The most damage is caused by those who are not as smart as they think they are. Let me repeat: the most damage is caused by those who are not as smart as they think they are.
– Charles Biderman, “Biderman’s Daily Edge: The Bernanke Put is Dying”, Trim Tabs Money Blog, July 25 2012 (site last accessed July 26 2012)
It’s very gratifying to the ego to think “Look at me, I am so smart.”
It also leads to a lot of problems when a person’s ego becomes mostly based on “smart”.
I was going to write a list of the various problems I’ve seen caused by smart people who overestimated their smartness, or who got too caught up in showing everyone else who smart they are (and that includes my own mistakes along the way, as well as those of others). But I found all my examples — and even all my attempts to consolidate or explain those examples — coming back to one common theme:
“I am smart, so therefore . . . . “
So therefore . . . therefore . . . therefore nothing.
Being “smart” means very little once you get out of school, and even in school “smart” only relates to a limited amount of activities (primarily homework & test-taking).
“Smart” doesn’t mean knowledge, experience, trustworthiness, loyalty, work ethic, attention to detail, ability to listen, conscientiousness, empathy, consideration for others, ethics, ability to see the big picture, ability to concentrate, ability to keep track of details, ambition, vision, innovation, diplomacy, organizational ability, leadership ability, self-awareness, self-discipline, humility, or any of a thousand other things.
“Smart” might mean a person spots patterns sooner than others, processes information faster than others, or can create or analyze items or ideas of greater complexity than others.
Which is not to say a smart person doesn’t have potential — they have enormous potential, if they are willing to recognize their own limitations and admit those limitations to themselves and others. Not every person can be smart about every thing. And it takes time, effort and self-discipline to turn “smart” into expertise or an actual skill.
When you start dealing with someone who is smart at words and playing around with ideas, but not at self-knowledge, delegation, or humility, then you have big problems.
These type of “smart” people will convince themselves that no matter what it is, they can handle it. After all, they’re smart! And when they make a mistake (which all of us do), they’ll find 10 000 ways to explain how it wasn’t really a mistake. Or if it was a mistake, it was an unavoidable mistake. Or it was someone else’s fault.
Which brings up some of the more uncommon types of actual “smart”: the recognition that personal time and energy are finite resources; that the world at large waits for no one; and that somebody somewhere has to make an actual decision.
Every minute of every meeting and conversation justifying actions, every word in every letter, e-mail and op-ed explaining all the reasons why ideas and actions were the right ideas and actions because after all, these were smart people, smart people find the right answers: these are all bits of time and energy and effort that are gone forever.
And a lot of “smart” people I’ve met really don’t like to admit that.