The problem with smart people

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When I was doing my MBA, I was fortunate enough to take a course from the Dean of the Rotman School of Management (University of Toronto) Roger Martin. The course was titled “Learning to Learn” (or something close to that) and was largely based on the work of Chris Argyris, and it was truly transformational. We learned about the Ladder of Inference, double-loop learning, Model 1 and Model 2 theories-in-use and the left-hand case study, among others. I now teach many of these same principles and tools in my corporate program on Effective Interpersonal Communication, and it was this course above all others that a) influenced how I view myself and my interactions with others and b) set me on the path to working in Organizational Development and Leadership Coaching.

It also introduced me to one of my favourite HBR articles by Chris Argyris: Teaching Smart People How To Learn.

Now you would think that it’s pretty easy for smart people to learn, right? After all, they are smart. And we hire lots of smart people in our organizations (we certainly don’t like to think we hire the dumb ones!) so we hope they would learn – because when they’re new to our organization, there is a lot that they need to learn.

But it turns out this isn’t always the case. And here’s why.

Let’s get inside the head of a “smart” person. A smart person does something, and it works. He finds a pull-down menu on a computer application and gets to where he needs to be, for example. So now, there is no need to search for another way to do it. The first action produced the desired result. So for his next trick, he solves a process problem at work. Let’s say that he works in insurance, and he finds a way to reduce the amount of time it takes to process a claim. So now, there is no need to search for another way to do it. This new process has produced the desired result. And now, when he replicates this success over and over again, he gets a promotion. So he has been rewarded for his smart success, and there is no need to search for new ways to do things.

Is he smart? Sure he is.

Is he learning? He’s learning that he has success the first time (or very early on in the process).

What happens when you get frustrated? Depends – are you a ‘smart’ person?

But is that good for the organization and is that good for him? Probably not.

Because now what happens when things don’t go right the first time?

If the “smart” person has developed what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed mindset“, then he has learned that he doesn’t need to work hard to get positive results. Success *should* come easily. And if it doesn’t, then it means that he’s not smart enough. He will start to avoid challenges and possible failure. He will implicitly decide that if he has to work at it, or try another tactic because the first one didn’t work, that means he’s not smart enough or else there isn’t an answer – and he will give up faster.

This is why it’s hard for “smart” people to learn – they haven’t become resilient and creative in the face of failure.

So when people such as Daniel KahnemanJonah Lehrer and Tauriq Moosa say that smart people are dangerous because they don’t learn and have cognitive biases that they hold tightly to, we shouldn’t be surprised. This essentially means that “smart” people are blinded and restricted by their own success.

And we ALL have these cognitive biases, but in different areas.

Listen to your inner dialogue the next time you have a difficult frustrating conversation with someone. Do you think they are stupid and don’t get it? You are experiencing a cognitive bias that is stopping you from learning. Do you think that the other person is deliberately stone-walling you? Cognitive bias. Do you think that the other person is deliberately holding  back information to make your life difficult? Cognitive bias. In fact, if you have any inkling at all that you know what the other person is thinking, you are experiencing a cognitive bias that is making your own situation more difficult. Your bias might be right, but it might also be stopping you from learning.

So let’s not lambaste the “smart” people of the world for being poor learners.

Instead, let’s all acknowledge that we all have our own cognitive biases, and that, with work and effort and the adoption of a “growth mindset“, we can change our thinking processes, learn more, and frustrate less.



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Posted in consulting, continued learning, leadership, positive leadership
2 Comments » for The problem with smart people
  1. Judy Krings says:

    Great article, Lisa. Reminds me of that old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”. Now we might add. “And if you do succeed at first, be grateful you have a great brain that can shift gears. Remind yourself, “Rome wasn’t conquered in a day!” when failure taps at your door. Look at it as an opportunity to dig into your strengths for more ways to fund your success account.

  2. A great post! Shared it with my FB tribe. Kudos, Lisa, this one really will resonate with many. Very compelling title….a real attention-grabber!

4 Pings/Trackbacks for "The problem with smart people"
  1. […] reminds me considerably of Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset that I have written about previously. It’s important to learn together and create times for connectedness and interpersonal […]

  2. […] Argyris‘s Ladder of Inference is one of my go-to tools in coaching and consulting […]

  3. […] for applying the growth mindset to for people to whom most things come easily, see this short post: The Trouble with Smart People by my friend and colleague Lisa […]

  4. […] applying the growth mindset to for people to whom most things come easily, see this short post:  The Trouble with Smart People by my friend and colleague Lisa […]

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