Monday, April 22, 2013


Something I've been pondering lately is what makes someone smart. I say it lots, that I'm working with some of the smartest people I've ever met before, but what does that really mean? Is it being witty? Well-read? Good data recall? Plain ol' hard work? Lots of technical knowledge? A big vocabulary? The ability to think brand new thoughts? Or put old ideas into a new order?

And I guess this is partly me trying to come to grips with being part of the -82 legacy...I don't think I'm particularly smart. I know I don't mind working hard (though two weeks straight of at least 11-hour days is eroding a bit of my enthusiasm...I have *no idea* how the folks back in Aft Steering or some of the other reviewers do it. They're there when I get to the office a few minutes after 0700, and still there when I leave 11-12 hours later.). I know I can multi-task. I know I can process complexities. I know I communicate well (as long as I can use cuss-words liberally)...which really means I know I listen more than I talk -- though I'm pretty sure some Programs would vehemently disagree about my self-proclaimed lack of verbosity. And I can extemporize with a certain amount of skill, as long as I have a decent sense of whatever subject on which I am pontificating.

But I don't think I'm particularly good at developing new ideas or putting together old ones in new ways. I'm not very good at analysis -- knowing what questions to ask to learn more about something...I don't know what I don't know. I tend to accept things at face value, even when there is an obvious question begging to be asked. I like to simplify things, break them down into little pieces, even when that degrades nuances. And I have my biases...too numerous to mention here; but those small-minded little assumptions that are the foundation upon which I build all my thoughts and perceptions.

So all this has led me to the question of what makes smart? Looking at the other people in the office who definitely personify the smartness of the office, I'm gonna boil smart down to three basic qualities: people skills, technical abilities or knowledge, and common sense. In our office at least, people skills manifest as wit: a sharp running commentary, witty repartee, quick comebacks and hilarious quotes that are logged, voted on and memorialized on members' departing plaques. While I think wit is indicative of the ability to quickly process information, make subtle connections from seemingly disparate bits of data, it also shows a keen ability to read people and know what might tickle their funny bone, or touch their hearts, or fire them up.

MC Hooligan has *mad* people skills -- I don't know which came first, the people skills or the 20-some-odd years as a state trooper in the Northeast. But he has an amazing ability to pick up very subtle cues, understand motivations, sense anomalies, and connect with all kinds of people. We talked about the people skills aspect of smart late last week. Our conclusion was that people skills are grounded in a genuine interest in people, concern for their welfare and desire to make connections and understand the human condition. Without that authentic-ness, a person in some way. But that genuine-ness can  go a long way towards compensating for social awkwardness (or, in my case, lack of social grace). It was a great discussion; I'll have more excerpts from it a little further along in this post.

Technical abilities and/or knowledge is the book smarts that some people just seem born with. Book smarts can be learned, I think, with enough effort, dedication and time studying, but I think it just comes naturally to some people. While there is a component of data recall to this aspect, what I'm really talking about is the deep internalizing of that information so that it becomes a basic component of how people think.

And common sense is, well, umm, kinda hard to actually pin down. Maybe, an ability to apply the rules of a generally accepted reality to any situation. Or maybe it's a foundational acceptance of the adage, "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Or when something sounds ridiculous, it usually is. I don't do you explain common sense?

So we've got these three components of smart. In all his wisdom, MC Hooligan made this make sense too: the strongest of any shape is a triangle; and the strongest triangle is an equilateral triangle with all sides equal. Our three smart qualities make the triangle, and the smartest people, or maybe the most successful people have each of the strengths in equal, or nearly equal, abundance. I like the simplicity of it.

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