The risks of someone calling you smart and how to avoid them

July 24, 2013 by Joshua
in Blog, Entrepreneurship, Leadership

When I was a budding entrepreneur, recently having earned my PhD in astrophysics, people would often introduce me as a rocket scientist. At first I enjoyed the praise.

In time I found being called intelligent didn’t help me in business. By “in business” I mean in business roles with leadership and decision-making. People talk about intelligence as valuable in business and some behave so, but I came to conclude successful businesspeople, especially investors, didn’t value intelligence as someone’s primary value. On the contrary, I came to find many venture capitalists and other investors viewed people with intelligence as their primary value as people whose inexperience they could exploit to make money off of.

I think businesspeople in mainstream music look at talented musicians the same way, but I don’t know the music business that well.

To clarify, I don’t mean people don’t value intelligence. They don’t value when it’s their most important value. To call someone smart implies their other skills don’t measure up and, in business, people want solutions that work and productive relationships, neither of which require intelligence. What people usually describe as intelligence is what I call abstract problem solving. Intelligence being someone’s primary value means everything else is weaker. Business problems are rarely abstract, so someone being intelligence means they are weaker in everything else.

People sometimes mean someone learns quickly when they call them smart. Even then, most people would probably prefer someone with relevant field experience — someone who already made the mistakes it takes to learn how to solve the typical problems you can expect to arise.

When people introduce me as a rocket scientist today, I respond to their well-meaning gesture by saying “I don’t know if I’m that smart, but I get the job done and people tell me they like working with me.” Sometimes I’ll add that I have experience and connections in the relevant area.

Are getting the job done and social skills the best qualities to say you have in business? I’m not sure, but I find businesspeople value them more. I usually do too — at least over intelligence as someone’s primary value.

What about the rest of life?

Though I found the above in business, I find the same holds in the rest of life outside business. Not many parts of life need intelligence and those that do tend to be low-level areas where people work alone, like science and engineering. Those things make great hobbies, but rarely great group activities.

In other words, again, if people identify someone as smart in regular life, it often implies weakness in social skills and experience.

Don’t get me wrong. If I could meet Albert Einstein I would want to keep him in my life, but I’d value his social skills and experience too. If his social skills were horrible I might not spend time with him. I’m not sure I’d start a business with him. If I couldn’t keep up with him on where he applied his intelligence, I might feel intimidated and avoid talking about those areas, except where he could explain it to me, but then I wouldn’t experience his intelligence, but a shadow of it.

A sample comparison

Consider someone of outstanding intelligence, however you define it — say in the top one percent of people you’ve met. If that person has crappy social skills and little experience in anything useful, if you wanted to praise them you’d probably primarily describe them as very smart. Why wouldn’t you? What else could you say?

Now imagine someone equally smart but also charismatic, fun to be with, accomplished, with a great network, and so on. You’d less likely primarily call this person smart if every time you spent time together you did amazing things together. You’d more likely talk about those experiences and other values. You’d probably value those things more.

Now imagine this second person was actually smarter than the first person. You’d probably still describe them primarily by the other things first, later adding “… and they’re incredibly smart too.”

Read my weekly newsletter

Lsbs book

Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.

We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

22 responses on “The risks of someone calling you smart and how to avoid them

  1. Well said. I’ve often found that when people label you as smart it tends to adversely effect the relationship. It hadn’t occurred to me that you getting stuck with that label implies a lack of more interesting characteristics.

  2. A smart person hires people that are smarter than they are. In business, if there’s someone smarter who can do the job better then don’t do it yourself, hire it done, so you (the business owner) can spend more time selling.

    • I agree on hiring an effective team. People often talk about hiring smarter, but I think they generally mean hiring people more effective, at least for jobs requiring teamwork. I think when you wrote “if there’s someone smarter who can do the job better” it didn’t matter if the person were smarter, only if they did the job better.

      For solo work like quants and engineers, I can see hiring smarter people without regard to social or business skills. I wouldn’t want to be someone hired for those reasons. If I was, I’d do what I could to break other people’s narrow impression of me.

  3. This is giving me a flashback of a certain someone who hated me but always praised me for being smart when they wanted something out of me.

  4. People who are both smart and can execute run their own businesses.
    Some establish themselves only after struggling with bosses who lack the vision, analytical skills, strategic insight or professional expertise.
    Those who lack the capability to adapt to adulthood, develop expertise and focus on execution may end up labeled ‘smart’.
    However, perhaps our definitions of ‘business’ ‘success’ and being ‘smart’ are all unsustainable?
    Could it be that focus on profit margin growth and materialism are leading us to a ‘dead end’, i.e. a paradigm shift?… Of course, those who enjoy the current system will immediately argue that I am being ‘smart’, but then again, I have been called this before I even launched my own businesses…

    • An interesting perspective. Thank you for sharing.

      Regarding the potential paradigm shift regarding focus on profit margin growth and materialism, I expect there is a distribution of opinion on the matter, not one dominant paradigm. The mainstream media or business media may have a dominant paradigm, but that doesn’t mean the general population does. Even then, I see multiple perspectives there.

      • There are indeed different takes on capitalism, since it is by definition a social invention that has offered better results than other systems, so far.
        The media is but one player in institutionalizing and perpetuating this paradigm. The education system, legislation, various forms of government-business interaction (e.g. lobbying, election campaign funding, etc.) are among many state and non-state elements feeding this beast and being fed by it.
        On the other hand, there are objective parameters that can offer one indications as to where the human race is heading and what kind of society is emerging as the population continues to grow, overall consumption increases, technology evolves, and large systems struggle to remain functional.
        The debt crises among developed nations, unrest and corruption in developing economies and scientists’ warnings regarding our stressed and increasingly volatile environment are but a few indicators of things to come. However, such indicators relating to non-linear trends seem to most as unrelated to quarterly financial reports, they are unpopular (i.e. no demand), beyond the investment horizon of business entities, and therefore remain in the ‘smart’ domain, until manifested systemically.
        Of course, nobody can mention such argument in public without bearing major business repercussions and losing corporate clients…

        • I consider Limits to Growth the best book covering many of the areas you mentioned. I was shocked, in a way I liked, at how it covered the issues I considered important and relevant in ways I thought appropriate, and they did the research and math to show meaningful results. And they showed ranges of possible results — the equivalent of error bars, as the scientist in me would say — admitting they don’t know the answers, but at least a useful way of looking at the situation.

          As I wrote before about it:

          I hope to find someone to read the book so I can talk to him or her about it. The book doesn’t have a lot of math or science, but it has some. I don’t know how easy it would be to understand for someone who doesn’t know what a system of linear equations is. The authors don’t mention them, but they’re in there. Maybe the book is better not knowing.

          Sadly few people understand much math or science, so I don’t know many people I could hope would read the book. Nonetheless, I recommend it to anyone and everyone. If you’ve read it, I’d love to talk about it.

  5. Well, yes. But anyone would “label” an individual by their most prominent trait.

    Without getting into what intelligence may actually be – or how it is measured and what bias may be inherent in the process(es) – there is considerable evidence that intelligence alone is only one factor in success in a field. The typical view of intelligence is related to recall – the ability to remember or memorize things – not the ability to “create”.

    In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of a man with a purportedly high IQ who has never finished college. Studies of child prodigies show they are only as successful or unsuccessful in later life as their “normal” contemporaries.

    Curiosity and ambition (or “drive” – see the Daniel Pink book of the same name) are important factors but difficult to measure. Curious people can be perceived as meddlesome and ambitious people as self-centred. Any one trait that stands out will be remarked upon with favour or disfavour depending on the context of the observer.

    • I agree on the complexity of what we call intelligence and how much other things help create success. The more I look at the concept of intelligence the less I see it helpful to create success or improve one’s life, however one defines improvement. Likewise, the more I look at people’s success, the less I see what most people call intelligence contributing much to that success.

      The book Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius contributed a lot to my thoughts on this area.

  6. .
    Ivy League, first world problem. You need some real problems. But, of course, you would figure them out anyway, you’re smart. A rocket scientist.


  7. Not sure you would want to go into business with Einstein? You do realize that besides figuring out how the Universe works, he also designed refrigerators? I believe he sold the design to Electrolux.

    And astrophysics has nothing to do with rocket science. Trivial tropes really don’t advance understanding, which starts with clear communication. I was hoping for brains but instead got Braun.

    • I don’t understand your point. Should I tell others the difference between astrophysics and rocket science? Doing so every time they conflate them will interrupt a lot of conversations.

      I looked up Einstein and refrigerators. Wikipedia cites Scientific American claiming that Einstein mostly helped with paperwork. In any case only a few demonstration units were made. Engineering and filing patents is no more doing business than astrophysics is rocket science. I’m not sure what a “trivial trope” is, but is conflating engineering and paperwork with actual business also one?

      I don’t understand the brains/Braun line. What brains were you hoping for? I’m sorry if my post disappointed you.

  8. Pingback: How experience often beats creativity, originality, and intelligence » Joshua Spodek

  9. Pingback: A discussion I started last week » Joshua Spodek

Leave a Reply

Sign up for my weekly newsletter