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It's More Important to Be Kind Than Clever (dailygood.org)
161 points by spreadlove on Aug 31, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 72 comments

No. It is never more important to be kind than clever. Never.

We have a clear example of this at the moment, with the Paralympic games. The founder of the games, Dr Ludwig Guttmann, revolutionised the care of spinal injury in the UK. Until his innovations, a patient with a spinal cord injury had a life expectancy of less than two years, with most patients dying from bedsores and urinary tract infections.

Guttmann's methods were resisted all the way by his colleagues and the nurses working under him, because they seemed wilfully cruel. Guttmann reduced the sedation of patients, even if it meant that they were in constant pain. He had patients turned every two hours, day and night, even if they were terribly sleep-deprived. He forced patients to exercise and undergo painful physiotherapy.

The results were nothing short of miraculous. Within a matter of years, patients who were previously seen as hopeless incurables were being sent home to live long and fulfilling lives. The medics around Guttmann simply lacked the vision and insight to realise that these patients could be treated effectively. They were kind and caring people, but they could do nothing but dose their patients with morphine and watch them die.

Kindness is nothing but a particular sort of shortsightedness. Being a decent and moral person often requires one to do something that is entirely correct but deeply unkind. Medicine is the most obvious example, but we all live with such challenges every day. Do we give our children candy or broccoli? Do we tell a friend that their haircut is unflattering? Do we tell a relative that their partner is a philanderer? Often, the moral choice is not the kind one.

I don't see what your anecdote has to do with kindness. Presumably both Guttmann and his colleagues were all kind enough to want to reduce suffering; Guttmann just happened to be more correct about how to do so. Neither approach was more or less kind than the other, but one was more effective.

Additionally: I don't see what the anecdote has to do with the linked article, which was about marketing and customer relations. No one sane is saying that the world would be better off with no clever people, or that it's somehow a choice. The point was simply that for a business with customers, merely "executing well" doesn't work as well as being genuinely nice to your customers.

Then jdietrich turned the whole thing into a giant strawman about an obscure doctor using a different interpretation of "kind".

The effective approach was seen as deeply unkind, for reasons I elucidated - it resulted in a great amount of suffering in the short-term, for reasons which seemed futile to everyone but Guttmann.

Kindness is essentially a static phenomenon - it can offer nothing more than a slight temporary improvement. Clever is permanent and revolutionary. Clever is what eliminates smallpox, clever is what puts airbags in cars, clever digs irrigation ditches and makes pesticides.

Kindness is personified by Mother Teresa - a well-meaning person who can offer only succour to the dying. Clever is Guy Henry Faget discovering promin and Calmette and Guerin creating a TB vaccine.

Clever goes totally unnoticed most of the time, but its impact immeasurably outweighs compassion. How many humanitarians do you need to feed as many mouths as Norman Borlaug did? Who did more to alleviate suffering due to HIV/AIDS, the hospice movement or GlaxoSmithkline?

> The effective approach was seen as deeply unkind

What I'm getting at is you have an overly narrow definition of the word "kind". I would argue that Guttmann was actually MORE kind, regardless of how shortsighted people may have seen it.

> Kindness is personified by Mother Teresa - a well-meaning person who can offer only succour to the dying.

Ooooh, bad example:


> One of Mother Teresa’s volunteers in Calcutta described her “Home for the Dying” as resembling photos of concentration camps such as Belsen. No chairs, just stretcher beds. Virtually no medical care or painkillers beyond aspirin, and a refusal to take a 15-year-old boy to a hospital. Hitchens adds, “Bear in mind that Mother Teresa’s global income is more than enough to outfit several first class clinics in Bengal. The decision not to do so... is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering, but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection.”


> She has also been criticized for her view on suffering. She felt that suffering would bring people closer to Jesus.[1] Sanal Edamaruku, President of Rationalist International, criticised the failure to give painkillers, writing that in her Homes for the Dying, one could "hear the screams of people having maggots tweezered from their open wounds without pain relief. On principle, strong painkillers were not administered even in severe cases. According to Mother Teresa's philosophy, it is 'the most beautiful gift for a person that he can participate in the sufferings of Christ'."[2]

[1] Byfield, Ted (20 October 1997). "If the real world knew the real Mother Teresa there would be a lot less adulation". Alberta Report/Newsmagazine 24 (45)

[2] http://www.mukto-mona.com/Articles/mother_teresa/sanal_ed.ht...

I probably wouldn't have even mentioned this if you hadn't explicitly said "succour to the dying". 'Succour' is the last thing Mother Teresa offered. After all, Suffering Is Good.

... by how Mother Teresa is usually portrayed ...

This has turned into an argument over the definitions of words, instead of an argument over anything in reality. Is it "kind" to subject spinal cord injury patients to short-term misery in order to give them longer-term relief from their injuries? Or would "kindness" flinch away from this and try to minimize their short-term pain? You're using the former definition of kindness, and jdietrich and the article are using the latter. Both are useful concepts.

Citing one example of where cleverness was more effective than kindness falls far short of proving the statement that it is never more important to be kind than clever; you might want to tone down its sensationalist tone. A single counterexample will refute it :-)

To say that "Kindness nothing but a particular sort of shortsightedness" falls into the same problems of provability. Kindness is a great many things more than a particular sort of shortsightedness.

The idea you put forward seems to imply that basic human emotions are unreliable all the time, in all places - when in fact they work great at most times and in most places.

Kindness is not independent of cleverness, or of morality, or of decency. The common senses of the words do bleed together.

For example, were Dr Ludwig Guttmann to accidentally cause the deaths of fifty patients, his colleague might comment, "Dear Doctor, that was not frightfully clever of you," and he would say that because the Doctor had done something monstrously unkind towards them and their families.

The colleague uses (in part) his emotional faculties to determine that killing people is bad, and he uses (in part) his analytical faculties to determine ways to avoid killing people. But it's useless to try and rigidly separate the sets of faculties because they live in the same brain; there's no context where they can be exercised completely in separate.

There are a lot of schools of thought that address the paradox of short term sufferings involvement in the overall scheme of kindness. Buddhism refers to it as "idiot kindness" or "idiot compassion" if you're kind in the short term without considering the long term value of it.

True kindness is a long winded, structured and considerate thing. Feeding a junky drugs because it makes them feel better is an example of it done wrong, I would still entirely consider it kind and compassionate to will someone through a process such as what you've illustrated here if you had a genuine understanding that it was going to provide them these kind of benefits.

Clever and kind are never that clear or opposed in the sense of dichotomy. At the extremes of it maybe 'clever' looks like not helping people at all because it frees up resources for the rest of the community, or 'kind' is euthanasia. The subjectivity of it all is the integral, and hardest, part of the process of assessing what's 'best' for an individual.

> Feeding a junky drugs because it makes them feel better is an example of it done wrong

OTOH, feeding a junky drugs because a cold-turkey withdrawal would kill them (as is sometimes the case with benzodiazepines and alcohol) is pretty much the standard of care. Diazepam, trade name Valium, is the withdrawal benzo of choice for both pill-heads and wet brains, as a matter of fact, but they do sometimes give IV alcohol to alcoholics going through withdrawal.

On the gripping hand, you do have a point: Opioid withdrawal is very rarely life-threatening, and letting the dopehead sweat it out can really hammer home the whole Drugs Are Bad part, especially if followed by a massive lifestyle change.

And this further supports your main point that 'kind' and 'clever' don't really form a simple opposing pair.

Sorry, the example wasn't completely literal and a bit clumsy. Completely acknowledge the importance of those approaches and methadone programs in place that allow for a transitional pathway as well.

Your second paragraph is further into the balancing act I suppose, you could push people to full withdrawal symptoms but when we have the tech. on hand to manage the process, it raises a similar set of questions about which approach you'd perceive to produce the best result for someone.

It's why I'm glad I'm in a tech field, at least most of it is deterministic. The friends I have that work in social services have a nightmare of a job sometimes in terms of failed outcomes or unexpected results from treatments and approaches.

If kindness is taken to mean always doing what will make someone feel good in the short term then I'd agree with you but I'm not sure this is usually what is meant by kind.

In my view doing something which causes someone discomfort in order to improve there long term quality of life is in itself kind. Conversely satisfying someone's short term desires in the knowledge that it will probably have a bad effect on them in the long run would - I think - be categorised by most people as unkind.

Never say never, as the cliche goes. The example you give is an extreme that's difficult to argue with. And yet I find it difficult to agree with you. Hey, I can go so far as giving another example - Chris Barnard was accused of butchering and killing many a guinea pig before he pulled off a successful heart transplant. And yet I'd dislike myself a little more than I'm comfortable with if I applied "never" to truly random acts of kindness.

The problem with single words is it is very easy to lost on the definitions. Kindness, cleverness... what does that mean?

Here's how I would have worded it. Given a company of a 100 people working on the same product, which do you think would have a higher chance of being successful:

1) Everyone has a varying degree of intelligence but all of them shared the same (positive) moral compass

2) Everyone shares the same (high) intelligence but a varying moral compass

You are no longer talking about relative importance; you've turned it into a much simpler (and very different) question: does a homogeneous (and good) moral compass make a team's success more likely, all other things being equal?

This is very well put.

you can be kind and administer broccoli to your children crying for candy.

you can be kind and shortsighted. you can be cruel and shortsighted. Not sure why you're mixing things up. For yolo?

As "Brave New World" author Aldous Huxley said of the human condition before his death "..try to be a little kinder"

If someone's child has just died, is it more important that you be kind to them or that you be clever?

Your anecdote gave a different result than the one in the story. This doesn't prove or disprove that it's better to be nice or clever. It only tells that there is no absolute rules like "it's better to X than X". Those rules help to illustrate some points but none are perfect science.

No. It is never more important to be kind than clever. Never.

You're arguing for a world without empathy .. which would in effect, displace humanity as we know it.

"Kindness is nothing but a particular sort of shortsightedness"

May you meant mercy here, and not kindness.

jdietrich is my new hero. Well said.

Using Bezos as an example of "kind over clever" is a mistake.


  #6 “Our culture is friendly and intense, but if push comes to shove we’ll 
  settle for intense.”
  Data reigns supreme at Amazon, particularly head-to-head tests of customers’ 
  reactions to different features or site designs. Bezos calls it “a culture of 
  metrics.” With dozens of these gladiator-style showdowns under way each week, 
  there isn’t much time for soothing words or elaborate rituals of social 
  Feisty debates over what metrics to watch are Amazon’s way of life. “There’s 
  an incredible amount of challenging the other person,” says Manfred Bluemel, 
  a former senior market researcher at Amazon. “You want to have absolute 
  certainty about what you are saying. If you can stand a barrage of questions, 
  then you have picked the right metric. But you had better have your stuff 
  together. The best number wins.”

  In some sense you wouldn’t even be human anymore. People like Jeff are better 
  regarded as hyper-intelligent aliens with a tangential interest in human affairs.

It's a mistake more importantly because from a quick skim of his lecture transcription, it doesn't seem to say much about "kind over clever". Why, the quote from his grandfather doesn't even say that. It says, it is harder to be kind than clever.

Well, to be fair, the article only says that Bezos received that as advice (after acting contrary to it), and doesn't say anything about if he ever followed it or not..

Bezos' grandmother was dying of smoking cigarettes, and if he managed to push her into quitting it was probably worth being a little mean about it.

This is the kind of "deep" sounding quote that's actually not so deep at all. It's obviously good to be kind, and good to be clever, and in fact in order to really be kind one must be at least a little clever.

Check the consequences, not the surface appearance, of your actions!

I agree with your conclusion, but I'm not sure it applies here. Being mean is not the same thing as being persuasive, and very often they are at odds. There are usually better ways to get someone to come around to your way of thinking than making them feel bad about themselves. Making someone feel bad can actually decrease your credibility in their eyes, because it makes them want for you to be wrong.

Think about great salespeople you've known. How many use insults to motivate their prospects, and how many use flattery?

I agree with everything you're saying, but would like to add that being factual isn't the same thing as being mean, although it can be perceived that way.

"Being mean" is about HOW you present the facts. Yes, this is more or less difficult with some facts (such as getting fired), but there are ways(It's not you, it's me).

It's up to us to care enough to be nice and how we're perceived.

You're right, if you present with malice, that's mean.

But sometimes the facts themselves are perceived as mean, when they really aren't.

This sounds like the logic of a bully who beats up on smaller kids so that they'll be "stronger" later.

A bully who carefully doesn't follow the bit about checking consequences.

(This reminds me of the old vein of criticisms of consequentalism which go: assume consequentalists are dumb; then they might do thing X with bad consequences...)

To elaborate, because a surprising number of people need this spelled out very explicitly: a victim's suffering is a consequence of bullying. If you want to make consequentialist arguments, it's crazy to simply ignore major consequences just because they're intangible.

I can tell you from personal experience that no matter what strategy you use, you cannot make someone quit smoking, unless that someone already wanted to quit smoking, in which case your actions are superfluous.

If you really want to do something about it, the best thing you can do is to show that person the hard-facts about smoking, and give her reassurance that people can and have quit smoking successfully. And then hope that in the future, when she'll be disgusted about this habit one morning, she'll remember your words and seek further help.

Being mean about it, no matter the scope, doesn't do any good. And as a negative consequence, the smoker will begin to avoid you.

(disclaimer: I'm currently a smoker)

if he managed to push her into quitting it was probably worth being a little mean about it.

Only if being mean to someone is a much more effective way of making them quit. It is just as likely to stress them out and make them smoke more. Being mean to be nice as a strategy only makes logical sense if there is no way to achieve the same thing without being mean, otherwise you are just being mean and justifying it with some potential future outcome.

Mostly correct.

"Being mean to be nice as a strategy only makes logical sense if there is no way to achieve the same thing without being mean[.]"

Not quite. Being mean to be nice as a strategy makes logical sense if the benefits to the other person from your employing that strategy outweighs the drawbacks, as compared to alternative strategies. That it be the only option to accomplish the goal is neither necessary (if alternatives avoid being mean but have other huge drawbacks) nor sufficient (if the goal itself is not worth the damage done by being mean), though is certainly highly suggestive.

Meta: Nice example in correcting someone in a nice way.

For coders:

"Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it." — Brian Kernighan

Think about kindness in your code.

Thanks for this insight! :)

It's somewhat ironic, but I frequently see this attitude espoused by programmers or other people who are more on the "clever" side than the "kind" side, and it sounds a bit like a "grass is greener on the other side" type of thing. As someone who's good at being kind, let me say that it's not always what it's cracked up to be. Kindness can not only win you friends and allies, but it can also turn you into a giant doormat. What's most important is knowing when to be kind and when to be clever. Sometimes being unlikable and unkind but smart is the right solution.

Maybe I'm just really oblivious or quite lucky personally, but I feel like people who are hyper-concerned about being taken advantage of make themselves way more miserable than if they just relaxed and stopped worrying about other people. If you act out of fear that people are talking about you or taking advantage of you, you are likely to make that happen.

Kind is not being a doormat; kind is doing what will benefit everyone in the long run. Letting yourself be taken advantage of is cruel to yourself, and of questionable long-term value to anyone who would see fit to take advantage of someone else. The kindest thing to do is offer help when it appears to be most valuable, taking your own well-being into account as well as that of others.

It's because it's something we suck at and so have to consciously work on. I imagine that there's an extrovert party going on somewhere where they're all talking up how important being right actually is.

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from "Harvey":

    Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, "In
    this world, Elwood, you must be ... you must be oh so
    smart or oh so pleasant."  Well, for years I was smart.
    I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Being pleasant is often smart.

I don't know Bezos personally, but from what I read about him on the great Internet. He sounds more like a super smart and ruthless dictator than kind.

Another case of "do as I say, not as I do" ?

The failure mode of "clever" is "asshole." From John Scalzi, I believe.

  Narrator: Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I've
    ever met... see I have this thing: everything on a plane
    is single-serving...
  Tyler Durden: Oh I get it, it's very clever.
  Narrator: Thank you. 
  Tyler Durden: How's that working out for you? 
  Narrator: What? 
  Tyler Durden: Being clever. 
  Narrator: Great. 
  Tyler Durden: Keep it up then... Right up.

Hitler was kind (high EQ, good at convincing people to follow him), but stupid (had some terrible ideas).

OK, maybe that kind of emotional appeal is a shit way to argue, and we should use a more ... intelligent ... approach?

High IQ and high EQ aren't mutually exclusive, so it's silly to ask which is important on its own. I think a higher-IQ argument is always better than a low-IQ argument with the same EQ. A high-EQ argument without a high IQ can be actively harmful.

Empty rhetoric is good for manipulating idiots. It's useful if you have a good point, and want to make it sound more interesting. But it's not essential, and it's actively harmful if you don't have a good reason for using it. Low-EQ / high-IQ arguments won't convince a lot of people, but they aren't actively harmful (unless you count a few ruffled feathers as serious harm).

Also, high-IQ arguments convince the right people - people who listen to reasoning, and are unlikely to change their mind when people use hollow emotional arguments. The kind of people I think we need more of.

"It's More Important to Be Kind Than Clever" seems accurate, but obviously (and as this thread shows) it hinges on definitions of "Important", "Kind" and "Clever", and on context (in many circumstances clever > kind, of course).

It may be rephrased as something like "As a human being, it leads to a more fulfilling, meaningful life to be capable of empathy than to have a high IQ", but admittedly that's less catchy. And I'm not even sure it's sufficiently precise: maybe someone can come up with a better way to rephrase it.

I've read the title as "It's More Important to Be King Than Clever" and agreed wholeheartedly, then it turned out the article was about something else.

Kindness is a manifestation of empathy. If you're unable to empathise you'll have trouble being seen to be 'kind'.

It seems that the article provides an example of how 'kindness' has benefited a company with regard to marketing. Performing an act of kindness in order to gain something isn't kind, and the showing potential incentives like this isn't really driving any important point home.

it's more important to bring your grandmother soup in the hospital than to point out what she's doing that will put her in the hospital?

no it's not. it just depends on who you think your audience is. why do people always put their own use case as general rule for everyone?

granted, you're talking about making money. otherwise is perfectly fine being a complete douchebag and everyone still using and loving what you build, invent, research.

Being clever is all well and good as long as you're right. But all those enemies you're making by being a jagoff are waiting for you to slip (or at least won't be forgiving).

In the mean time, Forrest Gump has buddies everywhere who willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he accidentally commits a broken build.

Be excellent to each other.

And how's that working out?

ffmpeg, linux, plenty more? what are you guys talking about. steve jobs doesn't really count, there's plenty guys, who actually built things themselves and successfully on top of that.

It worked out pretty well for Steve Jobs.

Yeah except, well, the dying at 56 part.

Yeah, because that's related to whether or not he was a jerk.

Spoiler: It isn't.

He refused his doctors' advice about surgery. He said it was because he was scared and didn't want to face reality, but not taking care of yourself for the sake of your family seems like a jerk move to me.

There are likely "nice" people out there with irrational aversions to Western medicine as well.

Otherwise nice. It's seems more likely that the sick just aren't clever enough to see what a dick move it is to give up. "Aversion to western medicine"... suicide... what's the difference?

I see the reaction to Sue Fortier's gesture as an example of ... the hunger among customers, employees, and all of us to engage with companies on more than just dollars-and-cents terms.

Ick. I think people want to feel like they are dealing with fellow human beings, not with "companies."

Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent - Isaac Asimov [1]

[1] http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Isaac_Asimov

"I'd rather be rich than stupid" -jack handey

I'd just settle for stupid rich.

"Young, rich, handsome, and fat. One out of four ain't bad." -- Tim Siedell

There's kind, and then there's polite. I'm very kind to the people I care about. I'm barely polite to anyone.

who was it who said:

"it's a fine line between clever and stupid."

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