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June 28, 2005

Are you truly smart?

Scott Berkun writes essays.  Really smart and useful ones. A recent favorite is Essay #40 Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas.  Now I know lawyers are trained to defend bad ideas (or at least advocate for clients with bad ideas), but what really struck me when I read the essay is just how often I’ve seen this behavior in opposing counsel, colleagues, and even myself.  Read the entire essay.  Here are just a few choice excerpts.

On the problem with smart people:

The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent’s friends) they’ve probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death. Smart people often fall into the trap of preferring to be right even if it’s based in delusion, or results in them, or their loved ones, becoming miserable. (Somewhere in your town there is a row of graves at the cemetery, called smartypants lane, filled with people who were buried at poorly attended funerals, whose headstones say “Well, at least I was right.”)

And on setting priorities, intelligence, and wisdom:

At any moment on any project there are an infinite number of levels of problem solving. Part of being a truly smart person is to know which level is the right one at a given time. For example, if you are skidding out of control at 95mph in your broken down Winnebago on an ice covered interstate, when a semi-truck filled with both poorly packaged fireworks and loosely bundled spark plugs slams on its brakes, it’s not the right time to discuss with your passengers where y’all would like to stop for dinner. But as ridiculous as this scenario sounds, it happens all the time. People worry about the wrong thing at the wrong time and apply their intelligence in ways that doesn’t serve the greater good of whatever they’re trying to achieve. Some call this difference in skill wisdom, in that the wise know what to be thinking about, where as the merely intelligent only know how to think. (The de-emphasis of wisdom is an east vs. west dichotomy: eastern philosophy heavily emphasizes deeper wisdom, where as the post enlightenment west, and perhaps particularly America, heavily emphasizes the intellectual flourishes of intelligence).

And this, on communal thinking and why attorneys still bill by the hour (sort of):

Just because everyone in the room is smart doesn’t mean that collectively they will arrive at smart ideas. The power of peer pressure is that it works on our psychology, not our intellect. As social animals we are heavily influenced by how the people around us behave, and the quality of our own internal decision making varies widely depending on the environment we currently are in. (e.g. Try to write a haiku poem while standing in an elevator with 15 opera singers screaming 15 different operas, in 15 different languages, in falsetto, directly at you vs. sitting on a bench in a quiet stretch of open woods).

That said, the more homogeneous a group of people are in their thinking, the narrower the range of ideas that the group will openly consider. The more open minded, creative, and courageous a group is, the wider the pool of ideas they’ll be capable of exploring.


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