Not Always Right

I’ve been fortunate to work with and around a lot of really smart people. Ivy League Summa Cum Laude Rhodes Scholar smart people. It can be both intimidating and invigorating.

In high school, my Modern European History teacher was a Rhodes Scholar. Maybe 26 years of age, he was teaching at my school as a “day job” to his real passion job of teaching Admirals at the Naval War College. He didn’t have any military experience, he was just incredibly well read — and blindingly smart. He could read hundreds pages an hour and had an eidetic memory. He would assign us entire 4-500 page history books as homework, and then give us fill-in-the-blank tests: sentences from the book with a phrase missing. It was brutal.

At Microsoft in the 90s we attracted the very smartest people in tech. Like any great team, smart people attracted other smart people, and the tsunami of great brains became harmonic. I led at various times teams that included several true geniuses. Raw intellects, Rhodes Scholars, people who’d sailed through an Ivy League school in a couple of years before reaching their 20s. The best I can say is “I tried to manage them”. More often than not, they did what they wanted and I just hoped to keep the focus on the project at hand. There was at the time, and still is among the “old timers”, conversation around who was the smartest person. The competition was stiff, and the objects of it did little to dissuade it.

It’s like playing tennis against an elite player.

Working around these people was electrifying. It’s like playing tennis against an elite player, the ball comes at you really fast, the play moves at breathtaking speed, it’s hard to even see the ball sometimes. You spend much of your time operating on instinct. And your game improves. Never enough to compete, but often to the best of your life. I always left those interactions drained, yet exhilarated.

There was, however, a downside to being surrounded by these people. The deference they given that I always have felt is undeserved. That when they provided an opinion, it should be given extra weight because they are so smart. Or worse, that they were always right.

But they weren’t always right. Yes, they connected the dots awfully well. Yes, they often had read more and seen more, and could use that leverage. But no, they weren’t always right. And they certainly weren’t always right because they were smart.

Are they really right more often, or do they just get more chances to be right?

In fact, they are often just confident and therefore prone to offer their opinion more freely than most people. And that increases the raw number of their hits. When that happens, when they seem to be right a lot, people tend to downplay the failures. But with careful analysis, do the numbers hold up? Are they really right more often, or do they just get more chances to be right?

Take for example baseball’s Cal Ripken. He holds the record for the most consecutive games played, a stunning 2,632 games. He holds a number of records, like most home runs by a shortstop. But… he played a lot of games. Is that record just a consequence of his endurance? His lifetime batting average was only .276. And for years he held the record for the most times grounding into a double play. Probably also just a consequence of being in that position more than most.

Is the batting average of truly smart people better than the average? Perhaps by a little, again because they are more well read, more exposed to ideas. But is it an order of magnitude better? Nope. And I can recall several occasions where really smart people made some really bad choices. Whatever happened to Enron? Or Nokia…

So be careful when you are in the presence of smartness. Don’t be blinded by the light. Certainly don’t avoid providing your own input just because the smartest person in the room has spoken. This could be one of the cases where you are right. And you deserve to celebrate it.