A Fish's Ability to Climb a Tree


“Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. A poster with this quotation hung in my AP U.S. history teacher’s classroom. Whenever I’d get distracted in class, my eyes would inevitably land on these words. I don’t think the broader meaning registered, but in the years since then, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this saying (which Einstein may or may not have said, the online jury is still out on that one.) 

When I was younger and the summer days would start to wane, I would complain to my parents that I didn’t want to start a new school year because I was worried I wouldn’t know everything. My parents patiently (and routinely) explained to me that the purpose of going school was to learn; I shouldn’t expect to know everything. 

It’s our human instinct to want to be good at the endeavors we engage in. Scholars like Cal Newport, have written entire books dedicated to the premise that being good at a job is a precursor to more autonomy and ultimately, satisfaction in one’s professional life. 

While it is impossible to be good at everything, don’t let that discourage you from engaging with challenging material, classes, or experiences. Taking risks in my academic life, going after experiences that scared me, and applying for longshot opportunities have all landed me in some of the best situations, given me access to incredible people, and granted me wonderful friends. Was I absolute fantastic in every situation from the get go? Absolutely not. And that’s okay. Each of these experiences challenged me, forced me to grapple with issues I’d never before considered, and made me look at the world in a different way.

When you only pursue things you’re good at, you’re not learning. It is incredibly uncomfortable to go into an experience knowing that you’re going to struggle, but these experiences are often the most rewarding. You might not feel as brilliant in your computer science class as you feel in your biology course, but you’ll learn a new way of thinking, you’ll have to seek out classmates who better understand the material to help you, and you’ll spend some time understanding how it feels to not be the best—it teaches empathy. 

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. A lot of you might already know that feeling well. Embrace it. The hours you spend wrestling with an unfamiliar concept, asking a million questions, feeling lost in a completely new country—those hours don’t make up the entirety of who you are. You might not be able to take on political theory as easily as you might be able to understand physics, but struggling with one concept doesn’t detract from your grasp of another. Remember that and then actively choose to challenge yourself. You might feel like a fish out of water, but I’m guessing it won’t be the first nor last time either one of us will feel that way. Onwards and upwards.