WHY SMART PEOPLE ARE STUPID (FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS)
Have you noticed something about a lot of smart people?
They’ve gone to good schools…
They’ve studied challenging subjects…
They’ve gotten good grades…
They keep up-to-date with the world…
They are extraordinarily knowledgable, overflowing with facts and data…
They are even usually very eloquent…
Yet talk to them about a subject, and you’ll leave the conversation feeling like something crucial was overlooked.
Ask them to analyze a system, and you’ll get an intricate, fact-heavy response that still doesn’t feel right.
Argue with them and you’ll get overwhelmed with details, inundated with polemic, but feel like their points don’t mesh with reality.
Why the disconnect?
Why is it that the brightest minds can know so much and yet explain so little?
What really makes a person smart? Is it knowledge, or judgment?
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a Lebanese-American intellectual, financier, statistician, and oenologue, published in 2007 one of, if not the most insightful books of the 21st Century: The Black Swan.
The Black Swan (which has nothing to do with Natalie Portman or ballet) addressed a crucial, previously unanswered question in our world:
Why is it that experts suck so much at predicting things?
The book, which I will not go too much into here as it is long and worth a read on it’s own, talks in depth about the inevitability of unforeseen events and, partly as a result of this, their oversized influence on the world.
These unpredicted events are called Black Swans.
Black Swans have ravaged society throughout history. Whether it was the unexpected assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 that set off World War One, or the repackaging of subprime loans that created the financial crisis of 2008, Black Swans (seemingly) come out of nowhere, and when they hit, they hit hard.
Yet not everyone succumbs to Black Swans. For every financial crisis that wipes out the investments of millions of people, terrifying investors, thousands become richer than they could possibly imagine off of them (Taleb was one such person in 2008). And for every “expert” that sees the next conflict as impossible, others are prepared to weather or even take advantage of it.
Not all Black Swans are impossible to predict. Many leave signs that they’re coming. Yet most “smart” people are terrible at seeing them.
In the last few years I’ve become increasingly mistrustful of the opinion of people who are so-called “experts.”
This is not because I don’t think they know their subjects well. They are very knowledgable people.
It’s because they are often applying their knowledge to a world that doesn’t exist.
Take a look for instance at the political class. How many of the “smart” people who do this for a living were CONVINCED Bush would be the Republican nominee? How many thought that Trump and Sanders had NO chance? How many STILL think Trump and Sanders have no chance?
It has been pathetic watching how wrong every “political expert” has been.
And It’s not because these guys don’t know politics. They live it and breathe it – indeed, they milk it for all it’s worth.
It’s because they operate in a rigid model that tells them what politics are supposed to be.
When their model – a set of assumptions – is correct, they get it right. But when it’s not, they lack the capacity to reflect on their assumptions, and end up completely wrong and useless.
It is ironic, and telling, that the people who dedicate their lives to predicting and “understanding” the world are often the worst at it.
Experts prove their expertise by building models and maps of their subjects. The more details on the map they are able to infer, the more of an expert they are considered to be.
Most people are impressed by the detail on these maps and take the truth of them for granted. They think: “They must know what they’re talking about if they can explain so much. I should trust them.”
Yet they never question whether or not the map and all it’s detail describes the actual territory.
This is a huge problem.
A detailed map that doesn’t describe the right place isn’t simply wrong. It’s dangerous.
Poor political prognostications by pundits are one thing. But what about ignorant policy?
The implications can be enormous.
Think about what happens when you send people out on a trip with the wrong map.
They may start out confident, but inevitably they will veer someplace they didn’t expect. At first they’ll be confused, thinking they made a wrong turn, so they’ll check back on the map to try to figure out where to go instead.
Except checking the map doesn’t help. Indeed, it just ends up making them more lost. Before they know it they have no idea where they are or what to do. With no food or water and no clue where to go, they die – slowly, alone, and forgotten. (or something like that)
I joke, but “smart” people get lost like this all the time. They assume their map is perfect, when it is far from it. And by trusting it – by assuming the correctness of their assumption – they lead themselves and anyone who follows them into disaster.
The only people who don’t get lost are the one’s who question the map.
I hesitate to call these people “smart,” though often they are. These people are more accurately describe as wise.
Wise people know maps are never perfect; indeed, sometimes they are downright flawed, especially when it comes to their details. They cannot rely on them to navigate the environment; they need to learn to read it. They need to use their judgment and experience.
This means first and foremost they trust what they see or have seen, not what they are told they *should* see. Assumptions are always questioned; there is no wishful thinking. If they are walking and find (or suspect, based on past experience) themselves to be coming upon a swamp when the map says there shouldn’t be one there, they do not continue into it because the map says they should. They adapt; map be damned.
This should seem like an obvious approach. Why would you walk right into a swamp? Yet sadly, among the “smart set” it is frighteningly uncommon – and for a very disturbing reason:
Most wonks would rather have certainty in an imaginary world than admit uncertainty in the real one.
Everybody wants control. Smart people seek it by trying to understand everything around them.
The problem, of course, is that they can’t.
No matter how detailed their model is, it is incomplete; indeed, the more detailed it is, chances are the more problems it has.
Yet demand for certainty is not the only reason otherwise intelligent people are so blind to the world around them.
Another element is crowd-think.
Intellectual people tend to be painfully insecure about being considered smart. As a result, they would rather – ironically, given their status as “thought leaders” – parrot out ‘safe,’ regurgitated analyses instead of risking going against the crowd. If the map says something, they’d rather stamp it *ok* with their “smart” brand than go against it if other “smart” people have already supported it.
This feeds into the other big problem with “smart” people: they are often blinded by their ego.
Because “smart” people identify with their intelligence, they tend to be overconfident in their ability to understand things. Consequently, rather than challenge assumptions, they use their brains to rationalize them, making flawed arguments sound convincing both to themselves and others.
This is akin to what the Catholic Church did in the Middle Ages when it came to astronomy. Rather than challenge its belief – that the Sun revolved around the Earth – as more information came in indicating that this model was flawed, they made it more and more complex to try and accommodate it. Instead of following the maxim Occum’s Razor, that the answer of least resistance is most likely the correct answer, they overthought it – because they could. Indeed, this complicated rationalizing was if anything simply a validation of their intelligence and authority. Who else could pull the rabbit out of the hat?
Yet these small intellectual victories lead to losing the larger war of understanding. The mental gymnastics it takes to justify an aberration to one’s model usually requires one to distort broader reality, proving the model is incorrect. People paying attention to reality realize this. But for “smart” people, this sort of “losing the forest through the trees” is lamentably common.
Of course, all of us lose perspective every once and awhile. I am not immune to being a “smart” person (read: ass) – I have often been an intellectually arrogant prick who has too often assumed (incorrectly) what he believes is by definition true. And I am certainly not alone – but that’s ok, no one’s perfect. We all gotta check ourselves from time to time.
It is only when this rationalizing gets out of hand – when group-think merges with an intellectual superiority complex to take on a life of its own – that it becomes truly insidious. This stubborn, pathological ignorance of the world can only be described as one thing:
Ideology is the purview of the rich and educated. Only the intelligent are capable of deceiving themselves about the world around them, and only the wealthy can afford to do it.
There is a reason common people rarely find themselves succumbing to ideology: it doesn’t mesh with their experience in the real world, and they can’t fathom or risk acting in a way contrary to it. They live with legitimate, pressing needs – and that’s all they care about. That doesn’t mean that they won’t support ideologues who promise them real world things, but it does mean that they will never be true believers in an ideological system. Despite the fact that the communist system was ostensibly designed for the proletariat, the masses never really cared about it; the passion came from the party, made up of predominantly – you guessed it – intellectuals, most of whom were ironically former bourgeoisie.
Academics, experts – whatever you want to call them – like to condescend and ignore the perspectives of normal people since normal people can’t understand their complex systems / models or ideological structures. But while it’s true that the “average joe” probably can’t, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unlike most academics, regular people have instincts, and while those instincts may not serve in environments that have nothing to do with the day-to-day of humans like theoretical physics, they are essential when it comes to challenging models and beliefs that directly concern people.
Intelligence is an amazing gift. But when valued above instinct, it becomes incredibly dangerous. Always make sure you follow your instincts.
I’ve spent most of this article going after “smart” people, but don’t let that give you the impression that I’m anti-intelligence. Intelligence is an incredible and powerful thing to have. To quote a well-known scam-artist, Tai Lopez (who in case you didn’t know, has a Lamborghini), “The more you learn, the more you earn.” Train your mind.
But more importantly, train and follow your instincts.
Because the problem with a lot of intelligent people isn’t that they’re too smart, it’s that their instincts are terrible. They’ve led sheltered lives and read about the world through the equally sheltered or agenda-ridden lens of “thought leaders.” They don’t know how to follow their instincts. They are in a bubble. They have been told a model is reality, and rather than learn how to question the model, they have been taught to rationalize it.
This lack of skepticism leads to lack of awareness, which atrophies their instincts. And since poor instincts begets poor assumptions, no matter how good their mind is at rationalizing or engaging in sophistry they always miss the point. They are stupid smart people: informed and able to talk around issues with ease without having any real idea of what they’re speaking about.
Instincts are defined as one’s ability to navigate and anticipate an environment effectively and intuitively. Instincts can be accelerated by knowledge, but ultimately they come from experience and exposure.
Personal experience is without question the best way to develop and learn how to follow your instincts. If you put yourself out there, you will fail, but since instincts are developed predominantly to help us avoid pain, you will also learn. And you will tear up those who have never set foot in the arena.
But if you can’t do that, the second best way to learn how to develop and follow your instincts is to listen to those who have.
Incidentally, this is why mentors, talking to people outside of your circle, and learning from history are so important. The first is direct life wisdom and guidance, the second exposes you the experiences of others, and the third shows you the experience of humankind. And all of this helps you to follow your instincts.
I know, I know: most people hate history. But that’s because because too often it’s taught as rote memorization: “So and so was born on this date and did this, and his son then took over on this date and did this.” This is understandably boring and useless for anything outside of quizzo. Clearly it does nothing to help you follow your instincts.
History taught properly, however, doesn’t focus on erroneous details, it focuses on the story of humanity. It helps us to understand human nature, social trends and patterns, and how to navigate (or at least, not navigate) situations.
It teaches us the painful lessons of our ancestors for free.
As long as human nature is the same, history will repeat itself. And don’t be fooled by the mellowing effect of western civilization: human nature is the same. While the details of our story may change, the themes and challenges will be eternal. You can either learn from them – learn to follow your instincts – or suffer.
Instincts guide your intellect. Listen to them. And always ask yourself: “How much do I really know? Is this true, or do I want it to be true?”
Theories and models are often wrong because their proponents “want” something to be true.
But desires don’t create realities, they just obscure them.
A skeptical mind is key to making sure you don’t get fooled, and that you don’t fool others.
Question not only others’ motives, but your own. Look at not only what is said, but what isn’t. If something ever seems to not line up with your instincts, pause and dig a little bit deeper. And if what you say doesn’t fit well with reality, take a step back and challenge your assumptions. Maybe you’re wrong and need to learn how to follow your instincts better.
Getting things right is not so much about knowing what is true as it is knowing what is NOT true.
Do this, and you will help escape the plague of being a stupid smart person – or even worse, an ideologue. And trust me, you don’t want to wind up in that category.
Ideology runs counter to human nature, and the history of all ideologies is destruction at the hand of reality.
The question is not if, it is when. And just how painful it will be.
And learn how to follow your instincts.
PS I realize when you are younger it can be a bit difficult to learn how to follow your instincts. Our society doesn’t really appreciate instincts anymore, and puts little to no emphasis on teaching people how to follow their instincts. One of the key ways, however, you can learn to follow your instincts is to put yourself out there. Take action. Focus on producing instead of consuming. The act of producing something forces you to navigate unknown environments which helps you to trust and consequently follow your instincts better. It also exposes you to human nature, which in order to learn you have to develop and follow your instincts. The point is to simply realize that instincts don’t come overnight. They are subconscious, and they take experience to develop. But once you do, you can follow your instincts to great success. After all, how can you make it in this world if you can’t follow your instincts – the very thing that gives you a pulse on the world? You can’t. So go out there and make it happen. Once you learn to follow your instincts you’ll wonder why you never listened to them before.
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