People who are really smart but underestimate themselves often display these 7 behaviors (without realizing it)

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The famous writer Charles Bukowski once said:  “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” 

With big brains comes a lot more mental real estate–which means more room for things like overthinking, neurosis, and anxieties to thrive. 

Take politics, for instance. If all the knowledgeable people ran for office, chances are, we would be living in a far better world. 

But this isn’t often the case. 

In reality, the smart people are too busy ruminating, while their less-intelligent, more incompetent, more charismatic, and sometimes borderline narcissistic, counterparts end up in positions of power. 

Not good. 

When you’re smart and confident, this is an indestructible combination. 

But to get there, you first have to know the signs. 

In this article, I’ll take you through the behaviors of people who are really smart but often underestimate themselves. 

Let’s get to it! 

1) Perfectionism

Sadly, intelligence and confidence are not mutually exclusive. 

Smart people aren’t above overcompensating behaviors. 

They often strive for perfection in everything they do, as they hold a quiet disdain for criticism and judgment. 

Their standards are therefore abnormally high. 

What we normal folk consider impressive is below par for them. So in a sense, they’re their own harshest critics. 

Certain smart people overcompensate and work abnormally hard because they don’t think that putting in a “normal” effort will be sufficient. 

This is an unhealthy dynamic, as it creates unrealistically high standards–and often, even higher stress levels. 

2) Constant learning

When you’re intelligent, you tend to have an insatiable curiosity for life, always seeking to learn more. 

For you, there is no cap for knowledge; which, on the surface, is a good thing, right? 

Well, this is where things can get a bit tricky. 

Whereas most people will be content having a basic knowledge of certain topics, a really smart person might feel inadequate. 

The more they learn, the more they realize they don’t know. 

Irony, I know.

The reality is that no person in the world has the mental capacity for infinite knowledge. 

But this perceived “inability” sometimes makes the smart person feel small–which translates into them underestimating and questioning their intelligence. 

3) Overthinking

As mentioned, smart people have plenty of space upstairs, which, when left unchecked, can spiral and have negative effects. 

Case in point: overthinking. 

Smart people are often chronic overthinkers.

They’ll analyze, ruminate, and replay situations and scenarios, however far-fetched, far more than is necessary. 

Sometimes, their thoughts consume them and can affect their work and personal lives. 

Eventually, these “passing” ruminations can transform into full-on feelings of self-doubt and underestimation of their abilities, effectively creating problems that don’t truly exist. 

Having superior cognitive abilities is one thing but if you don’t harness that energy in the right direction, it can work against you. 

Real talk. 

4) Fear of failure

And a textbook manifestation of overthinking? A deep-seated fear of failure.

Self-confident people might move through life with minimal anxieties, almost solely focused on achieving their goals. 

The self-doubting smart person might take a different approach though; one where the glass is constantly half-empty. 

In other words, they’ll be overly focused on what could go wrong and potential mistakes–a mentality that can be paralyzing, making them further undervalue their ability to get the job done. 

5) Imposter syndrome

When I opened a successful restaurant business a decade ago, I felt like a bit of a fraud. 

I didn’t know much about business, operations, or cooking. I was a journalism graduate. 

While I enjoyed the initial triumph of having a well-reviewed food establishment, with regular queues out the door during peak hours, I also felt it was only a matter of time before I’d be “found out” and exposed for being the fake businessman I unconsciously believed myself to be. 

I couldn’t shake off the underlying feelings of impostor syndrome, which ultimately made me second-guess my own capabilities. 

A genuinely self-assured person in the same situation might not entertain such thoughts, instead honing in on more positive, productive aspects. 

Not me though. Lesson learned. 

6) Valuing others’ opinions over their own

Have you ever enjoyed a movie, but when you checked on Rotten Tomatoes afterward, it only got a 20% rating, and because of that, you sort of shifted your opinion? 

I know I have.

When you like something, and find joy in it, that’s all that matters. What everyone else thinks is inconsequential. 

People who are smart but question themselves often place too much weight on the opinions and judgments of others, particularly in areas where they feel less confident… like movies were for me. 

In my mind, I would think, “The critics do this for a living, they must know what they’re talking about.” 

And maybe I was right. 

Maybe they do know film exponentially better than me–but still, I was robbing myself of a light, simple joy in the process, however low-brow it may have been.

7) Comparing themselves to others

For better or worse, we live in the golden age of comparisons.

Unlock your phone and you’ll see people, both friends and strangers, seemingly living their best lives: traveling the world, opening new businesses, in healthy, toxic-free relationships, or flashing their new cars. 

Meanwhile, you can’t say the same and therefore can’t help but compare, as you slave away at an unfulfilling job, or struggle to get a date. 

This behavior will only make you feel inferior–a mindset that many smart people unsurprisingly tend to succumb to. 

Rather than keeping busy and working on themselves, they might be preoccupied with comparing their knowledge and achievements to people they perceive as “better”, overlooking their own gifts and intelligence as a result. 

Remember, growth isn’t linear, but your peers’ social media posts might have you thinking otherwise. 

Moderation is key. 

Final thoughts

If you feel you’re smart but too self-critical, realize that you aren’t alone, far from it. 

There are countless people like you; people who have never fully realized their true potential because they were held back by their own thoughts. 

Don’t give in. Don’t let your thoughts win. 

Being intelligent, you genetically have a head start in life; so use your gifts the right way. 

I know it’s easier said than done. 

To unlearn deeply ingrained behaviors is no walk in the park. But the fact remains, it can be done. 

Once you make the shift, you will be unstoppable. 

Take it one day at a time. Celebrate your wins. You’ll get to where you want to be soon enough. 

Clifton Kopp

Welcome to my writings on Hack Spirit! I'm a bit of a "polymath" in that I like writing about many different things. Often I'm learning from the process of writing. I hope you enjoy, and please leave a comment on one of my articles.

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