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Tim HuttonTim Hutton - 2014-01-13 22:25:23+0000 - Updated: 2014-01-13 22:25:23+0000
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Originally shared by Andreas SchouOn the Particular Failings of Bright People

I'll start with the hard part, and tell you that I am either (a) pretty smart or (b) a bullshit artist, and I don't know which. You probably don't know either -- and that's because I've made enough effort keeping people from knowing the difference.

This will sound like bragging; if this is the case, please remember that you are most likely more successful than me, and that the problems that I discuss here very nearly ruined my life, and what's more it was basically my own fault. So with that in mind, some credentials.

I was in the 97th percentile of the ACT at the age of 13. I started college at the age of 14. I read somewhere around twelve times faster than the average, with good retention, and can usually produce something fluent about what I just learned, and with very little indication that I just learned it. I finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, an 800 page book, on the flight to and from San Jose. These facts make certain things in my life much easier.

In other ways, they are just party tricks.This post is about the ways in which they are party tricks, and how not to tolerate them.

People tolerated my substitution of party tricks for insight for a very, very long time. If my high school teachers had not considered me a prodigy, I would have failed out of high school. I was kept afloat by a misunderstanding of what it was I was doing, and I continued with this on into young adulthood. Only my grades in classes which I could pass without additional effort kept me failing out of college as a young adult. My math skills are average at best. 

People imagine that "being smart" is some global thing about a person. It's not. For me, it's mostly just a splinter skill -- "quick reading; high retention" -- that gives me extra leverage against a lot of different problems  But the same skills make me vulnerable to thinking poorly in a lot of different areas. A few thoughts on dealing with people with the same problems (and/or gifts) as me, both from the inside and outside:

(1) There are vast lacunae in their knowledge. They are not obvious. Some of the islands in the archipelago of "things they know" are far-flung from what might be expected of a layperson. It is best not to assume that they arrived at a particular bit of knowledge by traversing the usual set of prerequisites; it is often the case that the particular endpoint is at the end of a long series of black-box models, traversed with only minimal filling in.

(2) Bright people are often better-rewarded for being clever than being right. Be suspicious if they seem to have taken a clever position: many bright people haven't yet learned that this is not always to their benefit.

(3) Bright people often have a history of being frustrated by things which are not immediately clear to them. You might expect that they have  no real difficulty learning things. This is not generally the case. In some domains, most bright people are very average.

This will not always be apparent. For instance, I frequently paper over huge gaps in knowledge by knowing how to sound competent. If you think someone is doing this, probe to see whether they pass the Turing Test on the issue. Don't let people convince you that they have real insights into subjects they have not explored deeply.

(4) Bright people are easily frustrated by anything they're average at. Any effort whatsoever feels like failure, because they seldom encounter any intellectual friction except when performing difficult tasks. A task of average difficulty which seems exceptionally difficult will just feel like immense, protracted failure. 

It will seem sensible, generally speaking, to just let smart people do what they're good at. This is a bad idea which leads to the development of weird, misshapen skillsets. If you are smart, don't do this. If you are in a position to teach, or manage, or be friends with smart people, don't let the smart people in your life do this.

(5) Finally, "bright" is not a moral category. Nor is it a proxy for success.

There are plenty of smart criminals, smart failures, and smart assholes. Conversely, there are a lot of passionate people with good judgment and average horsepower who will be much, much more decent or successful than people who have been randomly allotted more  computation power. 
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