Too Smart for Your Own Good

Ignorance Is Bliss-ish

ignorance-is-blissLife is like pouring concrete. (Bear with me here.) The world provides an endless supply of mystery—raw concrete mix—and over time this concrete pours out into our lives, moving from the unknown (concrete mixer) to the known (exposed, wet concrete). We learn new things, have new experiences, and make new discoveries. In this process, we shape our new knowledge into a unique worldview—a concrete foundation. And just like concrete, our worldviews harden over time.

Children are exposed to so much newness that the concrete flows out like a hole in a dam. They mold the onslaught of new information as well as they can, trying to make room for the next layers. As we get older, however, the concrete that once flowed freely begins to slow. For adults, finding new knowledge comes with a cost—our time and energy. Building upon our worldview foundation requires actively seeking the unknown—journeying to the land of new information at the risk (or benefit) of altering our concrete structure.

There are only two ways to change a concrete worldview: Addition or subtraction; either we (a.) add more concrete—more knowledge—that can be molded around the existing structure, or (b.) we take a jack-hammer to our concrete edifice in an attempt to reconfigure its appearance. The former option is more delicate, incremental, and self-directed. The latter is less controlled, more dramatic, and often occurs by outside influence. Experiences that fly in the face of our worldview are processed in different ways by different people. And while the truth has a way of eroding our most egregious misconceptions, some people’s structures are more protected than others.

The world is essentially made up of three types of people: 1. Never Quitters, 2. Bitter Quitters, and 3. Happy Quitters. This is to say that there are people who persist, people who give up in discouragement, and people who are content watching rather than participating. Let’s examine each of these three groups using a totally nonscientific nor rigorous methodology—the clichĂŠs that they most represent.

Never Quitters are the persistent, “lifelong learners” who continually pour and shape concrete onto their worldview foundation. They are so named for the motivational clichĂŠ, “Never give up.” Bitter Quitters are ex-Never Quitters who, in their search of the unknown, stumbled upon an undesirable reality and decided to go no further. This group is summarized by the phrase, “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.” And the final group—the Happy Quitters—may know of a world beyond their bubble, but choose not to explore it, because… well… why would they? They’re content with their lives. Theirs is a comfortable bubble, like being tucked under warm, cozy blankets in a frigid bedroom. And for this group, “Ignorance is bliss.

In a world where, as YaleGlobal Online reports, “the gap between job requirements and available skills is widening,” and technological advancement is outpacing society’s ability to keep up, it seems “obvious” to the Never Quitters that continual learning is imperative. To a Never Quitter, bowing out of the world of learning seems like an admission of defeat. “Now, more than ever, is a time for continual learning, up-skilling, and growing to stay relevant in an ever-changing landscape,” the Never Quitter may say. But they are missing a crucial point.

There is value in the known, the familiar, and the comfortable (especially if such a worldview has a solid foundation). The known allows for a state of low-anxiety and contentment. Also, we all become either a Bitter or Happy Quitter eventually. The 97-year-old lifelong learner may decide that he’s perfectly content not understanding how Twitter works. It’s a common mistake of the “Too Smart for Your Own Good” cohort to think that everyone would benefit from journeying down the Path of the Mental Unknown. They fail to acknowledge the personal benefits of a comfortable, insulated worldview, which Quitters regularly enjoy. In order to coexist, people are not required to agree on how best to live life, but we do need to understand one another’s perspective. How each of us shapes the concrete that life provides is completely up to us.concrete-life

This is the third installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”


For more information on lifelong learners in America, consider reading the following report: Pew Research Center, March, 2016, “Lifelong Learning and Technology.” (Source)

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Too Smart for Your Own Good

The Problem with Logic

tug-o-war2There is an art to getting things done. The problem with logic is that it’s only half of the equation (and “half” is being generous). Logic can lead to a false sense of understanding. “This is the logical explanation,” we may say. There’s a logical choice, a logical path, a “right way.” But logical thinking often neglects to consider the other half of the equation—the emotional half. And emotions are a much more powerful force.

A considerable amount of what occurs in the world occurs because of emotion alone (without even the slightest consideration for reason). Forgetting about the emotional side can handicap us in the real world of “getting things done.” An idea may be the most logical, but that does not mean it will always triumph. The real world is not a meritocracy; just ask an economist.

In recent years, economists have recommended that NFL teams spend less resources trying to draft superstar athletes. Instead, they recommend trading top draft picks for multiple lower picks (spreading their risk of picking a top round dud). Despite showing that such changes would translate into more wins per season (about 1.5 more), team owners and general managers have generally ignored the advice. Why? Because there is more to life than logic. Teams are illogically overconfident that their picks are better than the competitions’ and owners enjoy having big name players on the roster. It’s not logical; it’s emotional. Historical precedent, personal ideologies, social allegiances—these are what constitute the illogical side of life, the emotional side. Economists work in the world of logical suggestions, but the real power lies in the hands of others.

My favorite definition of “power” is “the ability to get things done.” It avoids the negative connotations we have. There is no mention to coercion or corruption, no distinction between strong and weak, no manipulation tactics or financial sanctions. Power can just as easily relate to a healthy marriage as it can to a government regime. We are required to “get things done” everyday, and our ability to do so benefits not only us, but our friends, family, and colleagues. Power, therefore, is something we should wish on everyone.

To “empower” a person is to bestow them with the ability to help himself. We live in a world where emotions reign supreme. Events often happen on emotion alone (without logical consideration), but rarely the other way around. Logic, then, is the empowering piece of the puzzle; it is the prerequisite for significant improvement. But unlike the power of emotional whims, we cannot achieve with logic alone.

Good leadership, parenting, governance—they all require emotional intelligence, as well as critical thinking. This is the cornerstone underlying television shows like Hugh Laurie’s House M.D. and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock—the lone genius struggling in a world of social interaction and emotions, knowing these inevitabilities are as much a solution as they are a problem, a strength and a weakness. Destruction is easy with emotions alone, but building something meaningful requires both heart and mind.

Last week we discussed the frustrations of the workplace—the unspoken, sometimes unknowable rules (the emotional side). But more frustrating than office politics is actual politics. It can be ugly at times, but politics is the ultimate “art” of getting things done, where the complexities of social interactions far outweigh logical idealism or truth. People who vote with their heads struggle with this concept. They cannot understand voting with the heart. And that’s the classic downfall of a logic-heavy worldview: It leads to the dismissal of the human condition and the social/emotional sides to us all.

There’s an old journalism maxim, “if it bleeds, it leads,” which sums up the emotion-heavy side of society. Emotional hyperbole is popular; it sells news. We like stories about people (human interest pieces), and if there happens to be a murder involved, all the better! Humans are drawn to other humans, often in ways that defy reason. A string of bad relationship choices, the flock of rioting fans after a win—none of it makes logical sense, but it happens nonetheless. We must attempt to see the forest for the trees.

Understanding how society works, with all its human behavioral quirks, can buffer the logic problem. There is a scene in the 2000 historical epic, Gladiator, where Oliver Reed’s character—a wise, embattled ex-gladiator—gives some advice to the young warrior, Russell Crowe. He says to Crowe, “I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me.” Oliver Reed’s gladiator understood how the system actually worked, and that understanding (not his skill in the colosseum) is what set him apart. Logic is necessary to our success, but it must be balanced with the understanding, compassion, and social skills that human emotions provide. Such a balancing act is a real art form.

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This is the second installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”

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Too Smart for Your Own Good

Being Right at the Wrong Time

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Being right can be embarrassing. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point we realize that saying that thing or correcting that person was not a good idea. We realize that we were wrong in our rightness. There is a right time and a right place for correctness, but knowing when not to speak is the key. And where does this principle seem to cause the most confusion? A place where we’re told that accuracy and timeliness are top priorities—the workplace.

Office environments are the perfect setting to discuss the potential woes of being right. In 2014 Lauris Beinerts’ parody video “The Expert” made waves across the Internet with its cheeky look at the stereotypical office idiot. The short film takes place in a nondescript conference room where Anderson, “the expert,” attempts to explain to his four colleagues why the task at hand—drawing seven red lines, all perpendicular to one another and some with green ink—is fundamentally impossible. As the meeting unfolds, it becomes clear that only Anderson sees the logical discrepancies of the absurd request. Everyone else? Idiots.

The popularity of Beinert’s video is due to its ubiquity. We can all relate to the frustration of Anderson-The-Expert. We have all thought during a meeting, “Why are we still talking about this? Isn’t it obvious?” But maybe there are other times, times that, without realizing it, we are the office dunces. Rather than lambasting the bumbling co-worker, we should consider the flaws of being right. Perhaps Anderson is actually the office idiot.

Once his co-worker says something obviously wrong, Anderson has a decision to make—say something or stay quiet. If the point of the meeting is to correct misconceptions, then correct away! That’s being right at the right place and time. However, meetings are often called upon for one reason when, in fact, they have a different, unspoken purpose. This is where the confusion comes in.

It’s important to align the purpose for being right with the overall purpose of the situation. Anderson might think he’s being helpful in his explanation that red ink is not, in fact, green ink; however, if there are more pressing matters to attend, then perhaps Anderson’s comments are wasting productive time. Or maybe Anderson’s boss knows full well that the details of the project are irrelevant for the final product, hoping Anderson will simply agree and let the matter rest. Whatever the case may be, just having correct information does not necessitate sharing it.

Of course, for jobs dealing with life or death (ex. structural engineering, law enforcement, surgery, etc.), being right is crucial. There’s no time to waste wondering whether the truth should or shouldn’t be said. For most jobs, however, we don’t have those kinds of restrictions. And for those jobs, timing is everything.

Whether it’s launching a product, delivering a joke, meeting a soulmate, or buying a house, timing can make or break a situation. Being right is no different. There’s an internet meme with Jeff Bridges sitting back as The Dude from The Big Lebowski, which reads, “You’re not wrong / You’re just an asshole.” This strikes at the heart the timing issue. We must know when to say something and when to shut up.

For my wedding, my father gave me a newspaper clipping with some marital advice. It read, “Before you speak, ask yourself, ‘Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’” Being right is only the first part. Knowing when to be silent is much more powerful, more wise, than anything we may have to say.

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This is the first installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”

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The Global Schoolhouse

Part 3 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

[M]any critics of globalization make America the wicked villain in the tale. They portray the U.S. forcing Nike, McDonald’s and Baywatch down the throats of the unwilling world, shredding ancient cultures for the sake of empire and cash. But […] Multinational corporations are just that, multinational; they don’t represent American interests or American culture. Just as much as they changed the tastes and economies of other countries, they have tried to change the tastes and economy of the United States.

—Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World

To begin Part 3, let’s review: The world is a schoolhouse; the global economy is its schoolyard; the game being played is economics/commerce; the schoolchildren who compete in this game are individual countries; their social cliques are based largely on history and finances; and multinational corporations? Well, they’re schoolchildren, too (but in a whole new way).

Multinational corporations are the younger siblings of our schoolhouse nations. They are smaller, have learned from the mistakes of their older siblings, and are more skilled at the schoolyard game of economics. Corporations share geographic, cultural, and historic parents with their older siblings (like Amazon with the United States), but that’s where the similarities end.

Just like younger students, multinationals have fewer obligations than their older counterparts—fewer classes to take, fewer school dances to attend, fewer extracurriculars. They have fewer distractions, in general. Instead, corporations mostly spend their time playing out on the schoolyard, focused on one thing—their game, how to efficiently make a profit.

This focus is what allows for a new paradigm, one of inclusion rather than exclusion. As we discussed in Part 2, nations have a tendency to favor their “in-group” clique. This leads to discrimination on the grounds of historical allegiances, rivalries, or economics.  Corporations, on the other hand, have different goals. They require outsiders (emerging markets), in order to continue growing. They want as many participants playing on the schoolyard as possible.

In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker cites “commerce” as one of five reasons why we cooperate with one another instead of act aggressively. Multinationals understand this; it’s why they exist, why they are multi-national. It is in our economic best interest to cooperate globally. But commerce does more than give developing countries a chance to participate.

In November, The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, “Netflix, Amazon Take Divergent Paths to Reach Indian Audience.” It was a quick read but highlighted this shift from traditional exclusion to emerging inclusion. The brief piece described Netflix’s cost-effective strategy to keep content production “in-house” at their California studio. The idea being that if the shows they make have multinational appeal, then Indian audiences, as well as other countries, will watch (in turn, saving the studio money). Conversely, Amazon has set up shop in Mumbai creating content in India with Indian actors and an Indian audience in mind.

The story of Amazon’s strategy in India is a hopeful one. It’s hopeful because in an attempt to grow, they are seeking a competitive advantage—to truly learn and understand their audience’s perspective. As we discussed in Part 1, all people want respect, and for the first time, those countries previously shut out of the established economies clique are starting to receive some.

If respecting the diversity and richness of the world’s cultures creates a competitive advantage for businesses, then there is hope for the billions of people within the developing world. Binge watching television may be a waste of time, but the Netflix-Amazon example shows a broader trend. Regardless of the business, the point is this: Emerging markets are finally being included in the game (if only as consumers to start).

Before we get carried away with the salvation of commerce, it’s prudent to acknowledge the elephant in the room—unbridled capitalism. The subject is a heavily debated one. Even the Pope has weighed in.  But rather than taking a Marxist view of inherent failure or Wall Street’s belief that “The Market is always right,” let’s assume for a moment that capitalism, like most things, has an equilibrium point.

Commerce cannot answer the world’s woes alone. While the inclusive strategy of multinational corporations may lead the charge, countries still need to decide for themselves that cooperation trumps aggression. It may feel ironic that a game that creates overpaid mega-CEOs could equalize the global divide, but perhaps it could.  Perhaps commerce can help create more global balance. There is an equilibrium point between corporations and nations that could help both to be successful—to learn, mature, and graduate from the global schoolhouse.

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The Global Schoolhouse

Part 2 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

Last week we set up the metaphor of a global schoolhouse with nations acting more or less in the same manner as schoolchildren. The G20 was used as our analogous “Classroom G,” divided socially along economic lines—developing countries on one side, developed on the other. Next week we will discuss another group in the global schoolhouse—multinational corporations—and how organizations that transcend geographic boundaries may be the answer to the developed-developing divide. But for now, let’s move from the classroom to the schoolyard and discuss the psychology of cliques—the psychology of global discrimination.

As a social clique, the “Western Powers” have played on the schoolyard relatively unopposed for the past 100 years. They generally make their own rules and exclude most newcomers. Sure, the West may have included nations like Japan or Korea, but only because of economic parity—common developed status. Financial prowess is the basis for in-group membership.

Sociologist would call this discrimination “in-group favoritism“—the concept that people positively view their own group’s members while looking upon outsiders with contempt. In-group favoritism, social identity, stereotyping, system justification—these are what fuel discrimination at all levels, and discrimination has been a part of the global schoolyard for centuries.

Developing countries have many obstacles on the road to equality, let alone dominance. Not only do they struggle to improve their skills of the game (economics), they are often closed off from making the rules or even playing in the first place. The popular kids on the schoolyard may justify this exclusion by citing past support or inclusion of Eastern countries like Japan, but ultimately they will continue to exclude. This justification is called “moral licensing.”

Moral licensing is defined loosely as, “being good frees us to be bad” or more specifically, “past good deeds can liberate individuals to engage in behaviors that are immoral, unethical, or otherwise problematic.” This principle is behind the justification for bad behavior occurring time and again throughout history. 

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell popularized moral licensing  in the first episode of his podcast Revisionist History. In the episode, Gladwell recounts the story of the 19th century British painter, Elizabeth Thompson, who sought entry into the most elite group of English artists of the era—the prestigious Royal Academy, thought to be made up of the forty most preeminent artists of the time. The problem was that the Acadmey had never had a woman member.

While the 19th century Royal Academy felt a moral obligation to allow the most talented artists into their club, they didn’t want a woman to be such a person. Elizabeth Thompson’s fellowship was put to a vote shortly after her painting The Roll Call (1874) rose to fame, and Thompson narrowly lost the majority required for induction. But almost—the fact that she had been seriously considered (proven by the narrow margin)—was close enough to morally justify nearly 50 more years of male-only membership.

Much like the 19th century Royal Academy was largely shaped by historical precedent and pseudo-supremacy, so too are the “Western Powers” of today. China and other emerging markets are said to be symbols of the global shift in power from established G7 economies to rapidly developing nations; however, like Elizabeth Thompson’s denial of acceptance, social barriers still loom over the future of developing countries.

While this seems like a bleak reality for the majority of the world’s nations, perhaps social norms play only a small part in the success of a rising nation. For there’s another role to be played in this schoolhouse, a role that transcends traditional schoolyard games. As a relative newcomer in history, multinational corporations may be the answer to global discrimination—a new paradigm to counter the old. And that’s where we will leave off until Part 3 next week.

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Merritt, Anna C., Daniel A. Effron, and BenoĂŽt Monin. “Moral self‐licensing: When being good frees us to be bad.” Social and personality psychology compass 4.5 (2010): 344-357.

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