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In business, it’s actually a bad thing to be called smart

When I was a budding entrepreneur, recently having earned my PhD in astrophysics, people would often introduce me as a rocket scientist. At first I enjoyed the praise.

In time I found being called intelligent didn’t help me in business. By “in business” I mean in business roles with leadership and decision-making. People talk about intelligence as valuable in business and some behave so, but I came to conclude successful businesspeople, especially investors, didn’t value intelligence as someone’s primary value. On the contrary, I came to find many venture capitalists and other investors viewed people with intelligence as their primary value as people whose inexperience they could exploit to make money off of.

I think businesspeople in mainstream music look at talented musicians the same way, but I don’t know the music business that well.

To clarify, I don’t mean people don’t value intelligence. They don’t value it when it’s their most important value. To call someone smart implies their other skills don’t measure up and, in business, people want solutions that work and productive relationships, neither of which require intelligence. What people usually describe as intelligence is what I call abstract problem solving. Intelligence being someone’s primary value means everything else is weaker. Business problems are rarely abstract, so someone being intelligence means they are weaker in everything else.

People sometimes mean someone learns quickly when they call them smart. Even then, most people would probably prefer someone with relevant field experience—someone who already made the mistakes it takes to learn how to solve the typical problems you can expect to arise.

When people introduce me as a rocket scientist today, I respond to their well-meaning gesture by saying “I don’t know if I’m that smart, but I get the job done and people tell me they like working with me.” Sometimes I’ll add that I have experience and connections in the relevant area.

Are getting the job done and social skills the best qualities to say you have in business? I’m not sure, but I find businesspeople value them more. I usually do too—at least over intelligence as someone’s primary value.

What about the rest of life?

Though I found the above in business, I find the same holds in the rest of life outside business. Not many parts of life need intelligence and those that do tend to be low-level areas where people work alone, like science and engineering. Those things make great hobbies, but rarely great group activities.

In other words, again, if people identify someone as smart in regular life, it often implies weakness in social skills and experience.

Don’t get me wrong. If I could meet Albert Einstein I would want to keep him in my life, but I’d value his social skills and experience too. If his social skills were horrible I might not spend time with him. I’m not sure I’d start a business with him. If I couldn’t keep up with him on where he applied his intelligence, I might feel intimidated and avoid talking about those areas, except where he could explain it to me, but then I wouldn’t experience his intelligence, but a shadow of it.

A sample comparison

Consider someone of outstanding intelligence, however you define it—say in the top one percent of people you’ve met. If that person has crappy social skills and little experience in anything useful, if you wanted to praise them you’d probably primarily describe them as very smart. Why wouldn’t you? What else could you say?

Now imagine someone equally smart but also charismatic, fun to be with, accomplished, with a great network, and so on. You’d less likely primarily call this person smart if every time you spent time together you did amazing things together. You’d more likely talk about those experiences and other values. You’d probably value those things more.

Now imagine this second person was actually smarter than the first person. You’d probably still describe them primarily by the other things first, later adding “… and they’re incredibly smart too.”

A version of this originally appeared on Joshua Spodek’s blog. It has been reprinted with permission. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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