The following is an excerpt from my new book, Clueless at The Work: Advice from a Corporate Tyrant, which is now available for purchase at Barnes & Noble and Amazon (print and Kindle). Audiobook coming soon! Published by Stairway Press.
If you think being smart is overrated, leave a comment!
I’ve met many people with high IQs. Some are very, very proud of their IQ scores and are quick to share them, whether you asked or not. Yet, some of these brainiacs can’t manage themselves out of a paper bag, so to speak.
What’s that about?
There’s a big difference between being smart and making good decisions. I know several walking encyclopedias who have trouble making ends meet, who are basically homeless, who have given up on finding a love interest, who have world-class genius and absolutely no street smarts. What I’m presenting in The Work is a framework that can help you whether you’re “smart” or not.
It’s more important to make good decisions than to be super smart.
The good news is: you don’t need to be smart to be successful. Nassim Taleb talks a lot about this in his books. He often writes about a fictional character named Fat Tony, who’s reminiscent of Tony Soprano from the show The Sopranos.
There’s a great Twitter account modeled after this character who shares unconventional bits of wisdom on a semi-regular basis. See twitter.com/FattestFatTony.
Here’s an excerpt from Taleb’s bestseller, The Black Swan, talking about the odds of flipping a coin and getting heads 99 tosses in a row. After 99 heads, statistics tells us the odds of the 100th toss being heads is 50%.
Fat Tony: You are either full of crap or a pure sucker to buy that “50 percent” business. The coin gotta be loaded. It can’t be a fair game. (Translation: It is far more likely that your assumptions about the fairness are wrong than the coin delivering ninety-nine heads in ninety-nine throws.)
Taleb: But Dr. John said 50 percent.
Fat Tony (whispering in my ear): I know these guys with the nerd examples from the bank days. They think way too slow. And they are too commoditized. You can take them for a ride.
Sometimes our education gets in our way. Brainiacs will tell you, “Given infinite time and an infinite number of flips, we are bound to encounter a situation in which a coin will land on heads 100 times in a row.” Well, of course! Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for that proverbial room full of monkeys with typewriters to produce the works of Shakespeare.
My 12-year-old kid will hear about the coin tosses and tell you, “No, that’s impossible. It’s a 50% chance of landing on heads.” We can mentally determine the possibility of an outcome all day long. There’s a big difference between trying and thinking about trying.
My favorite example of Taleb’s is the Wright brothers and the science of flight. What came first? The science of flight or the tinkering that led to planes that could fly? Obviously, the science followed the experiments because the science at the time was incapable of producing the reality of flight.
Thinking about life this way has been eye-opening because I’ll hear people (adults or children) say, “That’s impossible,” and I wonder whether something is legitimately impossible or if our current knowledge can’t articulate how it could happen.
A few weeks ago, I was driving my children to school and one of them said, “Dad, did you know Einstein had a 200 IQ?” Then another of my kids said, “He was the smartest guy ever!”
I almost hated to burst their bubble, but that’s what fathers are supposed to do! Wait, no…it was a real opportunity to help them think differently. I said, “Well, Einstein never took an IQ test. The people who measured his IQ are people who probably never met him and certainly didn’t evaluate him in a formal way. Besides, it’s more important to make good decisions than to be super smart.”
It was one of those rare times where I actually felt like I had some wisdom to impart to my children.
The American education system has done a great job teaching us that education is the answer to life’s problems. Not making enough money? Go back to school and get the skills you need. Feeling depressed? Take a psychology course and learn what your brain is doing. Is your car breaking down and you’re tired of paying a mechanic? Enroll in our auto repair program.
Education is excellent and I highly value it. We must remember, however, there’s a yuge difference between reading something in a book and experiencing it for real. I can watch videos all day long about how to change the oil in my car, but the moment I try to do it in my garage, I’m immediately faced with the challenge of getting beneath my car. I bought ramps and learned that driving onto them is a skill unto itself. One of the first times I tried, I accelerated too hard and the car landed on top of one of the ramps, causing permanent damage. Then, once I successfully got the car up, I needed to loosen the oil plug. Well, what do you do when it’s so tight that none of your wrenches can turn it?
See? Watching videos on YouTube is incredible, but there’s only so much you can learn by watching someone else do something. And taking an automotive course is probably overkill for learning to change oil. Besides, I need to change my oil today and not next semester. Any jerk can say, “It’s easy to change your oil. Just remove the oil plug and replace the oil filter. Hurr durr durr…” But once you put them under a car, you’re probably looking at a six-hour oil change.
Armchair experts, am I right?
Don’t worry about whether you’re as intellectually gifted as those around you. Really. One of the best guys I ever worked with can hardly write a sentence, but the guy can build anything with technology. I remember asking him one time, “Is it possible to build a system that handles data in this way?” His response, “Hmm… I don’t know. That sounds hard. I don’t think it’s possible, but I gotta take a look.”
The next day he had three options for me, all of which were far beyond my understanding, so I had to pretend to be smart and agree with the one he thought was best.
My last Taleb example for this section: if you needed surgery, would you rather hire a tall, thin doctor with wire-rimmed glasses and a British accent, who looks like he’s straight out of a Hollywood movie? Or would you rather hire an overweight doctor who’s got food stains on his lab coat, hasn’t shaved in a few days, and speaks like an Italian butcher in New York City?
Taleb argues that you should choose the overweight doc because he had to overcome far more biases and actually prove he is a great doctor. The other guy probably got by riding the wave of other people’s confirmation biases of how a doctor should look.On the flip side of this argument, I’ve met and worked with several legitimate geniuses who have levels of intelligence I will never approach. They each have different personal values, religious beliefs, work styles, and ethics. The one thing in common between all of them (besides being geniuses) is their habit of voracious reading, knowledge gathering, and tinkering. I’ve read and listened to interviews with game-changing humans and they all talk about how much time they spend reading. It’s not about finishing every book, but about getting the gist of a book, understanding its main concepts, determining nuance, and applying that knowledge to what they already know.
Never stop reading. Really. Never stop reading. Buy books, keep them on your shelves, and refer to them often. Keep your mind fresh and talk to people about these books. Ask other people what they’re reading. Talk about books. Talk about what you’re learning. Share how you are changing. Be open about all of this. Not only will you begin articulating something that’s important to you, which is a great skill unto itself, but you’ll develop wisdom. A joke I like to repeat is, “There are entire libraries full of stuff I don’t know.” It’s a true fact.
My wife reads twenty-five books or more every year. She has an insatiable desire to learn and grow. When she watches Jeopardy, she knows 50–75% of the answers on every episode. It’s stunning. She’s also detail-oriented and loves trivia, which is its own thing, but I firmly believe that her constant reading has made her smarter and more well-rounded than most anyone I’ve ever met (except for the literal geniuses who are just otherworldly). She reads fiction and non-fiction. She’s made a habit of reading. It amazes me and inspires me to want to read. If it weren’t for her, I probably wouldn’t have read the 40+ books that led to the book you’re reading right now.
And now our children are readers. My kids read more than twice as many books as the best readers in their classes, probably because my wife has read so much to them. And the books they read are tomes. They get superlative grades without any pressure from me or my wife, play multiple instruments, know how to use tools, and more.
I don’t say this to do the typical, “Oh, listen to how great my children are. I’m such a great parent.” I really attribute it to their dedication to reading, which gives them listening and analysis skills, improves their memory and knowledge retention, and exposes them to new ideas.
Full bookshelves are treasures of the earth. Nowhere else can we get and store so much wisdom. Nowhere else can we challenge ourselves with new ideas explained in detail. Nowhere else can we understand who we are as humans and how we’ve come to be. It is impossible to read extensively and be an idiot.
So, if you’re like me and you wish you could be smarter, pick up a (good) book and read. Then pick up another. And another.
As your body does with weightlifting and exercise, your brain will adjust and overcompensate to make room for more knowledge and wisdom.