What Happens When You Don’t Mind if You’re Not Smart

Alison Berkowitz ‘17
I was the only one in my Design Nature class whose hopper didn't work the first time around – until Ben Linder helped me

I remember Alison as a first year student.  She came into my office with a friend.  “I’m a Bio-E major,” she told me.  “I don’t really know how to code, or build complex stuff, or design circuits.  Is anyone going to hire me for the summer?”  For the next three years, I watched Alison.  She took advantage of off-site conferences, hackathons and networking events.  She worked really hard in her classes, with her teams on projects and in preparation for her technical interviews.   And she asked for help when she needed it.  I was so proud of the young lady I saw walk across the stage at commencement.  Not just in terms of job offers, but also in the way she carried herself…in her confidence, and in her great big smile.  Alison no longer felt she was an Imposter at Olin. 

-        PGP Director Sally Phelps


When you don’t mind if you’re not smart,


  • You’re not afraid to raise your hand in lecture freshman year to ask that dumb question 10 other people were also confused about but were too afraid to ask.


  • You don’t expect to understand something right away and are certainly not discouraged when you don’t.


  • It doesn’t bother you when you spend hours on a problem set that others may have finished quicker.


  • You expect to have to work hard to complete your assignments.


  • You’re not embarrassed to go to office hours every day because you need that much help on the assignment.


  • You’re not discouraged by how it seems like so many people in your classes mastered the subject years ago.


  • You don’t hesitate to ask for concepts to be explained and abbreviations to be spelled out.


  • Your peers don’t feel threatened, but rather comfortable in your authenticity, so are happy to share their expertise.


  • You are able to help explain something well when someone else is struggling to understand it, because you already asked the questions before when you didn’t understand it.


  • You seek out opportunities to learn and improve because you know you have a lot to learn.


  • You attend a hackathon and ask your teammates to show you the ropes because you have no idea what you are doing.


  • In your first technical interview you admit to your interviewer that you don’t know what binary search is and they teach it to you rather than continue with technical questions.


  • And in a later interview you admit you haven’t learned how to parse a binary search tree, but you’re confident you could figure it out if they explained what a tree is, so that interviewer teaches you about a new data structure called a tree.


  • After admitting to your Google interviewer that polymorphism is a vocabulary word you don’t know, they respond with the fact that it is a basic computer science concept, as if you should feel bad for not knowing it.  But you don’t feel bad because you don’t mind if you’re not smart. You just go home and Google polymorphism.


  • You get invited to a summer training program for students lacking the necessary technical skills to pass the Google interviews where you are taught all of the concepts those smart kids seemed to already know.


  • You ask your mentor a million questions at your summer internship and they are happy to teach you.


  • You are taught a whole lot more than you would’ve learned if you never admitted you didn’t know it.


  • People start to think you’re actually pretty smart.


  • You finally do a lot better in your technical interviews and receive job offers from companies like Google, Apple, Square, and GE.


When you don’t mind if you’re not smart, you set an example for others.


Alison finished up at Olin last December, and is currently a Software Engineer at Google in NYC.  



Posted in: Student Voices