The Arrogance of Intelligence

We’ve all met people like this.  Within ten minutes of meeting them they’ve worked it into the conversation that they belong to Mensa, have you heard of it?  Oh, you haven’t, it’s for people that are really smart.

Really?  I’m happy for you.  Really, I’m being honest.  But I don’t care.  You see, I don’t care about your intellectual IQ.  I care about how you relate to other people and to the problems at hand.  Do you listen to me to learn or to put up with me?

(Before I get the hate mail, I have plenty of friends that really belong to Mensa and have never mentioned it until they asked me if I was interested in joining.  I’ve always declined, thank you very much.)

I’m being cynical because people like this drive me nuts.  If it’s their idea it’s THE PERFECT SOLUTION because, well, they’re the smartest people in the room.  Never mind if you have practical real world experience that says that idea, while good, isn’t the ideal solution.

I’m not a farmer, but I grew up in farm country.  All of my neighbors were farmers and while most of them never had a college education they were practical people.  The old joke was that you give a farmer, baling wire, gum, and a welder, they can fix almost anything.  They were practical smart because plants and animals either do well or they don’t and if they don’t they didn’t stay farmers very long.  The best part, is that they never went around bragging that they were very good farmers – they didn’t have to nor did they want to.  Heck, most of them would admit they weren’t very  smart, but they knew how to manage their business with thousands of different tasks, machinery, animals and plants and make a profit (in most years).

The smart people, the smartest people in the room, don’t bother to ask the pertinent questions, or make measurements, or ask for previous results of tweaks because they are, well, the smartest people in the room.  They assume they are an expert at everything they put their mind to.

I look back at Apple in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and I think they had a fair amount of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome where if they didn’t make it, or code it, it wasn’t going to make it into their products.  We all know that Apple was in dire straights back then.  When Jobs came back to Apple he got rid of a lot of projects and now their very focused and they use a ton of ‘open’ standards in their operating system.  Why?  Because they get to expand upon the ideas of hundreds of thousands of developers rather than a few thousand.

In my engineering days I saw plenty of engineers that would re-engineer a solution because it wasn’t the way they’d do it.  It generated a lot of unnecessary work and wasted money.  The software industry isn’t any better.  They feel that because they have user interface designers they need to tweak the user interface on every release.  Every major new version adds a bunch of new ‘features’ that the average person won’t use because they need to keep the developers busy.  That’s called software bloat.

If I had one bit of advice for people that own their own business is this:  hire people that are smarter than you.  I mean it.  Hire people that are as close to an expert in their field as you can afford.

Let them challenge your (the boss’) ideas and assumptions.  Make an atmosphere where their ideas get a fair hearing without shooting them down right away because they’re not smart enough.  If you listen to the smart people you’ve hired to get things done you will probably learn a few things.  After all, don’t smart people want to learn new things?  Don’t smart people want their ideas to be challenged?

If all you do is hire ‘yes’ people then your product will suffer.  Your product won’t have focus.  Ideas that should be shelved for another time get put in now because the boss wants it and no one can tell him no.  Ideas from customers are ignored because they’re ‘just customers’.  When customers quit using the product, ask them why – you might just learn something.

Neither do you want design by committee.  What an awful thought that is.  It’s the exact opposite of being focused.  A good leader or leadership team will pick the good ideas out and let their people run with it.  The bad, or not so good ideas, will be stored away and revisited every now and then.  What was a bad idea might be a good idea in a year or two.

I’ve rambled enough for now.  I’m sure you’ve all had ‘leaders’ in your organizations that were never open to ideas unless it was their idea.  They used circular reasoning to shoot good ideas down and to keep their ideas alive.  Are you still with that company?  Is that company still around?  Is it financially stable?  My educated guess says that they’re not as smart as they think they are and you’d agree.

18 thoughts on “The Arrogance of Intelligence

  1. 20 years ago I gave a talk on the future of computing to a local Mensa group (I have never been a member of that organisation). Boy. Talk about a bunch of misfits. They were all wizards at solving puzzles, but half of them seemed to be borderline nutcases.

    I have an acquaintance (with a PhD in Chemistry) who I consider to be one of the smartest people I’ve met, with a photographic memory. He now considers himself to be a Mac/Unix software guru, and there’s absolutely nothing he doesn’t know about Unix or Mac programming and OS internals. However, to my knowledge, he’s never written anything more than Hello World, and has been unemployed for 10+ years (i.e. probably unemployable at this stage). There is no way I would _ever_ employ this person myself, even though he’s the smartest person in the room/city, and waaaaay smarter than yrs truly.

  2. Smart and intelligent are two entirely different constructs. Some of the stupidest people I know are quite intelligent. And some of the smartest people I know are quite unintelligent. I think it’s dangerous to use the terms without qualification.

  3. “he’s never written anything more than Hello World, and has been unemployed for 10+ years (i.e. probably unemployable at this stage).”

    Maybe he has found what he loves and is doing it doing otherwise could be viewed as stupidity 😉 .

  4. I highly recommend reading Joel Spolsky’s book, “Smart and Gets Things Done.” Sure, you want smart people working for you, but I think it’s more important to hire someone that “get’s things done.”

    In my engineering days I worked with an electrical engineer that had a masters degree, had several years of experience in the Navy and was undoubtedly smart. But, he couldn’t design his way out of a wet paper bag and liked to sit in the office with his feet on the desk reading a newspaper rather than working with his contractors out in the field to solve problems. He definitely failed on the ‘Gets things done’ end of the spectrum. Come to think of it, when the company went through rough times, he was the first to get laid off so I guess people do notice these things.

  5. I always recalled that one of my old bosses, a smart guy in his own right, always said he’d rather have a group of C students than A+ students working for him. When quizzed he said that preference was because the C students might not have bee n the smartest in the class but knew how to get things done. The A+ guys were probably so smart they were bored to tears in class.

    Not sure I quite buy that BUT there’s certainly merit to getting people who know how to get things done as opposed to sit around thinking about how to get it done and never do it.

  6. @npalardy
    I guess those people would fall under the “smart enough” category. I can see where that would have some merit.

    I’ve worked for a few “Smartest People in the Room” types I can tell you it sucks from a worker perspective. Your ideas only have merit if the boss agrees. Otherwise it’s like talking to a brick wall (though the brick wall might give more positive feedback). The really crappy thing is when they spit the idea back to you a few months later gushing at what a wonderful idea *they* came up with.

    Must be awful for a smart person to have ‘slow and stupid’ people working for you.

  7. Intelligence ability. IQ is not the same as education, experience, charisma, skill…the list goes on.

    The best receptionist I ever knew had left school at minimum leaving age, and while not stupid was not a great intellectual. However she had amazing skills with people – she could take the most furious or cold mannered client and within minutes have them chatting away happily and amiably. If she ever came up with a suggestion how to improve client relations, you should listen and if you had any intelligence implement it as soon as possible.

    People who are arrogant about their IQ (as opposed to simply having poor people skills) tend not to be that smart anyway; if they didn’t have a magic number to point at to justify their “superiority” they would simply pick something else. If you are really intelligent, then “noblesse oblige”.

    The really smart way to run a business is to hire people who are good at the particular job (“ability”), irrespective of “intelligence”, then listen when they suggest how things could be done better (“why own a dog and bark yourself”). If you’ve never come across it before, see the Investors In People programme for practical ideas how to get useful input from staff without “design by committee”…

  8. A lot of people who talk up their IQs are much like the people who talk up their possessions or hold extremely strong political convictions or hold extreme stereotypes – it is something they cling to because its all they have.

    All of the above used to raise my hackles, but not any more.

  9. @JMW

    I hear you.

    Sometimes the SMITR (smartest guy in the room) can’t see the forest for the trees.

    It is really frustrating when good ideas are like a box of chocolates, wrapped in $100 bills that are thrown out the window because of were they come from. Sigh!

    Well, at least payday is consistent. 😆

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