Are you smart? Do you work with people who are smarter than you? Malcolm Gladwell has written a fascinating piece for the New Yorker called The Talent Myth in which he discusses the smarty-pants phenomenon and the trouble it has gotten us into. Here is the premise: Enron (and others like it) went down the toilet by hiring smart people and letting them run wild. American hero-worship makes it hard to admit that maybe, just maybe, the system is sometimes smarter than the smartass. You might think that smart people would know when they’re in trouble and then do something smart to get out of trouble. But the problem is this label “smart.” If they admit they got into trouble, they’re not smart anymore, and anything is preferable to being not-smart, including bankrupting your company. I work at a software company where “he’s really smart” is one of the highest compliments you can pay somebody; what Gladwell says fits what I see every day. Ayn Rand, on the other hand, would really hate this article.
Here’s a long quote from Gladwell, discussing a study by a psychologist.
Dweck gave a class of preadolescent students a test filled with challenging problems. After they were finished, one group was praised for its effort and another group was praised for its intelligence. Those praised for their intelligence were reluctant to tackle difficult tasks, and their performance on subsequent tests soon began to suffer. Then Dweck asked the children to write a letter to students at another school, describing their experience in the study. She discovered something remarkable: forty per cent of those students who were praised for their intelligence lied about how they had scored on the test, adjusting their grade upward. […]
They begin to define themselves by that description, and when times get tough and that self-image is threatened they have difficulty with the consequences. They will not take the remedial course. They will not stand up to investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner lie.
Be careful flinging around the word smart. The mantle of smartness is fragile, terrifying, and sometimes paralyzing. It should be reserved for clever people who write weblogs.