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The Curse of Smart People (2014) (apenwarr.ca)
246 points by luu on Feb 10, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 153 comments

My pet theory: much of 'gut feelings' and intuition boils down to having our internal black box predict the behavior of other people. When you are 'average', this often simplifies to reasoning about what you would do in the same circumstances, which is relatively easy. If you are 3 standard deviations out, you'll have to compensate that consciously, which is inaccurate and difficult and slow. This is like how UI designers have difficulty to discern which parts of their UI are hard to use, while the end user could do so effortlessly.

Smart people end up having to run SmartPerson + NormalPersonVM(pre-alpha) in parallel. Normal people just run NormalPerson natively. Then they complain about bugs and slowness ('smart people are out of touch with reality!', etc.)

I've got a similar-ish theory. "Smart" people get rewarded as a child or adolescent for doing "smart" behavior, which teaches them to interact with deeper and richer observations and insights. If you don't get trained as a "smart" person, you get better responses to surface appearances.

The slowness comes out of this natively - "smart" children are taught to do more complicated things with social data, and brains need more time to get the sensory data necessary for more complicated behaviors. It takes a tenth of a second for the Patellar reflex, about a second to recognize a friend and wave hello, and a conversation to get someone on board with your project.

No magic required, just training the same sort of behaviors normal people have in the same sort of way. The most difficult part is un-learning "impress people with how clever you are" behaviors.

Agree. One of my friends is pretty smart (at least, above above-average) and works in the tech industry. When he was young he had to "simulate" his emotions to "look like a normal person." He had to think what normal people would feel under his situation and tried to feel that way (or tried to make himself looked feeling that way in front of people). For example, he thinks that crying on funerals is illogical, because the dead are dead already, nothing can bring them back and the dead would surely rather see people they love live happily instead of in sorrow. But no. Until he escaped from the environment he was born he had to live like a normal person, and tried to cry on funerals.

Most dumb and normal people also don't cry at funerals.

Smarter people than your friends have feelings, fall in love and cry for their dead pets.

Nothing to do with how smart you are. Cynicism isn't being smart. Cynicism is just being cynic.

He could be smarter and not cry and just say "I'll miss him/her" in smalltalk rather than rationalising the whole thing (because that's actually the dumb thing to do).

Not to diagnose your friend, but more as a general note: that kind of perspective sounds (from my admittedly unqualified perspective) much more typical of people on the autism spectrum or certain other non-neurotypicals than it does of "smart people" in general. It might be worth noting that there's some (mostly-anecdotal) indications that tech, particularly programming itself, may have higher incidence of people on the spectrum than other fields.

> Not to diagnose your friend

Then please don't.

His friend might not be on the autism spectrum, and it would be blatantly irresponsible to claim he was based on such limited evidence with no qualifications - which is why I didn't.

Rather, I stated that that kind of mindset is usually more common in individuals on the spectrum. It is, in fact, one of its most common and defining features - even if, on its own, it's not sufficient for a diagnosis. It's relevant to the discussion, even if it's not relevant to his friend in particular.

What further qualification could I have added to make myself clearer? I definitely don't want to be encouraging lazy net-diagnoses, as they're harmful to the people who have such disorders, so I'm genuinely curious how you would rather I have phrased this.

You could not have qualified that statement more. It's just hard to communicate ideas because the response prediction engine we build in our minds operates with a high degree of uncertainty.

Inability to understand emotions is not the same thing as being smart. It is possible to be smart and not to understand them, but plenty of smart people do get why people cry at funeral.

Also, majority of people who attend funerals don't cry and even more don't cry publicly. It is highly inappropriate to laugh or look happy, but if he was trying to simulate cry, then his idea of funerals was not based on reality nor observation.

I agree. Feynman was incredibly intelligent, musically inclined, and charmingly social. Anyone who feels out of touch with (perceived inferior) normal people due to being too smart is creating a hierarchy of people which places them just one step off the bottom. At the same time they present as if their position is the top step on the ladder.

People pigeonhole themselves into categories based on RPG mechanics. In their head, they're at Intelligence 10 so that must mean that they had to sacrifice Charisma. The real world doesn't have game balance. People will turn out to be smart and funny and kind and good looking. To make it worse, these will correlate.

And besides, the idea of intelligence resulting in damaged social skills is odd. Being able to generalise and make inductive conclusions is an important skill that is substantially helped by being intelligent. Making social decisions the long way (thinking through them) is inefficient. An intelligent person who's doing that is just poorly using their time.

Not saying you're wrong at all (in fact I agree), but I think that an important thing to remember is that smart people still have limited time like everyone else, hence they will probably be less enthusiastic to fritter it away on "meaningless" social interaction and small-talk when they could be doing something they consider useful, challenging or stimulating.

This tendency IMO tends to make some smart people less adept at social interaction, just because they do less of it. Not all smart people, but definitely some of them. Probably everyone knows an intelligent person who is socially awkward.

So that's another influence. But it's all generalizations.

> For example, he thinks that crying on funerals is illogical, because the dead are dead already, nothing can bring them back and the dead would surely rather see people they love live happily instead of in sorrow. But no. Until he escaped from the environment he was born he had to live like a normal person, and tried to cry on funerals.

No, the more I think about it, the more I think your friend is really missing something. Funerals aren't about crying because the dead could be in pain or suffering. It's crying about the absence and the hole they leave in our life. (that and emotional contagion, which is a regular psychological effect in such gatherings)

The fact he concluded he had to cry on funerals just goes to show his line of reasoning clearly lacks logic and experience to fuel it (teenage angst ?).

Now of course it depends on the culture you are raised in (see old italy black dressed old women at funerals for instance) and the violence attached to behaving outside the norm.

This could also be true of less intelligent people, and not true of more intelligent people.

Edit: typo

The few people I know to be whole-enchilada smart know ordinary people better than ordinary people know themselves. I think parent's pet theory only applies to a subspecies of google-smart.

> Smart people end up having to run SmartPerson + NormalPersonVM(pre-alpha) in parallel.

This sounds a lot like autism spectrum disorder. Only some smart people work this way; for others, the social mechanisms are intact and operate normally (and sometimes very efficiently). For anecdotal evidence and some insights, see Eric Raymond's blog post[1].


> My pet theory: much of 'gut feelings' and intuition boils down to having our internal black box predict the behavior of other people.

That's a tautology.

> Smart people end up having to run SmartPerson + NormalPersonVM(pre-alpha) in parallel. Normal people just run NormalPerson natively. Then they complain about bugs and slowness ('smart people are out of touch with reality!', etc.)

When all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail.

> NormalPersonVM(pre-alpha)

I literally did a spit-take when I read that. Is there a proper term for that cognitive routine?

> Is there a proper term for that cognitive routine?

I think it falls under the general term "Theory of Mind". Quoth Wikipedia:

> Having a theory of mind allows one to attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others, to predict or explain their actions, and to posit their intentions. As originally defined, it enables one to understand that mental states can be the cause of -- and thus be used to explain and predict -- the behavior of others.

... Unless I misinterpreted your post, and you're talking about the cognition behind spit-takes.

System 2 override, perhaps, though that's more general.

I had to read it multiple times. I think because I read too much statistics.

Normal(mu, sigma)

It would be cool to have a VM represented by a distribution though. :-)

There's also a problem when SmartPerson runs NormalPersonVM(6.0) because that runs at three times NormalPerson speed. SmartPerson knows what NormalPerson is going to say a half hour ahead of time and gets bored easily, plus NormalPerson catches on that they are being anticipated consistently and that's bloody annoying or scary for them. Running NormalPersonVM at the right speed for the right person is tough. Raising children gives lots of practice with this, though. We're talking "mirror neurons", btw.

I strongly believe that we should not easily segregate people into a smart kind and a not-so-smart kind. Intelligence comes in many ways and the genetics and upbringing of a person will make their intelligence manifest in different ways.

Someone being good at something, does not automatically equate to a high level of intelligence or smartness but rather a high degree of familiarity with the topic. Familiarity can be acquired either through a lot of practice or from a predisposition to understand quickly, which is intelligence or smartness.

However, what can be said is that a person who is good at almost everything, necessarily has to be smart because there wouldn't be any time to practice everything in depth. Conversely, I'd never call a person smart who's good at one thing but doesn't understand anything else.

The author says that smart, successful people are cursed with over-confidence due to them knowing one thing very well. But how can you call a person smart if they do not even possess the ability to properly self-reflect. Is that not the one thing that should define smartness?

Rationalizing things away, ignoring signs that interfere with one's world-view, and being over-confident are all traits of not-so-smart people. Just because you know how to code, does not mean you are smart.

I'd say the result of this anecdote should've been that it turns out that people can be good at their jobs and be idiots at the same time.

> The author says that smart, successful people are cursed with over-confidence due to them knowing one thing very well. But how can you call a person smart if they do not even possess the ability to properly self-reflect. Is that not the one thing that should define smartness?

I've more often heard the opposite stated, that people who are smart have a tendency to see multiple sides of every issue and struggle to come to decisions, whereas people who are less smart are more prone to see complex things in black and white. If only we had a readily available example of that phenomenon...

The Dunning–Kruger effect?

I always thought that the "accelerated" programs in public schools perpetuate this issue. There were some very sharp kids there for sure, but it might as well have been called the "conscientious track" since it was full of children who proved that they could sit quiet, learn from reading on their own, navigate institutions, etc. All the things rich parents make their children do anyway.

I've met too many individuals since who are intelligent but disorganized, energetic, or don't have a stable family that might have actually benefitted from some special attention and encouragement, unlike all the kids who were going to be just fine anyway.

The problem with that is why should those kids that can behave themselves (which used to not just be 'rich kids') be penalized by being stuck in an environment that has to slow down because half the class didn't hear the teacher the first four times because they choose not to pay attention.

In high school, I just stopped showing up. Classes were going too slow for me and didn't hold my attention. I'm not super intelligent but I do like learning and am fully capable of sitting down and focusing.

One size fits all doesn't work anywhere else, why do we expect it to work with educating children that have nothing in common except their age?

If they were advocating for the removal of the programs then it was an implication I missed. I think the posters only concern was that the classes contribute to the common misinterpretation of what smart is.

Maybe it would be better to just advertise them for what they are (according to that poster) and call them the "conscientious track"? That way kids who want in have something obvious and actionable to work towards other than "well, if you're smart you'll get accepted and if you're not, welp, enjoy burger flipping!"

That's exactly what I was getting at. Special treatment and exclusivity breeds feelings of superiority and inferiority where none need exist. Starting this at a young age tells kids that they haven't been "chosen," and kids are too young for us to blame them for not trying to take college classes etc. when they have been structurally told that those classes aren't for them.

> very easy to describe all your successes (project not canceled) in terms of your team's greatness, and all your failures (project canceled) in terms of other people's capriciousness.

I see this belief in probably about 80% of people I encounter, and it has little correlation with how smart one is.

I like to hang out with people who take responsibility for their failures rather than complaining about how circumstance, "The Man", or other people have it in for them. Such people are far more interesting. Unsurprisingly, they're also far more successful.

This is an inversion of cause an effect.

Successful people are emotionally invested in the idea that there is a strong correlation between personal behaviours and outcomes - On the other hand, unsuccessful people are more likely to believe that there is little correlation between the two; that it's mostly random and that skill only plays a tiny role.

Successful people will often try to argue that unsuccessful people who believe in luck don't succeed because their feeling of helplessness inhibits their actions (e.g. makes them lazy). From my personal experience, I think that this is not the case at all - In fact, I know many serial-failures who keep working very hard and are extremely driven in sprite of the terrible odds (and their keen awareness/first-hand-experience of those odds)... In fact, I find that serial-failures tend to work harder and smarter (have better critical thinking skills) than people who were successful at some point in the past (probably because unsuccessful people are more hungry for achievements and because they are more likely to identify and acknowledge flaws in their own plans).

Humans are hard-wired to gamble and accept terrible odds. People know that it's almost impossible to win the lottery and yet so many of them keep buying tickets every week - Terrible odds don't inhibit behaviour; especially if the media keeps priming us with the idea that we have full control over our destiny... That's pretty much the basis for all the superhero movies which are so popular these days.

Humans are hard-wired to gamble and accept terrible odds. People know that it's almost impossible to win the lottery and yet so many of them keep buying tickets every week.

I think you severely overestimate the average persons understanding of how gambling works.

Actually I worked in a gambling company as a software engineer before so I understand pretty well how they think.

Almost all gamblers know that the odds are not in their favour and yet they keep playing because they think they're special.

In psychology, they call this having an internal locus of control: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Locus_of_control. Just in case someone's interested in related work.

It's the same kind of thing as how when you accidentally cut someone off while driving it's because they were in your blindspot and you're having a bad day and it's the first time that's ever happened etc etc... and when someone else cuts you off they're an idiot who shouldn't be on the road and they probably always drive badly.

This is called the fundamental attribution error [1]. I thought it was a well-established phenomenon, but apparently its validity is contested.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error

I feel like I get cut off sometimes multiple times per journey, while I only cut off somebody perhaps once a month, if even that often.

Everyone else is a terrible driver!

I like to put it and think of it this way: Other people aren't for or against you, they're for themselves.

Focus on those whose goals align with your goals. Then help them.

Great advice that is only surpassed by the golden rule.

I was fortunate to have a senior director type guy give me this advice early on. (Although not quite as politely!) I followed it and it has served me well.

A real man might take responsibility, but if that ever becomes too visible you will be made the dunce if not scapegoat. Maybe only the successful people had the clout to pull it off. :/

Admitting mistakes to move on, failing fast, should prevent prolonging arguements though (if you can pull it off).

Sometimes it is your fault, other times it is circumstance and yet other times there was risk/luck involved (e.g. success depended on factors out of your control that could go either way). Both assuming that it was "me" and that it was "circumstance" is wrong.

> I see this belief in probably about 80% of people I encounter, and it has little correlation with how smart one is.

The virtue he is discussing is humility vs pride, and I think you're right that it isn't really correlated with intelligence. People all over the IQ spectrum will exhibit both.

Pride may be a common stumbling block to those who don't often experience failure though (i.e in the smarter crowd), because failure teaches circumspection and trains you to question your assumptions and reasoning when challenged.

> failure teaches circumspection and trains you to question your assumptions and reasoning when challenged.

In smart people maybe...

Just thinking out loud, but maybe dumb people continue to do dumb things because they don't have the insight or motivation to question their behaviour or the possible outcomes of their behaviour? ie they're not as good at learning from their mistakes?

It's more than that. People who take personal responsibility for failures in their life empower themselves to fix it, find a way around it, do better next time, etc.

People who consider themselves as victims believe there's nothing they can do to improve their lot, and so do not.

Good point. I hadn't considered the importance, not just in recognizing your part of the problem (humility), but accepting that it is you who can and should fix the problem (confidence, determination).

Here's a summary for why smart people are "cursed":

If you are two or 3 standard deviations about the mean, you'll quickly realize society is optimized and caters to the average intelligence. You'll find it very boring and frustrating having to deal with rules and decisions that do not make sense. You must continually push yourself to stay entertained and meet like-minded people otherwise you'll get very depressed that everything is meaningless.

-t. "smart" person

As a smart person, I see things a different way. There are certain hobbies that are only appeal to smart people, like pure math. But there are a lot of things that appeal to a broad range of people, like sport, arts, music and literature. I think it's very good to get involved in these things because they bring balance and a way to related to other people. In fact I created a "no programming related hobbies" rule for myself.

You would be amazed how much you can relate to other people, and how little intelligence is an issue, once you have common interests. I remember in my Judo club (which was open to the public but based at the university) a guy who wasn't attending the university commenting that he kept forgetting that a lot of the people in the club were really smart and accomplished (it came up because another guy complained about getting hit in the face, saying he had to present at a conference the next day).

That's not to say intelligence isn't an advantage in these other areas of life. But it's not a big deal or something that creates distance from others. People will appreciate your intelligence just as you appreciate their spontaneity, athleticism, kindness or any other qualities.

I like that attitude and have found it to be true in my experience.

Sports are good for this, you interact with people from many different occupations and age groups.

It's cool to see people from different walks of life solving the problems presented by the challenges of the sport in their own ways according to their own attributes.

You sound like a good person. If you're ever in Chicago hmu. We can Judo in the park.

Thanks, will do!

I lifted weights with two guys who were both physicists :)

I think it's funny that so-called smart people think that only smart people get bored or frustrated with arbitrary rules and decisions which seem to make no sense. Or maybe, just maybe, you're not as smart as you think you are if you can't discern the reasons for those rules and decisions (not saying they're good reasons, just that there is almost always a reason)

The “smart people” I know are seldom bored, because they are constantly reading interesting books, are fascinated by an endless stream of ideas, can think about a number of hard problems anytime they like, and have the curiosity and empathy and enough basic knowledge to coax an information-rich conversation out of almost any interlocutor. YMMV.

I think boredom is just fatal for some smart people. Look at DFW writing The Pale King, a tome on boredom, before his suicide last decade. You occupy yourself to avoid going mad.

Or more recently Mark Fisher, who at least in one essay (to be honest, I've only read this so far but just bought another book; I'm much more familiar with DFW and agree with your analysis) suggests that depression is societal (https://theoccupiedtimes.org/?p=12841) and who killed himself.

I think boredom is important, and if you aren't experiencing it in some measure on a regular basis then it is possible you're depriving yourself of the ability to experience maximum pleasure from the world around you.

Ok, that was a lot of hedging language. Here is what i mean. I tend to view the mind as a complex but general purpose signals processing device (its been a useful model for how i understand why i do what i do), and I tend to understand that the brain's natural bent is to normalize sensory input. This explains why if you wear colored lenses, the brain will filter out that color and return your perception of what you see to what it considers a normal white balance. The way the brain tends to filter out pain is another example.

Using that understanding, I tend to define boredom as the feeling of desire for stimulation. The reason why I think boredom is important is because if you have been experiencing a lot of stimulation your brain will have normalized those sensations down to a more normal level. That means your ability to derive pleasure (or pain) from an experience is dependent on how much experience you've had lately. When you do something that produces little stimulation, your brain allows itself to lower whats normal.

This is why, I think, meditation and the need to "unplug" are considered so beneficial. Ultimately, what you want in experience is a kind of sin wave, where the length and amplitude of a given experience has been tuned to your specific personality and physiology. Some people like a very mild wave form, some like an intense one, but times where you are able to normalize allow you to re-experience enjoyable activities over and over again without burning out.


Having said that, I think that often what people like DFW experience that drives them to suicide isn't boredom perse but boredom combined with depression and/or despair. A struggle with despair is much worse when you go through periods of boredom because boredom makes space for the despair to fully occupy your mind. Experience is distracting, but not a cure.

Anyway... those are my thoughts. And for a bonus, a poem i wrote some years ago encapsulating some of these thoughts.


life is like a sinus rhythm

its ups and downs

beat in, beat out

the problem is the frequency

too fast, too slow

we complain, we exult

but what we really want

is proper length and amplitude

— 12/21/09 – 21 - http://www.walljm.com/2012/06/04/life-is-like-a-sinus-rhythm...

"If you're bored, then you're boring."

I heard it phrased as, "Only boring people get bored".

There's certainly some truth to this, especially in certain anti-intellectual societies and time periods. But many highly intelligent people have been truly gifted not only with intelligence but with the respect and even adoration of others.

You should read the biography of John von Neumann.[1] He's deserved the term "genius" if anyone ever did. George Polya[2], famous author of the math classic "How to Solve It"[3] wrote of him "Johnny was the only student I was ever afraid of. If in the course of a lecture I stated an unsolved problem, the chances were he'd come to me at the end of the lecture with the complete solution scribbled on a slip of paper."

These were unsolved math problems -- unsolved to the entire field of mathematics that he was able to solve right after hearing them for the first time in class. The ability to do that is simply staggering.

Von Neumann went on to make so many contributions to so many fields that this would turn in to a huge post if I was to try to briefly mention them all. Some of the most notable was coming up with the von Neumann architecture on which virtually all modern computers are based, the central role he played in the development of the atomic bomb and the development and use of computers, the invention of cellular automata, and many, many others.

He was extremely highly regarded during his life for his intellect, and was enormously influential.

That's just one really obvious example, but you'll find many, many others. Einstein springs to mind as the quintessential intellectual superstar, as do Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking. Socrates and Plato had a gigantic influence on virtually all of Western philosophy and through that on much of the modern and ancient world. Aristotle, a student of Plato, had an incredible influence on more fields of study than can easily be counted, and could arguably be one of the most influential people in history. He also tutored Alexander the Great, one of the greatest of all military conquerors. Diogenes got away with telling Alexander to get out of his light.

Many many people "3 standard deviations above the mean" (or more) have been eagerly sought out and highly rewarded. Michelangelo got to paint the Sistine Fucking Chapel. Newton and Leibniz created fucking calculus, and were both highly regarded and influential in their time and after. Voltaire influenced all of France and was hugely popular even in his life, as was Benjamin Franklin.

It's actually getting to be a little exhausting to do an adequate summary of the hugely influential brilliant people throughout history, and I think this post could go on for quite some time and not be nearly complete.

Yes, plenty of "geniuses" do get overlooked during their lifetimes, and many more will probably never be "discovered" or acknowledged even after they are dead. Van Gogh only sold one painting in his life, and that was to his brother. Many anti-intellectual regimes have deliberately committed mass murder of their intellectual classes, staged mass book burnings, etc. Many intelligent people are bullied as children, and as adults are persecuted for being too far ahead of their time, as Gallileo was. But many others are recognized and rewarded -- much more so than most "average" people will ever be.

As for the "Curse of Smart People", I'd rather live with my eyes open, as painful as that might be, than be lulled in pleasant slumber.

[1] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_von_Neumann

[2] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_P%C3%B3lya

[3] - https://www.amazon.com/How-Solve-Mathematical-Princeton-Scie...

My favorite von Neumann anecdote from the wiki page you linked to came from Edward Teller who said "von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my 3-year-old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us."

...and that's coming from Teller, who wasn't exactly an intellectual lightweight.

Exactly. I can't even fathom this level of intellect.

Edit: If anyone is interested in the topic of Hungarian scientists in the twentieth century, I can highly recommend the book The Voice of the Martians[1]. It can be a bit dry at times but it is incredibly interesting nonetheless. American scientists jokingly referred to their Hungarian colleagues as Martians due to their other worldly intelligence and their accents that no one could understand.


While we're on a von Neumann love fest, here are some other great quotes:

  The Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe speculated: "I have sometimes wondered
  whether a brain like von Neumann's does not indicate a species
  superior to that of man". Eugene Wigner wrote that, seeing von
  Neumann's mind at work, "one had the impression of a perfect
  instrument whose gears were machined to mesh accurately to a
  thousandth of an inch." Paul Halmos states that "von Neumann's speed
  was awe-inspiring." Israel Halperin said: "Keeping up with him was
  ... impossible. The feeling was you were on a tricycle chasing a
  racing car." Edward Teller admitted that he "never could keep
  up with him".

  When George Dantzig brought von Neumann an unsolved problem in
  linear programming "as I would to an ordinary mortal", on which
  there had been no published literature, he was astonished when von
  Neumann said "Oh, that!", before offhandedly giving a lecture of
  over an hour, explaining how to solve the problem using the hitherto
  unconceived theory of duality.
That said, as astounding as Neumann's intellect was, his, Teller's, and the other brilliant Manhattan Project's scientists' roles in devising arguably the most terrible weapons that human kind has ever produced, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and threatening the destruction of the world or at least civilization as we know it is certainly a sober reminder that intellectual achievement does not automatically result in ethical achievement. Though, of course, how ethical their actions were could be endlessly debated, and there are plenty of people who think they did the right thing.

On the subject of Hungarian scientists, I've read that Europe in general was a hothouse of intellectual achievement and education before the 2nd and especially before the 1st World War. It was just sheer insanity that they virtually destroyed themselves, their civilization, and culture, and exiled and murdered many of their most brilliant men.

Even sadder that the world might be preparing to do it again. Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it.

Certainly everything you have expressed is a somber reminder to never forget the lessons of history.

Hungary is a particularly interesting case in intellectual achievement since it produced so many influential scientists despite it not having the industrial base or wealth of many of its European neighbors, and a relatively small population.

You might enjoy JvN's take on the importance of a well run educational system[1]. His comments seem even more suited for our current condition.


And Dantzig himself was known for having mistaken a couple of unsolved problems for homework :)

I think a lot of people say these grandiose things about smart people because they don't want to consider that they simply spent 30+ years doing little but their work/passion and are simply very good.

Feynman was a genius, but he dissects his own accomplishments and you can see how if you only knew this, this, this, and that, plus a few different methods of integration, it would have seemed obvious to you too.

tl;dr we do our heroes a disservice when we hold them in too high esteem, because we discount their very human, and very costly, accomplishments.

Quite often great accomplishments are the result of a lot of hard work.

But lots of hard work alone does not explain why one person who put in a lot of hard work will greatly outshine many others who also put in a lot of hard work.

Nor does it explain phenomena like prodigies, who excel at a really young age, with far fewer years of effort than many others.

Finally, creativity and inspiration often play great roles in mathematical and other endeavors. They can't entirely be explained by hard work or dedication, which are often prerequisites for intense creative efforts but aren't all there is to it.

"Curse of Smart People"

Gallileo. Politics is a curse for smart people. Another example, "New people" in "Year Zero". [0]

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Year_Zero_(political_notion)

This almost seems like a cliche or a troll. I think smarts also lead people to miss the world around them and trivialize anything that isnt a "challenge". To some very smart people I know -- chill out and laern to enjoy the absurdity and mundane as well as the challenge. Be bored once in a while. Know satisfaction in the simple.

I think there's really something there that can't just be dismissed as "Just learn to enjoy the mundane". Go spend some time around people significantly more mentally challenged than yourself, like young children, and make an effort to enjoy their recreational activities in the same way that they do directly, and I think you'll find some things they genuinely enjoy that are just too simple for you, like watching a single youtube video on repeat dozens of times in a row.

There are definitely some relatively simple and mundane things that you can learn to find satisfaction in, but that doesn't apply in reverse; it doesn't mean that everything dismissed by someone as "too simple and dumb and boring for me to care about" is actually something worthwhile and valuable for every human to invest effort in learning to enjoy.

We can certainly debate over the details of precisely which activities might be more satisfying than expected when dismissed by someone for being insufficiently intellectual, but can we at least agree that there really are things that are too boring to enjoy, and that this set of things can vary between different people?

It makes the world a more-interesting and more-beautiful place for different people to have different interests and enjoy different things in different ways. We don't make the world better by insisting that everyone must learn to enjoy precisely the same activities.

> Go spend some time around people significantly more mentally challenged than yourself...and I think you'll find some things they genuinely enjoy that are just too simple for you...

Speaking as a non-smart person of boringly average IQ, so perhaps I'm inflicted with the myopia of someone without the raw intellectual horsepower of a 2-3 standard deviation smart person. But I do have an insatiable curiosity about the universe: for context, having the capabilities of a Banks'ian Culture Mind would be really neat to me.

My theory is people get bored because they self-select what interests them. That is, out of all inputs pouring in through their senses, their mind too-aggressively prunes the torrent of data, and they're left with a paltry amount, and as a consequence correctly declare that curated trickle as "boring".

Take your example, "watching a single youtube video on repeat dozens of times in a row". On the first pass, the video repeats over and over, what is there to counter that it isn't boring if you remember all the details? But do you really remember all the details, or are you fooling yourself? See if you can predict tiny details of the presentation in the video, for instance. Say you have perfect photographic recall, and you really can recall with perfect precision and clarity every moment of the video. Wouldn't that be sufficient cause to claim it is boring to watch it over and over?

Peel back a layer, and wonder about say, what would have motivated someone in the video to pursue whatever it is that they are displaying in the video. What kind of training would it take to say, balance a spoon on your nose? What kind of time commitment?

Peel back a different layer, and wonder about what specific details the young child is capturing with each pass. Talk with them about if they noticed some detail in the video after a certain viewing pass. Ask them what they like about it, in specifics.

Peel back yet another layer, and wonder about the implication upon cognitive neuroscience research. Are there pleasure hormones that reinforce repetitive learning better than without those hormones? How does that impact our understanding of machine learning?

Once you start looking around you this way, the details you can uncover go recursive and fractal. Lots of old religions and mysticism have expounded upon this way of perceiving the universe. If it helps to visualize in more modern concepts, then I sometimes liken this approach to "playing computer", except pretend the computer is the one that runs the simulation of our reality, and imagining all the details and principles that would get expressed in the simulation "software", right down to the quantum level. There is literally not enough time in the universe for a human mind running on chemical connections to run out of entertaining lines of thought this way.

Nice. I will use this, although I generally find both kids and funny gifs pretty entertaining anyway.

Do you have any suggestions for boring bureaucratic meetings with lots of contrived jargon? That's where I struggle to find entertainment.

Thanks for the long reply. I agree with much of what you wrote.

To me that doesn't sound like the curse of the "smart" people, it sounds more like the curse of the arrogant people.

Smart people understand that there is a reason that pointless / absurd rules are there. Usually the reason is not that everyone else is too stupid. The problem is usually that people have conflicting interests, and there just isn't a simple solution.

1000 times this. Raw brain processing power doesn't have all that much to do with one's disposition to the world. Wise people realize that the smartest human is still hopelessly incapable of really understanding the universe. Smart people can come up with better models of reality, but they are still subject to the chaotic nature of the universe just like the rest of existence.

Forming and dwelling on a belief that society wasn't created for you is something that can happen for a variety of reasons. The healthy thing is to accept the things you can't control and figure out how you can best get along in the environment to which you are subject. For the very smart, there has probably never been a better time to be alive in terms of applying ones gifts.

> Wise people realize that the smartest human is still hopelessly incapable of really understanding the universe.

Still the best theories that physics has to offer are the best that humankind has found in recorded history. And they were only found because there were people that did not tolerate this situation (being incapable to understand the universe).

> Smart people can come up with better models of reality, but they are still subject to the chaotic nature of the universe just like the rest of existence.

The moral should rather be: Because of this fact, sit down and develop better mathematics that will lead to us understanding this kind of chaotic situations much better in, say, 50 years.

> Smart people understand that there is a reason that pointless / absurd rules are there.

Understanding that there is a reason (which is often that it was made as a political compromise in a distant past) does not imply that one tolerates/accepts it. As I hinted understanding the reason can also mean that one gets a much deeper hate for the rules.

And that can be the case just as much even if there is no simple win-win solution to the problem.

One can hate the rules -- for their injustice, ineffectiveness, abstract immorality, etc -- and at the same time realize that the rules are an inevitable result of the complex system we inhabit.

As a student of history and humanity and a free moral agent, you can recognize the reality we live in, acknowledge that it contains many no-win situations, and still hate the status quo even if you don't have a solution for how to fix it, because it deserves to be hated.

stoicism philosophy helped me do this. also diogenes.

You're both right

Oddly enough, the person who invented and attempted to enforce absurdly strict rules was smart. Except that autistic a bit and thus needed rules over nonsense crap to have sense of control. It seemed logical to him, but it did not seemed that way to non-autistic smart people.

I wonder how much human potential we're wasting by putting "smart people" on a pedestal instead of having higher and better utilization of regular people. Regular people are far more capable than working at McDonalds, Walmart, Amazon, or whatever wage slave job BigCo is offering.

It's pretty hard to prove, but I bet that we're barely even at 1% utilization of humanity's potential, given our technology and population.

Imagine if the world's nail salon workers could spend their time curing cancer, fighting hunger or homelessness instead of the useless primping of rich people's hands and feet. If we only had an economic system to allow everyone to reach their fullest potential despite circumstances of birth, and social priorities where personal vanity was not placed above the good of humanity. In 500 years time maybe we'll get there.

> Imagine if the world's nail salon workers could spend their time curing cancer, fighting hunger or homelessness instead of the useless primping of rich people's hands and feet.

The nail salon workers could use their free time for this purpose if they wanted. They (perhaps with some rare exceptions) don't do it. On the other hand: The fact that someone is willing to give money to the nail salon workers for getting hands/feet pimped shows that someone values this kind of work.

This reasoning is flawed at best and malicious at worst. Anyone can do anything "if they wanted". So why don't they? Don't you see how ridiculous that sounds? It's as if people don't have a life and real obligations preventing them, or something.


Homeless people can go to Harvard [1]

This guy build a hotel for $9000 [2]

People familiar with statistics can consistently win the lottery [3]

"Anyone can do it, why can't you?" /s

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liz_Murray

[2] https://www.littlethings.com/9000-dream-home/

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/4-time-lottery-winner-not-exa...

* There are thousands if not millions of examples like this. Pointing to exceptions has never been a good argument. People who work in nail salons generally have a socioeconomic background that doesn't give them the privilege to be "wasting" time curing cancer. Suggesting that they can, or even should be doing this is insulting, at best.

well, i think the point is two-fold.

first, that it can be more difficult for people to get an education (and in many cases, a professional job) depending on their background and thus have a much higher barrier to "cure cancer" type work. simply saying that they could is all well and good, but it ignores some harsh realities of life.

second, the fact that people value something does not necessarily make it important. so what if someone values their nails being done? who does it benefit? capital is a distribution of resources in order to maximise output. some of that output is chaff, but i'd argue that less chaff and more useful product is better for a society to prosper.

> the fact that people value something does not necessarily make it important.

I think that is precisely what makes it important. As long as as individuals in a society have freedom of choice, the only way to approximate some objective measure of importance is by looking what they value in aggregate.

The things I think are important and the things you think are important are probably different. So who's right? From a practical standpoint, what makes a difference is what people think is important. As the other commenter mentioned, in capitalist society people clearly demonstrate what they think is important by spending their money.

If people chose to spend their money getting their nails done, then they do think that it's important. If enough people think it's important then it becomes so, and no-one can really tell them otherwise. This is the case as long as people have freedom to chose how they make money and how they spend it.

> second, the fact that people value something does not necessarily make it important. so what if someone values their nails being done? who does it benefit? capital is a distribution of resources in order to maximise output. some of that output is chaff, but i'd argue that less chaff and more useful product is better for a society to prosper.

Markets form a democracy: Everybody can vote with their wallet what they want and consider as important.

Perhaps if everyone started from the same point this would be true. However, not only has everyone not started from the same point, there are forces -- those who already have money -- who are spending money in an effort to brainwash those who do not into doing things that benefit them indirectly.

> Perhaps if everyone started from the same point this would be true. However, not only has everyone not started from the same point

By deciding to have children or not (and if yes: how many?), parents vote about the distribution of the startup positions for the next generation.

EDIT: In other words: Poor people should rather be angry about their parents than about the system.

I honestly don't even know what to say...

1. "Parents vote about the distribution of the startup positions for the next generation." What?

2. "Poor people should rather be angry about their parents than about the system." Are you serious? What good is that going to do?

Sorry, but you must be living quite a privileged, or sheltered life if you believe these things.

Reproduction has a very well-earned taboo thanks to the terrible eugenics trends of the early 20th century. But, this taboo prevents us from seeing some things clearly. One of those things we tend to avoid thinking about as a society is the who/when/why of parenting, and the long-term effects of those decisions (or lack thereof).

The movie Idiocracy satirized one aspect of this, but it still doesn't get much discussion in terms of family planning on a societal scale -- whether to encourage or discourage childbearing, whether some groups should be encouraged more than others and the moral questions thereby raised, etc.

So, acting shocked and invoking "privilege" doesn't move the conversation forward, when there is ample underexplored territory in which to do so.

> Sorry, but you must be living quite a privileged, or sheltered life if you believe these things.


Could you provide an algorithm for deciding how many children to have? Then could you apply it to an average American family in 1950? I bet that any algorithm would tell them 'Are you crazy to even consider having kids? You just witnessed a global war that took tens of millions of lives. The world economy is still anemic. And the world is on the cusp of the nuclear war.' And every algorithm will be proven wrong by the baby-boomers generation. I think your argument is a suggestion to over-rationalize in the absence of information. Exactly what the article is describing.

It's not a democracy when some people have exponentially more votes than others.

Imagine if the world's nail salon workers could spend their time curing cancer, fighting hunger or homelessness instead of the useless primping of rich people's hands and feet.

Rich peoples hand and feet!? Do you have any idea how much a manicure costs? I just searched online for a place near me that does one and it's 27 USD. Is someone who can afford 27 USD for something that isn't food or shelter rich to you?

Do you think a high percentage of people who work at Nail salons are capable of contributing something significant to the frontiers of medical science? Or was that whole sentence just supposed to be a humorous line in a parody version of John Lennons "imagine" you're coming up with? Because if it was, it's gone completely over my head.

Maybe in 500 years people will stop trying to peddle a utopian "system" that has shown time and time again to impoverish people, retard the progress of entire nations, and - in many cases - kill millions.

In the UK hair dressers regularly come out as the people happiest in their work, it's not a huge leap to imagine nail salon workers are similar.

And about 4 billion people live in the slums with no access to basic human needs much less education. Oh, how many einsteins and others are there among those people. Heck the cure for cancer could be among those people but we (collectively as a human race) choose to sideline them and throw away their potential. I think this is a huge loss to the whole human race.

This is a good point but I think you're missing about half of the equation.

There is tremendous unique potential (geniuses, savants, etc.) being wasted right now due to poverty or socio-cultural repressiveness. Those one in a thousand or one in a million individuals who are stuck somewhere and unable to live up to even a fraction of their potential. Einsteins, chandras, or feynmans who will live their lives doing menial work in a ghetto in the developing world instead of advancing human civilization.

On the other hand, that perspective also downplays the contributions that "ordinary" people can make. And in a way reveals some of the deep seated classicism that exists in our culture today. The truth is, that if you can work a job at McDonalds (and almost everyone on Earth is capable of doing so) there is a ton of other work that you can do that is vastly more valuable. If you can work at McDonalds you can be a scientist, no joke, or an engineer, or an artist. Maybe you can't be einstein, but for every einstein in science there are thousands upon thousands of researchers whose jobs aren't that much more challenging than working a typical "service" job. And that kind of thing is as much how we cure cancer and build/better civilization as the work of geniuses.

Which, I think, puts the waste of work/talent from having so much of the workforce stuck in "menial" jobs in even greater perspective.

I don't know. Working at McDonalds hardly qualifies one for understanding current scientific hypotheses, debating and testing them. Sure, there are lots of jobs in science other than theoretical, but it might be very tough, unrewarding and thus frustrating to spend a life chasing things without ever fully grasping their complexities.

Doesn't putting smart people on pedestal's, like in charge a the design of tool, enable them to make things that can be part of the workflow of regular people?

Perhaps "smart" is too un-nuanced by conflating the real performance of many types of intelligence areas (social, emotional, political, spatial, logical, etc.) into a singular narrow attribution based on brief interactions? (Also yet another example highlighting where language constrains thinking.) And therefore the overvaluing of maximizing possession of one strength at the detriment of avoiding complementary strengths in other areas? Effectively, a personality monoculture where greater personality diversity would likely have tangible benefits (leadership, sales, marketing, strategy, design, etc.)

Smart is a hard thing to talk about. Like the concept of "quality". There are hundreds of different kinds, and I can't really describe it, but you and I both know it when we see it.

I can forgive them for being overly broad with "smart". You're also right that it's not one thing, but it's just hard to talk about, because it's like a wet bar of soap.

The human brain is insanely good at consistent dimensional reduction. Our conscious interactions struggle with the same task; it's Herculean to approach general purpose ordering in many-dimensional situations.

IMO "smart" is more of a social role than anything else. There's a specific sort of behavior that you have to do in order for people to think that you're "smart". Like, take George W. Bush for example - he's about two standard deviations above average in intelligence, but his public-facing persona lines up much better with "regular guy" and so people misunderestimate him.

You can find similar examples from all sorts of public figures - when you dig into them, there's way more there than their persona suggests. Kanye West, Lady Gaga, Marilyn Manson, Dolph Lundgren, and more.

My experience has been that most "smart" people are actually high-functioning autistic savants. I mean, if they were actually +2 std deviations above on the whole enchilada, their lives wouldn't be such a mess.

You can make a lot of money and still be a hot mess. Look at celebrities. Alpha nerds are just a variation on the theme.

I think that might be colored by the "culture" of tech workers where you happen to be, that has certainly not been my experience. The smart folks I've met in tech, including the outright geniuses, have been almost universally well-rounded with a strong set of "soft skills" and typically a widely varied set of interests outside of their work specialty. Indeed, I'd describe them as "fully fleshed out human beings", perhaps more so than the average human being in fact. The number of "smart tech workers" I've come across who I would describe as "high-functioning autistic savants" I could count on the fingers of one hand, and even then that description would be a decidedly uncharitable characterization for them.

Wasn't talking specifically about tech workers. I was talking about academically gifted "smart" people I've known in various walks of life who are, generally speaking, not happy.

If their lives aren't a mess, they're not the ones I'm talking about.

I don't disagree with you. But celebrities have a far wider audience. Your rockstar programmer doesn't have that.

A lot of social problems disappear when you're accepted as a famous accomplished person. So a celebrity can be weird and not face the same social isolation.

Technical skills have higher economic value but lower social status than skills in the arts. An eccentric painter or musician achieves a level of cachet that an eccentric programmer doesn't. Dysfunction has a certain glamour if you have artistic talent; there's no such thing as a tortured engineer.

As an alpha-nerd, social isolation is just a symptom.

The pathology is that we started with a weak arm and a strong arm, and most of our parents and teachers downplayed the importance of the weak arm while encouraging us to work the absolute shit out of the strong one.

Then they send us out into the world looking like teenagers who just discovered xtube. The world can smell weakness and throws loads of curve-balls at the weak arm, and most of us never notice because we're still too obsessed with the other arm.

The author may have been headed somewhere with that idea, but he didn't get there.

I think there was a germ of a theory why companies full of smart people do dumb things, or are sometimes evil, or something like that; but it didn't get that explicit because it might criticise the employer too directly.

Tentative new title: "The Curse of Stifled People"

Well, maybe that sounds a bit mean, but the constant fear of saying something wrong about one's employer (past or present) is a bit sad sometimes.

Oh the irony of poorly articulating one's smartness. This is smart in the "excellent sheep" Deresiewiczian sense (1). That's what goog/face/harvard is a safe harbor for. Oh and smart people don't sit around thinking about who's smart. That's just some garden variety vestigial junior Olympiad wannabe BS in action.


I am fascinated by the number of comments made by people who actually think they're so smart, it's the society (made of billions of people) that's dumb.

1 Mind > 7.5B Minds ?

I tend to think these companies don't hire smart people. They hire psychologically deviant people who will both comply without a problem, and who will do mean things to others because they have a superiority complex... a little like german engineers during WWII ;)

"1 Mind > 7.5B Minds ?"

In some cases, yes. 7.5B people didn't discover relativity or invent the airplane. Some few specific people did.

"I tend to think these companies don't hire smart people. They hire psychologically deviant people who will both comply without a problem, and who will do mean things to others because they have a superiority complex... a little like german engineers during WWII ;)"

Maybe you're just trolling. But do you have any possible reason to think this is true? It certainly doesn't seem like it based on any experience I've ever had, that's for sure.

Invention is a continuous process.

If you can't detect deviant people in these companies, you might consider reading JG Ballard for example.

I've worked at several such companies, and they honestly do have a ton of incredibly incredibly smart people working there. However, it takes a lot more than simply smooshing a bunch of incredibly smart people together to produce greatness. It takes good leadership, good judgment, good planning, and so on and so on. Unfortunately, at many of those same places, crammed full of smart people, a lot of those other elements are missing. Management tends to be mediocre at best. Planning tends to be about the same. Corporate culture tends to be oppressive. And so on. All of these things cut down the effectiveness of smart people, and the end result is often a lot of mediocre products with only a few flashes of brilliance here and there.

The core problem is that once you scale beyond a single person working alone the mechanisms and nature of cooperation between individuals starts to dominate the end result as much as individual capability does. And while smart people might help offset poor corporate structure, policies, and management, it's only marginally effective.

P.S. Also, sometimes insisting on hiring exclusively very smart tech workers can be a coping mechanism for institutional failures (and thus somewhat of a red flag). It's more or less a truism that corporate culture and corporate managerial processes are more or less unaccountable, not at all introspective, heavily resistant to criticism, and even more resistant to change. But if your management chain and corporate culture is so incredibly screwed up that it becomes a drag on effectiveness and productivity how do you cope with that? And the easiest answer is actually a somewhat surprising one. You hire the absolute best people you possibly can. Not to make changes or make things better, oh no. But rather to squeeze the most out of the system as it stands. Smart, hyper-competent people can succeed even in the face of tremendous challenges. Including terrible internal tools (a common problem everywhere), terrible processes (also common), terrible management (ubiquitous), and terrible leadership (also ubiquitous).

A workplace filled with smart people isn't necessarily a good sign. It could mean it's a horribly dysfunctional place that only works because all of the individual cogs in the machine are the best they could possibly be.

Intelligence, Nazi references, and our lack of proper definitions aside, societies were formed to cater to the lowest common denominator. That doesn't mean that the construct itself is "dumb" - whatever that may mean for a concept. It just means that not everyone can be happy with how it works, all the time.

I like how everyone has a different opinion about how a smart person has to be, but in most cases people are referring to certain traits that do not correlate with intelligence (and frequently could indicate deviation in either direction), and that's plausible since intelligence is such an abstract notion.

For instance, recognising patterns, and acting on those patterns are two different things. One might notice that acting on the patterns can bring him success/economical safety and what he considers joy or effortlessly having goods. But the other one can make a step further and consider that in the steady state he will not be any happier. If both happen to make this logical step, they might have to make a decision based on their preferences, which is highly subjective.

For me, intelligence is not comparable. To be more honest, I think there is only a partial order, and for that, I'm not sure.

A worldview is like a sampled model of an ultrafilter which is in reality more like a leaky sieve

Author takes issue with the following attitude in a certain way.

> Smart people, computer types anyway, tend to come down on the side of people who don't like emotions. Programmers, who do logic for a living.

There's another way to take issue with that, though. In _The Righteous Mind_, Jonathan Haidt argues that emotion-processing is critical to decision making (and that we use emotion-processing to guide reason), citing some work that people with damaged emotion processing suffer analysis paralysis on simple tasks.

It's an interesting idea. Of course, emotion processing etc. is also the stuff that causes us to have a negative emotional reaction on seeing weird code. The rest of the book argues as to how we form moral opinions, but that part was interesting without the stuff about morality.

" In _The Righteous Mind_, Jonathan Haidt argues that emotion-processing is critical to decision making (and that we use emotion-processing to guide reason), citing some work that people with damaged emotion processing suffer analysis paralysis on simple tasks."

The balance between logic, emotion and decisiveness is a theme explored in Star Trek S1E16, "The Galileo Seven" [0], [1] Spock taking command and following ^flawlewss logic^ almost gets them marooned and killed. I have a theory smart people who assume a rigid logical mindset make the worst leaders.


[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Galileo_Seven

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0708465/

I wonder if you can overcome that type of decision paralysis with an RNG. Paralysis may mean stalemate; an emotional response wouldn't be meaningful in goal terms (though the side effects of emotional satisfaction may be very meaningful).

The lesser known Curse of Smart People, but one that follows directly from this this article, involves hours spent reading about wifi routers and signal processing.

> Working at a large, successful company lets you keep your isolation. If you choose, you can just ignore all the inconvenient facts about the world.

Is this why social justice extremism is so popular in Silicon Valley? I mean, social justice is critical to a well-functioning and fair society, but the brand of it that SV folks tend to sell is fairly detached from the realities of living in a human civilization.

What do you mean by this?

As well-off as people are, they tend to view problems they don't face as solved. Therefore they turn their attention to what _they_ view as a problem. In a very crude example, the Bay Area people don't care about the wars in the Middle East - they're not a problem as far as they're concerned. Their exclusion from places they want to work and the climbing housing prices though, yuck.

It sounds to me a bit that the company had a culture where premium is given on looking smart - so people took great efforts to look smart. Which lead to rationalizations and inability to admit mistakes (I can not just say that I made decision cause I did not knew better, I have to find smart sounding reasons).

Any positions higher then junior programmer needs to make intuitive decisions. Everything above junior programmer position deals with uncertainties - whether it is prioritization, organizational decision (who to hire, what position to put new person in), architectural decisions when working with new technology and so on and so forth. You make a lot of value judgement. If everyone is pretending all those decisions were logical, then there is collective denial going on. That is not the same thing as everyone being smarter then all other companies around.

Tl;dr: A lot of rationalization going on is not consequence of everyone being smart, it is flag of workplace where people cant afford to talk honestly about mistakes and decisions.

"What I have learned, working here, is that smart, successful people are cursed. The curse is confidence."

Things to remember when smart people appear confident:

- the correlation between confidence and ability to actually "do" something can be low

- smart people can live in their heads

- smart people can overestimate their expertise in areas they may be familiar or ignorant of, equally

- street smarts can kick smart, smarts arse

A quick question I ask is, "Have you done this before?". I use this question to determine perceived verses actual smartness.

Here's an example of why you need to do this. Back in '10 I went on a 220km hike from 200 meters above sea level to 2,228 (about 7300ft). [0] I was with a mixed group of people, fit, smart and motivated. On the last day, mid point to the final destination, we took a photo at the summit of the highest point in Australia. Lots of smart people in that photo, PhDs, Masters students etc. By the end of the day, one suffered frost bite, three got lost and of the finishers who covered the entire distance, maybe 20% came away without some sort of injury. Why?

  "Have you done this before?"
A lot of smart people ^thought^ running and riding then walking 30+Km/day was easy. A lot didn't think going into an alpine area in early autumn would be cold. The PhD with blue lips who I marched off the coldest place in Australia wore jeans and jumper, had taken a 600ml container of water and no food. [1] The three who sparked a search, decided to take break in a hut, but not inform anybody. [2] Now nobody really got hurt or lost. But they could have, had luck not been on their side. Smartness breeds a certain type of arrogance that left unchecked, can get you into trouble quickly.

Time and time again I remind myself, depending on the circumstances, "street smarts" whip "smart smarts'" arse.


[0] @samh, "Australian Economist who lost bet will walk from Parliament to Mount Kosciousko" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1126054 and https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1126078

[1] At the top the wind was 50km/hr and in fog. https://flickr.com/photos/bootload/4603144874/in/album-72157...

[2] Tail-end charlie (me) also missed checking inside the hut. https://flickr.com/photos/bootload/4797709801/in/album-72157...

[3] https://flickr.com/photos/bootload/sets/72157624081287855

[4] https://flickr.com/photos/bootload/sets/72157624081287855

> "Have you done this before?"

Very nice. And to estimate robust competence, perhaps:

"Have you focused on this? Long-term, with reflective practice, and embedded in a critical community?"

I don't know how to make that pithy. "Is this your thing?", "Is this your life?", "Are you a contender?", ...?

I'm interested transformative improvement of science and engineering educational content, through greatly increased use of domain expertise. So I've spent a lot of time scraping against the limits of people's expertise.[1]

The steepness with which people's expertise drops, as you move away from their primary focus of effort, is greatly and pervasively underestimated.

There's a news story genre, an example of which is "Harvard MBA's confused about what causes Earth's seasons!" But why is this surprising? If the last time someone focused on something was in middle school, then their having a middle school understanding of it shouldn't come as a great surprise.

A professor wizzy in their own subfield, may have a graduate student's grasp of nearby subfields, an undergraduate's grasp of the rest of their field, and a high-school grasp of other fields.

A non-biology MIT professor may have no idea what DNA is. An MIT chemistry lecturer no recognition of dimensional analysis. A Harvard physicist, hard-nosed and empirical, in teaching "just has a feeling for it", "intuitively knowing" what will work and not and how well. If you want to find out what crayon color to use for the Sun, don't ask a random first-tier astronomy graduate student - they will almost always get it wrong.[2]

The unadorned adjective "smart"... has startlingly large negative utility.

[1] http://www.clarifyscience.info/part/MHjx6 Scientific expertise is not broadly distributed - an underappreciated obstacle to creating better content

[2] http://www.clarifyscience.info/part/Jw6yo "What color is the Sun?" - An example of science education pathology.

> A non-biology MIT professor may have no idea what DNA is.

I would be fairly shocked if more than 0.1% of the time this was the case.

PS: I loved the second link!

> shocked if more than 0.1%

MIT has ~1000 non-emeritus professors. So order 0.1% would permit 3 cases. But that's including biology, and non-science/non-engineering, which I didn't include. So it's at least low order 1%. And I'd be unsurprised if it's at least several percent. And not shocked by ten.

Consider an old professor. They may well have not had a biology class in high-school or college, let alone graduate school. And never touched biology professionally. And either not have had kids, or was not deeply involved in their science education. So we're down to "ambient general knowledge". What percent of the general population of PhD's with only ambient exposure, have any idea what DNA is? And many professors are among the busiest people I know. Imagine asking a serial startup CEO, what do you mean you don't know who entertainer-X is, aren't you watching TV and following popular culture? Well, no. So no need for shocked?

Very rarely, a professor giving a talk, will put the audience on the spot. A room of EE/CS professors may not recognize astronomical tidal forces. Half a room of MechE profs may think red blood cells are thinly scattered in blood.

Sure, common curiosity trims the numbers. But it's not universal. A now-retired physics professor might respond to a suggestion that they use biological examples in their intro physics problems, with "WHAT! You want me to teach... biology?!?!?!".

At the other extreme, there are a few impressive polymaths. But even there, out of field, competence is uneven and has holes. Impressive, impressive, WTF basic misconception, impressive... Similar to comments that when Hans Rosling started doing immigration, he tripped on some basic misconceptions.

Out of field, one isn't "embedded in a critical community". Part of how science works, is people being very afraid of being embarrassed by getting it wrong in front of their peers, and so putting in the effort and questioning to avoid that. Out of field, no one cares. One still has some habits of thought, but the edge isn't there.

And baseline unmotivated competence is not high. There's an old video[1] made out of Harvard, which includes graduating MIT and Harvard students, given a battery, one long wire, and a small lightbulb, and asked to make light. And failing, and failing, and...

[1] https://www.learner.org/resources/series26.html

Re "PS: I loved the second link!", thanks! :)

None of the things you write about apply only to "smart, successful people". Your whole example hinges not on the hikers being stupid or smart or successful or failures, but unprepared and improperly guided. We could spread the blame for that all around and outside your group of hikers.

Then again, nothing the article writes about is exclusive to "smart, successful people", so all in all, what exactly are we talking about?

It's funny that the people who could benefit the most from this comment are letting it sink to the bottom.

"benefit the most from this comment"

This idea matters if you want to lead, rather than be the "go-to" expert, subservient to a boss. Smart people with people skills probably get this. Smart, smart people may fundamentally not understand this and remain pigeon holed in their areas of expertise.

Inside the Twin Trade Buildings during 9/11/01, rooms full of smart (and scared) people were killed following rules. [0] Blue collar workers reacted better. I use these extreme examples to show where "it pays not to be too stuck in your head" and develop other skills often seen as the antithesis of being smart.

I offer Rick Rescorla (Morgan Stanly Security officer, World Trade Centre) as a counter-example. [1]

[0] Martha T. Moore, Dennis Cauchon "Delay meant death on 9/11" http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/sept11/2002-09-02-choice...

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rick_Rescorla

> other skills often seen as the antithesis of being smart

Pray tell, what, specifically, are these skills?

Well thanks a lot for the useless meme...

Being "smart" is not easy. From conflicts with others because of Dunning-Kruger effect [1], because your own ego (no matter how "smart" you think you are, you're not that "smart" in the whole "smartness spectrum"), etc. So in the end, most "smart" people learn to deal with his own ego, idiots, and just try to be nice, because life is very short for fussing and fighting [2].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunning%E2%80%93Kruger_effect

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qyclqo_AV2M

Based on this article, the curse of "smart" people appears to be lack of self-awareness.

Hubris born of success (overconfidence, arrogance) is "stage 1" in How the Mighty Fall by Jim Collins:


Humility (know you don't know, always be asking questions), a focus on the greater good (is it about you or something greater than you?), and having a "growth mindset" are part of the antidote:


The author and some comments tend to confuse skills, success, and intelligence. I think the author describes successful and skillful software engineers who are far from being highly intelligent. It just happened that their skills of constructing program is highly valuable in the current market conditions. Which feeds their arrogance and leads to all kinds of ugly consequences. The hardware engineers of the 20-th century had the same issues. The main hero of the movie Falling Down is an excellent example of such guy.

LOL. What you call "intelligence" is simply being a prick :)

Outside of software, my favorite example of this principle is Donald Rumsfeld. He's clearly one of the most brilliant people to have ever worked in government, and yet through overconfidence he contributed to the worst foreign policy blunders in modern US history and got thousands of people killed. So it seems that being smart doesn't necessarily help with making good decisions, especially in complex situations with incomplete data.

I'm not saying I'm skeptical, but I am saying I want to learn more about Rumseld's brilliance.

But isn't the fact of being smart and working at a big company selecting for exactly this trait?

Reading the article, I wasn't sure which ones were the smart people there: those who are confident that they are smart, hence successful, or those who constantly question their smarts, but are successful nonetheless?

Very true. I use to say that I'm too smart to be confident :-P

How many rabbit holes have I been down, and would I prefer discovering more of them or following one to its end?

I also tend to think you DONT need 5 days of interview to detect that someone is smart... ;)

"bing around a bit..."

Lol is that really a thing?

I worked at Microsoft too, in one of the best divisions full of the smartest developers in the world. I worked with some truly amazing individuals, some outright geniuses in their field, in fact. Some of the lessons I learned from my coworkers while I was there I still carry with me and value very heavily. But I wouldn't say I was awed as the author was. Nor was it my experience that there was a distinct lack of clueless people. I interacted with a number of folks that didn't have what I would consider a full toolkit of talent, skills, experience, and judgment (maybe my standards are higher than the author's, I don't know).

I'd say the problems that exist in that environment and in that group of people (and other similar groups at dev shops all around the world) go well beyond the ability to rationalize anything. The biggest problem I've experienced consistently, everywhere, is a lack of caring about the right things. A lot of engineers live in a little fantasy bubble divorced from the real world. Separated from the consequences of their actions, separated from a connection with the actual practical use of their product by real humans. They too often don't have an understanding of how what they're working on fits into the "real world" and instead just enjoy twiddling the knobs and levers behind the scenes because that's a fun hobby for them.

A big problem I've seen consistently is the willingness to accept the status quo regardless of the way it is because it "works". And this is one case where being "smart" and capable can actually be a detriment. Being smart and capable means that you can take an incredibly broken tool or process and still make productive use out of it. And to some extent there's a pride or a bravado that comes from doing so (relevant xkcd: https://xkcd.com/378/). But that sort of thing is self-defeating. It doesn't matter that you can get by with horrible internal tools, because in reality existing in that state destroys an enormous amount of productivity. Programmers too easily fall into the trap of thinking that the hard way is the better way, and you see this in code too where devs think they're smart by writing complicated "sophisticated" code for no good reason when plain old run of the mill highly readable code would be vastly preferred.

As the author touches on the curse of excessive confidence is also a big problem. You see a lot of developers who fall into the know-it-all trap and think that because they completed a challenging degree program, work in a highly paid highly impactful field, and have some degree of expertise in some tiny corner of that field that somehow that makes them einsteins or something. The reality is that no matter how much you as an individual can possibly know your ignorance will always outweigh your knowledge by huge orders of magnitude, even within a given field. A big problem this causes is developers not realizing their limitations in certain areas and just papering over those problems, perhaps even thinking that they are fundamental to the discipline or the field in general. I've seen countless examples of systems put together by very smart very competent devs who had some significant gap in their overall skillset and instead of seeking outside help or advice or taking the time to learn something new they instead just came up with some horrible hack rooted in stuff they were comfortable with but applied in a totally inappropriate manner. And those hacks are often so deep into the system that it takes a ton of work to refactor them out and away, on top of all the problems caused by the system being fundamentally flawed in design. Whereas spending just a few days or a week of time learning something new could have resulted in a much more robust system from the outset, if they'd simply have checked their confidence a bit.

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