About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

12 February 2010

Is Brilliance Overrated?

Four-time Masters Forum presenter Dennis Prager wrote an interesting column for the Jewish World Review recently. It's titled Brilliance Is Overrated. He begins by saying that the emphasis on the importance of intellect - and the corresponding adulation of intellectuals - in America is greater than it's ever been. The rest of the article questions whether or not that's the right thing for us to be doing. Here are some of his points:
"People assume that a Nobel laureate in physics has something particularly intelligent to say about social policy. In fact, there is no reason at all to assume that a Nobel physicist has more insight into health care issues or capital punishment than a high school physics teacher, let alone more insight than a moral theologian. But people, especially the highly educated, do think so."

"Intellectuals have among the worst, if not the worst, records on the great moral issues of the past century. Intellectuals such as the widely adulated French intellectual Jean Paul Sartre were far more likely than hardhats to admire butchers of humanity like Stalin and Mao. But this has had no impact on most people's adulation of the intellect and intellectuals."

"So, too, the current economic decline was brought about in large measure by people in the financial sector widely regarded as 'brilliant.' Of course, it turns out that many of them were either dummies, amoral, incompetent, or all three."

"The reason we have too few solutions to the problems that confront people - in their personal lives as well as in the political realm - is almost entirely due to a lack of common sense, psychological impediments to clear thinking, a perverse value system, a lack of self-control, or all four. It is almost never due to a lack of brainpower."
I think Dennis argues his case brilliantly - as usual - and I would like to stand on his shoulders to add a couple of thoughts of my own.

First, it's becoming more and more difficult to get smart and stay smart; the world is simply changing too fast around us. Former Army General Eric Shinseki:
"If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less."
Second, the more brilliant and/or successful a person has been in a particular field or endeavor, the more likely he or she is to arrogantly hold on to old truths and fail to see the new. According to William Blake:
"The things in which we passionately believe: those things are precisely those of which we should be most wary."
A recent example of how this epistemic hubris - a belief in the primacy of one's own educational background, thinking, and brilliance - can spell big trouble, comes from the folks at Stratfor, a company specializing in gathering geopolitical intelligence for business.
"A group of men in Saltillo, Coahuila state, abducted anti-kidnapping consultant Felix Batista the evening of Dec. 10 while he dined at a restaurant. According to reports, Batista received a call on his cell phone, prompting him to leave the restaurant. At that point, a group of men waiting for him ushered him into a truck and drove off. The incident was first reported in the local press Dec. 14; federal authorities confirmed the report Dec. 15."

"Batista first arrived in Coahuila on Dec. 6 at the invitation of state law enforcement authorities. He delivered a series of presentations on anti-kidnapping strategies to business and police officials in Saltillo and Torreon. On the morning before his abduction, Batista met with several officials from the state’s office of public security. He was dining with a businessman when the abduction occurred."

"This is not the first time that an anti-kidnapping coordinator has been abducted in Mexico. Presumably, someone with his knowledge and credentials would have been keenly aware of the need for vigilance against pre-operational surveillance. In reality, such persons frequently maintain a false sense of personal security that keeps them from practicing what they preach."
Batista has not been seen or heard from since.


  • How have you been brilliant?
  • How do you practice what you preach?
  • How might you be vulnerable to epistemic arrogance?
  • How can you insure that what you know is the actual truth and not simply your version of the truth?
"People are idiots. Including me. Everyone is an idiot, not just the people with the low SAT scores. The only difference is that we're idiots about different things at different times. No matter how smart you are, you spend much of your day being an idiot." - Scott Adams, The Dilbert Principle
"Even the monkey can fall from the tree." - Chinese Proverb
"Incompetents invariably make trouble for people other than themselves." - Larry McMurtry
"It is in the darkness of their eyes that men lose their way." - Black Elk
"The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance - it is the illusion of knowledge." - Daniel Boorstin
"Nothing is more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview - nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty." - Stephen Jay Gould
"Mental models are powerful filters. They help us make sense and meaning but filter out anything that does not belong. If our mental map is wrong – our judgment or assessment will be wrong." - Eamonn Kelly, Powerful Times
"An unconscious people, an indoctrinated people, a people fed only partisan information and opinion that confirm their own bias, a people made morbidly obese in mind and spirit by the junk food of propaganda is less inclined to put up a fight, ask questions and be skeptical." - Bill Moyers

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