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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 6 November 2015

How Stupid is Smart?

Yesterday, I had a frustrating conversation (which I'll get into shortly) that got me thinking about smarts, communication and ego.  It was going to be one of those threads that just weaved its way through my brain for a bit untapped, but then I read the piece linked above.  

Two pokes was enough for me to need to explore this tangent here.

I won't comment on Salutin's interpretations of who is and isn't smart, except to pause on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a bit.  Since he's entered political life, I've heard completely polarized opinions on whether he is "smart" and strategic or vacuous, but an excellent showman.

Having only met the guy once, my in-person impressions are limited (but found here).  What I really want to explore though is the notion of what "smart" actually means.

First, some personal background:

Based on technical definitions and standardized testing and diagnosis formulas, I am considered both low-end genius and full-on learning disabled.  Throughout my life, I've struggled with this duality - I've been a poor student and a trend-sending innovator, a respected mentor to some and a useless idiot to others.  

With time, I have come to recognize the root of this duality; my brain is a constant buzz of synaptic activity, linking the various bits and bobs of knowledge I've picked up over the years together.  This might be systems-thinking; it might just as well be random nonsense that signifies nothing.  I'm sure there's a bit of both.

By standard definitions, this connect-the-dots ability might be considered "smart", as in a good thing. In practice, though, the metric that matters most is success - how your ideas become action. If you can't communicate what you're thinking, of what relevance is the thought itself?

Success tends to be transactional.  The best communicators are simplifiers.  We are all told that you should only communicate one thing at one time.  Too many priorities equals no priorities.  KISS.

How smart can genius (about complexity) be if success is communication and communication is about simplicity? 

To me, "genius" is just one more category of socially less-capable; it's like being an ESL student struggling to put native concepts into words in a foreign tongue.  Sadly, the way our language, culture and perception of smarts works, to even hint at this concept smacks of condescension.  

If you tell someone "I'm having trouble putting what I'm thinking into words that make sense to you" in a non English Second Language way, you are being condescending and egotistical, even if that's the furthest thing from what you want to convey.

Or put it another way - it's like having a ton of energy, but poor motor control.  What good is being the fastest kid on the track if you can't keep yourself pointed in one direction?

My frustrating conversation from yesterday provided a painful reminder of a time I worked with one of the most successful political people in the country.  I know I drove her bananas.  I know she got the same impression my convo partner from yesterday did - that I was condescending, that I was communicating some sense of intellectual superiority which I didn't feel, at all.  It came to the point where I started to hold my tongue, even if I had insights that I felt were valuable, because I couldn't be sure those insights actual were or if they were, if I could ever get them across.

It doesn't matter what you can think if you can't communicate.  

You can have the best product or service in the world - if you can't sell it, what value does it have? What value do you have?

One of the most successful, influential people I know (who considers me dumb) once told me "you don't have to know what you're talking about, just sound confident while you say it."  I doubt this fellow has had an original idea in his life; he's terrible with remembering names, or details, or commitments.  Does it matter, though?  He is a success story.

Is Rob Ford stupid?  The man got elected mayor of the biggest city in Canada.  If you say that reflects on the intelligence of the general population, how are you any different from the pollsters or politicians who say their methodology is right, it's people who are wrong?

I think Donald Trump is a narcissistic bully with a poor grasp of complexity.  For his part, Trump could care less what people like me think - he's wealthy, successful and a serious contender to be the next President of the United States.

I've seen people who consider themselves smart (and who say things like "we are smart, they are dumb") do incredibly short-sighted things.  I've been blown over by the subtle wisdom of people who consider themselves mental light-weights. 

One of the most emotionally intelligent people I have met has Down Syndrome; there's nothing more powerful or heartbreaking than to see this fellow intuitively respond to a person's emotional state in just the right way to bring them to balance, yet be unable to communicate in words what they're doing or have that amazing skill recognized and harnessed for the greater good.  He is gifted; he is a gift, yet one that will never reach it's maximum potential.

We've all seen the reverse, too - people able to grasp complex ideas or write code the way Mozart wrote music who are socially/emotionally hopeless.

So what is smart?  Is smart the ability to connect dots?  Is it knowledge?  Is it the ability to simplify, or motivate, or hustle?

There's no definition of smart that everyone agrees with.  There's surely some confirmation bias mixed into our individual perceptions of who exemplifies smart.  

What matters, at the end of the day, is results.  

Which brings us back to Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau is an effective communicator.  Well, duh - he just became Prime Minister with a majority government.  You can say he was stage-managed by smarter team-members, but who assembled that team?  Either way you slice it, Trudeau made it work.

I've heard some people complain that he's got this uncanny (or unnerving) ability to always be looking at the camera.  People who took a picture of him posing with someone else will still find that he is perfectly positioned to make their shot look good.  

Isn't that a gift?

Trudeau has ego (who doesn't that feels they should run for political office?), but he's also incredibly emotionally intelligent.  While always staying true to himself, Trudeau has an incredible ability to slide into speech and physical movement patterns that align with whoever he is speak with.  

When I spoke with him, he became a reflection of my frame of mind at the time - less chit-chat or enjoying a moment with a celebrity, but trying to quickly get a point across that I thought was relevant.  His whole body took the pose of a coach listening to advice from one of his players.  Next conversation over, Trudeau was smiles, shoulder touches and collegial - because that's what the next person over was looking for.

That's unquestionably a gift.

Broadly, I suspect Trudeau is a lot more "intelligent-smart" than he gets credit for.  My guess is that he may think in systems and connections too, but has a honed ability to channel the relevant bits or simply abstain from sharing too much.  I could be totally wrong, mind you - I'm as much victim of confirmation bias as anyone, and there's clear reason why I might want to believe you can be a lateral thinker and yet still manage to be successful.

Try not to get hung up on definitions of who is smart.  Recognize that everyone has value.  Never think that you are smart and they are dumb - the truth is that they will invariably have insights that you don't.  You may think those insights worthless, but that says more about you than it does about them.

And please don't ever feel that whatever advice I share in person or in writing is some kind of holier-than-though prescription - it isn't.  It's just my opinion.

In that opinion of mine - the "smarest" people aren't the ones who feel they are better than everyone else in the room, but the ones best able to bring those people together.

If smart is a form of individual superiority, than  leadership is the ability to create community.  

Give me a leader over a smart guy any day.

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