Neuronarrative

Musings on the complicated business of thinking

10 Dumb Things I've Learned From Brilliant People

Quite often the smartest person in the room isn't nearly the wisest.

This post might better be titled, "10 Dumb Things I've Learned from People Who Want to be Thought of as Brilliant" (but that's a bit too long a title). 

1. Speak with the “official style” to sound like an expert.

The "official style" was a term coined by Richard Lanham in his excellent book Revising Prose. Lanham said that we've been experiencing a verbal epidemic characterized by heavy bureaucratic prose that's full of nouns and scarce on verbs. The solution, Lanham proposed, is an easy one: for every sentence you write, ask yourself "Who is kicking whom?" The book is a short but invaluable read that I recommend to everyone. When you read it, you'll realize just how pervasive the official, expert style is, and how much it muddies communication.

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2. Find the irony in everything and point it out to everyone.

The world is full of irony, no doubt, but pointing out every instance doesn't make you sound especially brilliant. If anything, it makes you sound preoccupied, less serious than you're attempting to be seen, and pompous. Subtle observations of the ironic, and in limited doses, is more effective.

3. Presume that ideas are more important than people.

This one seems to affect the intelligentsia most of all. Ideas are generally easier to manipulate than people, since they're abstract and malleable. Maybe that's why so many would-be brilliants prefer them. But history makes a convincing argument that when ideas are valued more than people's lives, it's a short few steps to determining which people are least important of all, since they don't measure up to the manifest greatness of the idea.

4. Presume that those with degrees from non-exemplary institutions are going nowhere and treat them accordingly.

Very little needs to be said of this one other than how wrong-headed it is, despite how frequently this thinking is invoked (always very quietly, of course). Some of the best minds in a multitude of fields graduated from schools nowhere near the top of annual rankings. What their achievement comes down to isn't a degree, but how much they wanted success, and how fully invested they were in attaining it.

5. When recruiting people to support your vision, pretend like their ideas count, even though you have no intention of using them.

I've personally been on the receiving end of this one, and in my experience, once is enough. When a would-be brilliant has already firmly staked out his/her vision, but by necessity must recruit supporters to make the vision work, you have to make some quick determinations about whether this smells of true collaboration, or if you're being brought in as a Doozer to build the Fraggle's buildings. If you don't mind being a Doozer, go right ahead, but you will be treated accordingly.

6. Consistently point out flaws in the ideas of others, and make sure it’s clear how you would address those flaws (even though you’ll never really have to).

From the detached vantage point of a would-be brilliant, it's great sport to point out the fatal flaws in another's ideas. The best part is, the detachment is absolute because the ideas in question can't rise up to defend themselves, and the people responsible for them have enough on their plates to mount a defense of their own. In short, pointing out flaws from afar is an act of cowardice.

7. Point out to people in lesser rungs of your organization that everyone chooses their careers, and if they aren’t satisfied, it’s because they made bad decisions.

Not to pick on lawyers, but this one has been mentioned to me by so many paralegals and other non-lawyers that I lost count a long time ago. Getting a law degree is a great achievement, but I've never understood why it should confer a sense of "otherness" from everyone else in a firm working toward the same goals. Same goes for an organization with credentialed professionals working along with those who don't have initials after their names (engineers, accountants, doctors, etc.).

8. When the rules of the game change, you have absolutely no obligation to inform those affected by the changes about what’s going to happen next (if you do so, it’s merely a courtesy).

This is typical procedure in most large organizations I've worked for and with: you know what we think you need to know, and when we think you need to know it, if at all. It's really a boldface distinction between the deciders and the decided-upon, and it serves to make everyone below the top floor extremely nervous about what's coming next. That's a crappy way to live, and few people do their best work under such overwhelming ambiguity.

9. It’s perfectly fine to change how you treat people during the course of any given day.

The classic example of this one is the executive who goes to lunch with colleagues and speaks down to the waitress as if she barely has a brain. Later he returns to the office and interacts with his peers and superiors with polished grace and charm. Which of those two ways of treating others best exemplifies this executive's character? Without a doubt, the first, for the simple reason that how we treat someone when we don't have a motive of personal gain says much more about who we are than when we're doing something out of expediency.

10. One’s role justifies whatever is necessary for one to achieve success.

Perhaps more than any other, this is what differentiates respected achievers from everyone else trying to get to the top. One's role never justifies "any means necessary." It merely justifies evaluating all the options available, and then judiciously selecting those that least conflict with the well being of others.

You can find me on Twitter @neuronarrative and at my website, The Daily Brain.

 

David DiSalvo is a science and technology writer working at the intersection of cognition and culture.

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