Smart people are great people to have around. Smart people solve problems, have great ideas, and move society and culture. But smart people have challenges. But smart people can make the worst decisions if they don’t recognize the danger signs.
The first problem is the danger of not recognizing the smarts of other people. I served for a while on staff at a university. I was acutely aware that in almost every room that wasn’t fill with undergraduates, I was the least educated person in the room. Some of the smartest people I knew had been my predecessors. Intelligent and characters in the own novels, a pattern I began to see in the very intelligent who didn’t end their carreers well was the following.
- They didn’t recognize the intelligences of others.
- They took it personal
A great example comes to mind. The story happens in 2 Samuel 16:23 in the Old Testamant. “Absalom followed Ahithophel’s advice, just as David had done. For every word Ahithophel spoke seemed as wise as though it had come directly from the mouth of God.”
We don’t know much about Ahithophel, except that he was related to Bathsheba in some way. But that’s a different post. Ahithophel is used to walking in the halls of power. He is advisor to the great King David. In the story in 2 Samuel, he has joined Absalom’s rebellion. Ahithophel is smart, really smart. He gives Absalom amazing advice. “Go and get David, and only David. Everyone else will flee.” It’s a perfect plan.
David knows how smart Ahithophel is. So he comes up with his own plan. While fleeing, he tells his buddy Hushai, himself a pretty smart guy, to stay behind and pretend to advise Absalom in order to frustrate the plans of Ahithophel. Absalom, as any good leader of the day, wants more than one advisor. Perhaps as any insecure insurgent might be, he needs affirmation in his decisions. So he calls for Hushia, and Hushia plays Absalom like David played the Lyre, to perfection. He calls out Absalom’s fears about his father. Absalom has never fought a battle, he has never been in a war. David has been in many, he’s the giant killer, the guerilla warrior, the legend. To frustrate the advise of Ahithophel, Hushia plays on all these fears and he appeals to Absalom’s ego. Absalom will get a big splashy victory, he tells him.
And Absalom takes Hushai’s advise. On with the story, right? Nope, Ahithophel goes home and hangs himself.
Wait, what? What a drastic move for a simple “no.” Ahithophel made two mistakes. He didn’t recognize the intelligence of others. His was strategic intelligence, but Hushai used emotional intelligence. Guess which one wins the battle 9 times out of 10? That’s right, there are multiple intelligences. The typo finders among my readers will have noticed that strange construct above. Hushai couldn’t argue with Ahithophel. Instead, he appealed to Absalom’s emotions.
Secondly, Ahithophel takes it personally. We don’t know the whole why, all we do know that when Absalom rejected his advise, he went home and hung himself. Pretty drastic, don’t you think? perhaps Ahithophel somehow construed Absalom’s rejection of his advise as shaming him. Perhaps he realized how badly the war would go for Absalom based on how he rejected strategy for emotion and knew his days were numbered because of his treason.
How do you know if you are at risk of Ahithophel’s mistakes?
- Quickly, list 5 people who are smarter than you? If you can’t do this is under a minute, you might be in danger.
- Do you take rejection of your advise as personal? The rational actor, the idea that we respond strategicly and logically to every situation, is no longer held as an opinion in social science because it has so often been proven wrong. Look at the news on any given evening. Rationality is not how decisions are made.
- Is any of your identity based on your intelligence?
We need more smart poeple. The truly wise though, they recognize the limits of their smarts. Not every is smart in every area. They humbly seek out advisors. And they don’t take it personal when others don’t choose to follow their advise. Because even if they are wrong, and absalom was, it was still his decision.