirely rational. Why are you tying accomplishments into happiness? Why does happiness need to be fed like a parking meter? It's not a parking meter that always wants more money, it's more like a garden. A healthy garden requires some maintenance, but overall it generates stuff on it's own. You're working on making a healthy mental garden which takes a lot of work to get there given with what you started from.

I hope you and your therapist can figure this out. I know it can't be easy for you, but you're young and you're seeking help, so keep trying. It's worth it.
posted by Green With You at 11:44 AM on July 9, 2013

I have what is commonly considered a highfalutin degree and I still feel like an idiot. Every day of my life, I'm reminded of my idiocy by people who are so much smarter than me in every way possible. It has nothing to do with the level or type of degree they hold. Most of the time I don't even know where they went to school or what they studied, and their intelligence obviously transcends whatever narrow subject matter they majored in anyway.

Looking back, I can't say that I don't owe anything to my education. It did introduce me to many new ways of thinking and seeing, but these ideas are everywhere! You don't have to pay tens of hundreds of thousands of dollars to read and think about them. It sure helps to be spoonfed knowledge as part of an organized curriculum, but what part of being spoonfed requires intelligence?

It might also help to separate academic achievement from intelligence from actual success. I know many people who were never star students, but are very successful in their personal and professional lives. They have great people skills, they're creative and forward-thinking, and they're passionate, driven and hardworking. On the other hand, there are lots of people who made every honor roll and Dean's list but couldn't hack the transition from the insular environment of school to the pace and demands of "real life." All those academic awards and accolades mean nothing once you've left academia.

It seems to me that you're plenty successful (writing foreign policy articles for a national paper? I'd definitely be intimidated if we ever met) and you have interesting, challenging passions. If you're like me, a degree won't make you feel more intelligent... and anyway, those people who think they're so smart? They're often insufferable. You don't want to be that either. Keep being curious and engaged with the world around you. You'll gain more confidence so that even if you never feel intelligent, hopefully you'll stop feeling like a big dummy for not having a degree.
posted by keep it under cover at 11:55 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would like to encourage you to tackle getting a traditional degree, once you've finished your trade schooling. Find a program -- online or classroom -- that excites you, and is within your budget, and throw yourself into it. Self-paced distance learning might work well with your personality. (With the caveat to of course pick a legitimate institution, not a diploma mill; and not go into hock to pay for it.)

Why? Not because it will prove once and for all that you are S-M-R-T smart, or validate your existence; but more to *disprove* your deeply-held belief that a degree is the measure of the man. I think the challenge would be invigorating, and would be good for your self-esteem. And you'll see in the process that getting a degree ain't all that, in the larger scheme of things.

By way of encouragement: time is on your side. I didn't complete my undergrad till age 26 (and boy did I share classes with some grade-A dumb-asses and entitled a-holes), and didn't set foot in grad school till my mid-thirties. And if I had it all to do over again, I would've first gone to a hands-on trade school (aircraft mechanic, perhaps) to learn a skilled trade, and then gone on to higher ed. At your age, I just wasn't mentally or socially equipped to excel in traditional academia.

You have options here.
posted by nacho fries at 11:56 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't think they truly mean anything, but maybe for your peace of mind, try taking an IQ test? It would be sort of a stand in for a degree, a piece of "proof" of your intelligence, just for yourself. Or even look into joining Mensa, or something similar. I don't think intelligence can really be measured by any test or degree, but if it makes you feel better about yourself, why not do something that feels official, and also get the chance to meet people who are considered intelligent, and see the variety of people they are?
posted by catatethebird at 12:13 PM on July 9, 2013

P.S. IQ tests can and should be studied for like any other test. Walking in blind without any practice at the types of problems they have would not be a reliable measure, should you decide to try that route...
posted by catatethebird at 12:17 PM on July 9, 2013

I haven't read a single response here, but I'd just like to add my $.02.

A degree alone means absolutely nothing. And I mean NOTHING. It especially doesn't speak to a person's intelligence or even their knowledge of a given subject in my opinion.

The only thing that sheet of paper is useful for is a potential bargaining chip in a negotiation to join some group, whether it be an employer or other organization.
posted by Capa at 12:18 PM on July 9, 2013

I am not sure about any approach that devalues formal education as a way to make you feel better about this. Yes, a lot of people have met educated blowhards, but I've also met uneducated blowhards who used these same arguments against education to sneer at me and call me worthless sheeple or "look at you, more education than sense" and so on. Whatever attributes an abused person has or doesn't have, are always going to be turned against them, but that doesn't say much about the attributes themselves and changing the attributes will only change the subject matter of the abuse. I can assure you you can feel completely moronic and stupid with a degree just as much as without one, especially if other people are around to help you to feel that way.

I can see that it's well meant, and it is often true, but it doesn't change the reality of your situation, which was that you were continually devalued and told you were worthless by someone who had complete power over you and was supposed to love you, but didn't treat you like someone they loved.

And here you are aged 22 with those recordings continually playing in your head. Of course you feel worthless, you were programmed to. These are lies, but to you they feel more true than anything we could say to you.

You will start to feel better when you get as much distance as possible between you and the source of the toxicity, and when you start to exercise your vital powers in ways that are meaningful to you and give you an increasing sense of mastery. Eventually that probably will include some formal education, but it could also be something else. Right now: truck driving school. Get in that truck, drive away from those detractors.
posted by tel3path at 1:32 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

Degrees are more indicative of privilege than intelligence.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 1:52 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

Degree = Valuable or Success. Me + Degree = Valuable or Successful Me

Surely you must know plenty of people who have a university degree but aren't in any way successful.

Keep in mind that subconsciously, you may be trying to find a way to excuse your feelings of unaccomplishment by saying, "oh, well if I had a degree, then this wouldn't be a problem! I would be accomplished!" People do this with a lot of things-- "if I only were married, then my life would be better", "once I lose those 20 pounds, I'll be happy." You're choosing to do it with your lack of a college degree. As tel3path says, the problem is that you feel worthless, and you're looking for some talisman that, if only you had it, you would no longer feel worthless. But that's ignoring the underlying issue.
posted by deanc at 1:58 PM on July 9, 2013

... and you're putting off living your life by saying, "well, when I have a degree, then my life will be worth living," in the same way some people say, "I'll do all those fun things in my life when I get married/thin."
posted by deanc at 2:00 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have two Bachelor's degrees. I can say, with conviction and honesty, that getting those degrees was way more about jumping through hoops and showing up than it was about being smart.

Seconded! Getting through school depends on how well you jump through hoops and do your homework and go through the required grind. College was easy for me because I am good at hoop jumping and I read fast and write well AND I had a bare minimum of classes I had to take to be "well rounded" in subjects that I suck rancid donkey balls at no matter how hard I try. I had to take one class with actual math in it and one year of a foreign language*, compared to having to take 3-4 years of that stuff in high school, bringing down my GPA and making me feel stupid.

* Yes, the standards have raised at my alma mater since then, but that's how I managed to graduate without having to prove that I could do calculus. Thank god, or else I wouldn't have a degree either.

I can tell you that having a degree would not get rid of those "I'm not smart enough" or "I have accomplished nothing with my life" feelings. I know this from personal experience.

This too. I feel stupid at my job at least a portion of every day, and I know darned well I haven't accomplished shit with my life other than "work a boring day job." Where I get to see a fair chunk of really stupid college graduates, especially ones who cannot write a coherent sentence to save their lives and I seriously wonder how the hell they were allowed to graduate.

Most of my best friends don't have degrees. One of them had a very hard time in 4-year school and came out with an AA degree and a paralegal certification (the latter went to waste once the economy crashed). She still feels stupid about it and periodically says stuff like this to me. She's not an idiot by any means--but traditional four year schooling wasn't working for her at that age at all, and now life has moved on enough that I don't think she'd bother to try again. The traditional grind of the school system doesn't work for everyone, which is something we don't tend to acknowledge now that a four year bachelor's degree is the new high school diploma, or whatever. It doesn't mean you're dumb, it just means that college academia learning may not be for you. Didn't Bill Gates drop out?

Don't get me wrong, I liked college, but in the end, a 4-year degree these days is considered a "must have" so you can get ruled out of less jobs that use it as an aptitude test on their job requirements. I didn't have to have a degree to get my job (though to be fair, it actually helps my work) and I don't think most of my coworkers have one either.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:29 PM on July 9, 2013

I recently saw an article about how Google is hiring more people without college degrees.

I have a degree and had a career that I hated. I'm about to start driving a taxi for awhile while I pursue a career change into a field where I don't need a degree/won't be using the degree I have. I'm sort of excited about driving a taxi because I think it will be more intellectually stimulating than my boring office job was.

So no, I think a lot of things measure intelligence, but whether or not you have a degree isn't one of them.
posted by fromageball at 7:18 PM on July 9, 2013

One of the most intelligent people I know technically didn't even graduate high school. He went into a specialized math and science pre-college program, then into college after a couple of years of that and went into some sort of emotional tailspin that led him to quit before he graduated.

What I consider to correlate with intelligence, traits that my friend exhibits, is an inquiring mind, wide-ranging interests, being well-read (note this is NOT degree-levels of well read in the subject!) in more than one field, the ability to hold a conversation on more than a few narrow topics, and the ability to offer well-reasoned arguments for opinions. I don't have to agree with those opinions, but the person should able to explain why they hold them. (I do not always measure up to my own definition of intelligence, when it comes to that last point!)

You seem to hit all of those traits. My internet diagnosis, which is worth every cent you paid for it, is that what you mostly suffer from is being 22 years old. My friend is now quite successful in his field (computers), as measured by level of responsibility and income and still doesn't have his degree, but he's also 37 years old. At 22, he was still working low-level tech support and hopping from job to job, and feeling much the same way as you.

I have two master's degrees and every so often daydream of throwing it all in and training for a job that allows me to work with my hands, but then reality hits (I just paid off 15 years' worth of student loans: no way can I afford to take more debt on right now! And the health insurance is rather necessary at the moment.). Keep looking to find the path that works for you--you're at the perfect age to be able to try all sorts of different things to see what sticks.
posted by telophase at 12:13 PM on July 10, 2013

If you're still reading. I have two degrees and I have a professional career. That means that most of my colleagues and my client contacts also have degrees. And there are plenty of stupid people among them and a lot less really intelligent people. The ratio changes with seniority, but all our trainees are graduates and well, not all particularly bright.

When I did my undergraduate degree I also worked as study skills advisor. And in those with average ability, doing well, up to a certain level, is all about study skills. If people with average ability are diligent and willing to put in the effort they can get a degree, even a goodish one. The really intelligent ones can ignore the study skills bit and still do very well. When I did my undergraduate degree I knocked out all my reports/essays of up to 3500 words in an all nighter the night before they were due. Printed them, slept until lunch time, reread and made changes and printed and handed them in. I got a 1st class honours degree....

What all the really intelligent people, who are also generally successful at living, not just some geek field specialist, have in common is that they have developed some social skills and that they are interested in lots of things and value a range of experiences. Not all of them have degrees, some left school at the minimum school leaving age and learned a trade or did menial jobs. But their intelligence allows them to do well in their jobs, sometimes turn them into businesses and all of these people have interesting and fulfilling lives.

So please realise that the mantra you were given that academic achievement has anything to do with your value is a lie. It doesn't and you're valuable and you can have an interesting and fulfilling life if you never spend a day in higher education.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:55 AM on July 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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