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A turkey farmer once told me that the domesticated turkey is the dumbest animal on earth. It is so dumb, in fact, that it goes way beyond not having the sense to come in out of the rain. Allegedly, if it starts to rain on a domesticated turkey, it will look up, to see what is falling on its head. And then, it will forget to put its head back down, water will get into its beak, and it will drown. Now, the guy may have been yanking my chain. But it certainly illustrates the danger of dumbness. No doubt, dumbness is dangerous. But have you ever considered the danger of smartness?

We work with and for a lot of really smart people. And yet, sometimes things still go wrong. Here are some observations we’ve made over the years, regarding smartness.

1. I am not the only smart person in the world…the company…the state…the room. One trap smart people fall into is to believe that because we were the smartest person in our kindergarten, or on their little league team, we must be the smartest person…period. This misunderstanding of the world around us causes us to do and say things that are harmful to ourselves and others. If we believe we are the only smart person, then we stop listening to other people’s ideas. We stop heeding other people’s warnings. We stop taking other people’s opinions and feelings into account. At the very least, we hurt the feelings of those we depend on for some part of our livelihood or the enjoyment of our lives. Worse, we can shut down people who might be helpful to us. And worst, we can actually make enemies of people we declare dumb (by our actions), who might be pretty smart in their own right.

2. I am not really that smart. Even if I am the smartest person in the room, the chances of my being an order of magnitude smarter are pretty slim. This becomes more true as we move up in our careers. If I am reasonably successful, the further I go, the smarter I can expect the people around me to be. If I can learn to tap into the smartness around me and make my smartness available to them, rather than wearing it like a royal cape, I can be the hub of a circle of smartness that generates practical outcomes that are greater than I (or any of the dim bulbs around me) could have generated alone.

3. It really doesn’t matter how smart I am. I read somewhere that above about a 125 IQ, intelligence provides no statistical advantage in most pursuits. The specific example was Nobel Prize recipients. It turns out that the awarding of Nobel Prizes is about evenly distributed across the IQ range of 125 to about 165. The obscenely intelligent person is no more likely to win one than the merely smart person. This is probably because so many other factors come into play.

Michael Jordan had a slightly above average IQ. But he had wow-did-you-see-that spacial relationship understanding, 99th percentile eye-hand coordination, and 270 degree peripheral vision.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the principle of mastery in terms of 10 years/10,000 hours, and applies it to athletics, music, technology, science, and academic achievement. The Beatles, for example, played together for a cumulative 10,000 hours between 1958 and 1968, culminating in the release of their most acclaimed albums.

Bill Gates had access to 10,000 hours of middle-of-the-night computer time as a middle-schooler through high school.

A telling story is told about George W. Bush (the president with an IQ closest to average). Apparently, when he was a freshman at Yale (or was it Harvard?), he rushed a particular fraternity. He had as much to drink that evening as anyone else there. Yet, at the end of the evening, he went around the room and shook the hand of each of the fifty people present, thanking each one by name! I know a lot of people with IQs higher than GWB, who can barely remember their own names. That ability to connect with people he meets got W into the Whitehouse.

4. Just because I’m smart doesn’t mean I know everything. By definition, intelligence simply means I can learn more faster, more readily recall more of what I know, and/or apply what I know to more situations. Still, it doesn’t mean I know everything. I can assume that the more unfamiliar my situation, the less my knowledge will be applicable, and the more likely it is that someone else (even someone not as intelligent as me), someone more at home in the situation, will be better able than I to navigate the terrain. I’ve noticed that this is an especially big problem for people with a lot of formal education and|or certifications. Yet it only stands to reason. If you parachute unexpectedly into the arctic in the middle of January, you’re much better off hanging with a 12-year-old Inuit with an IQ of 100, than with a CPA from Plano, Texas, with an IQ of 145, who graduated at the top of his MBA class at Wharton. The person who is able to evaluate the situation and then find the intelligence that truly applies is much better off than the very-smart person who assumes that his intelligence will provide the right solution for every situation.

No doubt, dumb is dangerous. But the real trap is the danger presented by the assumption that I am the only smart person, the belief that I am smarter than I am, the miscalculation regarding how much my smartness matters, or the belief that I know more than I do, or that what I know applies where it does not. The secret, I think, lies in certain principles (3, 4, and 7) we hold dear. Be intelligent and assume others are also. Respect the people around us. Listen first, talk later.

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