How Smart People Can Be So Stupid

I’m currently reading a book called Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, edited by Robert J. Sternberg. The book, as the title suggests, is a compilation of essays written by various authors on some of the sub-optimal behaviours that otherwise “smart” people engage in.

The first essay in the book that I read, called Beliefs That Make Smart People Dumb, written by Carol S. Dweck, talks about a couple of beliefs people have that can often be used as a predictor on whether or not they are successful in any activity. These two beliefs are:

  • that intelligence is fixed; and
  • that intelligence is malleable and can be improved.

The conclusion of the essay is that people who believe in the possible improvement of intelligence (i.e. intelligence is not fixed) are more likely to be successful in their endeavours — not because they are intrinsically more intelligent, but because the behaviours associated with either belief will help or hinder one from successfully completing a given task.

Those with a fixed view of intelligence tend to have the following associated traits/beliefs:

  • The belief that performance measures intelligence and self-worth: When given a task to do, and a person with a fixed view of intelligence fails at it, that person’s self worth drops. This leads to a drop in self-esteem and motivation, leading to a downward spiral. When going the other way, there isn’t much it can do except help back-up a belief that has always been there: that the person is “intelligent”. In short, there’s much more to lose than to gain having this belief.
  • Avoidance of learning opportunities if weaknesses may be discovered: A person with a fixed view of intelligence who sees himself as “intelligent” would avoid situations in which that person may be “exposed” as being less intelligent than this person is thought to be. This occurs even when that situation is a learning opportunity that this person may consider important or immensely useful. Fear prevents one from improving oneself if there is a chance of failure.
  • The belief an intelligent person does not need to put in effort: A person who has a fixed view of intelligence believes that intelligent people do not have to put in effort in order to carry out a task well. What that person is neglecting is that very often those who appear to do things “effortlessly” put in countless hours of work practising and working at that particular skill in order to carry out the activity as well it is observed to be.

These three are the main points of the essay with regards to those who hold a fixed view of intelligence. Those who hold a malleable view of intelligence, or who believe intelligence has the potential to be improved believe that:

  • Performance at a given task measures the ability of a person’s ability at a given task: In other words, the person who believes intelligence can be improved disassociates the ability at a given task with his or her overall intelligence. Just because the person is not particular good at a given task does not mean he or she won’t be good at others
  • Opportunities to improve on one’s weaknesses should be pounced at: Even if it means that the person may potentially appear “less intelligent” than before, a person who believes in the potential of improving one’s intelligence will do whatever it takes to be good a task he or she believes is worthwhile pursuing. These people know that in order to run, we have to learn how to walk first.
  • To make doing a task appear effortless, one has to put in tremendous effort: A person who believes in the improvement of intelligence does not avoid worthwhile activities simply because they require effort. He or she knows that most leaders in their fields put in countless hours of effort in order to be where they are today.

I hope you found these points useful. Read more, learn more, and become more intelligent today, tomorrow, and every day after that.

Eat That Frog

About a couple of months ago I submitted an application for a job doing fund-raising via the phone. This not only surprised me, but surprised some of my close friends and family too. I don’t know how many of you know me well enough to know I hate telephones, but I do.

It wasn’t always like that. When I was growing up, telephones were something I adored. I loved receiving calls, and especially those from overseas. You cannot imagine the excitement that I felt when receiving one from overseas. I would be jumping all over the place, shouting (if the call was for my mom), “Mom! Mom! Call! It’s from overseas! Quick! Quick! Mom! Call! Overseas!!”

Of course, there was the odd call or two there were more sinister in nature. Back in those days, my maid (or if you like, my domestic helper), would receive calls from what we in the family would call “weird men”. But even these were full of excitement and mystery, and the drama that often unfolded after such a call was legendary.

My love for phones only ever really died down since taking up a job eight years ago at the Hewlett Packard Customer Service Centre (which was essentially a call centre). It was then that every single call that I took was due to someone having a problem with a product that I represented.

Being young (I was only 16 at that time), and without much knowledge in the products these people were calling regarding, all I could do was to take down messages, and tell them that someone with the required expertise would phone them back soon. And as some of you may know, “soon” is a very rubbery concept, and the call centre staff stretched it any opportunity they got.

Some people who called in the morning would call back in the evening explaining (to put it nicely) to me that they had to take a day off from work to get the call in, and that it’d have been fantastic if someone had call them during the last eight hours that they’d be spending by the phone (mobile phones were not as ubiquitous then as they are now).

Needless to say, my integrity was questioned repeatedly (“didn’t you say they’d call soon?”), so much so that I, myself, questioned it occasionally (“how can I do this job lying to them; lying to myself?”)

Besides this call centre job, there was another notable factor leading to my disillusionment with phones: a girl.

This girl was one of my best friends during that time; I was chasing another girl at that time, and she just so happened to be from the same school. Getting close to her was at first an indirect means to an end, but after a while, she became a good friend, and I enjoyed most of my time with her.

But then she started ringing me up. At first, I immensely enjoyed her calls. I had, before this, hardly received any calls, and if I had, they were hardly ever for chat, and it was never from a girl. So this was novel; and exciting.

But then these calls started increasing in frequency and duration, and quite drastically too. She started calling what I think was every night, and these calls would last anywhere from an hour, to a whopping six! It was after that marathon call from her that I swore off telephones for the rest of my life.

I suppose I must admit that after that call I started ignoring her a little bit. Soon, the phone calls stopped, and I realised how much I missed not having to talk on the phone.

The years following that incident, the text-message and e-mail were my favourite communication tools, and even calls to my mobile (one would suppose, the most direct route to a person) often go unanswered (almost never on purpose, but that I think my subconscious mind automatically tunes it out).

And so the surprise when I took up this job as part of the fund-raising telephone campaign crew.

I suppose one of the main reasons why I took it up was actually because of my aversion toward it. I’ve been a long believer of doing things you don’t like — simply because you don’t like them — when there’s a choice between doing it or not, and if the doing of that thing is not intrinsically negative (i.e. it don’t hurt nobody).

In this way, I theorise, if and when you do have to do something, and you don’t have a choice whether or not you get to do it, at least you’d be prepared.

I’ve always felt that conversation was something I’ve always been weak at. I’ve written before how I despise small-talk, and I’ve just elaborated on the disdain I feel for the telephone — this job by most accounts, did not fit in with me. But I understand the importance of carrying out conversation; the importance of appearing excited, enthusiastic, and happy when you’re not; the importance of communication via multiple mediums.

So far, I’ve been rejected on the phone possibly a hundred times. And yet I’ve managed to talk to several wonderful people, including one who seemed more in need of the funds I was raising than in her ability to give; for her, I didn’t even bother asking for a donation after my first ask (and I wouldn’t have even asked but it was a formality I was obliged to carry out); but that’s okay.

Everyone who is able and willing to give should give; everyone else, well, so long as they’re able, it’s my job to make them willing!

Who knows, but this skill might come in very handy one day. My sensitivity to rejection has been reduced ten-fold now, and the phone has become yet just another medium of communication. This job has given me more than just a pay; and that’s why I hope you, too, can go out and eat your frog. Do what you think you would never do, if it’d give you value in some way in the long run, and maybe you will be, like me, much better off for it.

A Second Chance

I received the results of one of my mid-semester just the other day. I got a little above what I had expected — I had expected a pretty low score — and was more relieved than anything else when I saw what I had gotten; but even with this sense of relief, deep down inside I was feeling at the very same time a little disappointed.

The gambler (the irrational optimist) in me knew that though I should be expecting a reasonably low mark, there was actually a possibility that I might get a pretty high one. But that disappointment faded away quickly, and I returned to that feeling of relief, and that of gratitude, soon after.

Something within me inspired me to write on my hand the following: “Work harder; feel BETTER.”

I suppose it had to do with my knowing that this result was a gift from God; a lifeline He threw to me, allowing me to hold to the dream of achieving what I had set out to do.

Much as I hate to admit it, I never really studied hard enough, or smart enough, than I would have liked; subject to distractions, more often than not self-imposed, my studies have taken a backseat to my myriad of interests. And yet, here I am realising, that as much as I have deviated from my original course, an invisible hand has turned me back right again, telling me it’s alright, and that if I just worked at it, anything is possible.

The Art of Happiness

Love thy neighbour as thyself, was a thought he repeated to himself several times, hoping to contain envious feelings he was losing control over.

Why, he thought, does he always get the good things in life? What has he done to deserve it?

The object of envy, he knew, did deserve his success. But it’s one thing to know, and a totally different thing to feel okay about it.

The next few minutes passed with him trying hard to think “positive thoughts”. But none worked as well as he had hoped, until he thought about fundamental objectives as opposed to means objectives.

Fundamental and Means Objectives

In decision making theory, one might come across the terms “fundamental objectives” and “means objectives”. In its essence, means objectives are objectives that help you attain the fundamental ones.

Fundamental objectives, then, are a sort of “umbrella” objective that encompass the means objectives. One way that one might find out what one’s fundamental objectives is to ask onself, what is that important? (or abbreviated, WITI?)

The repeated questioning of our reasons to do anything will lead us to our fundamental objectives. For example,

  • I want to lose weight. WITI?
  • So I can look attractive to the opposite sex. WITI?
  • So I can attract the best potential mate. WITI?
  • So I can have sex with the best potential mate. WITI?
  • Darwin might say, “to produce the best potential offspring so that I may ensure my genes stay within the available genepool of this world.” But for me, I just want good sex. WITI?
  • Because it would make me happy WITI?
  • Because I want to, and there’s no other reson besides it. WITI?

When WITI? reaches an answer that shows that the reson for doing something is an intrinsically good enough reward for doing it (i.e. an answer reaches a “just because”), then one has reached one’s fundamental objective.

Wanting to Be Happy

My uppermost fundamental objective, he thought, is to be happy. Why am I envious of him? Is it because he may be happier than me?

The answer he gave to his own question surprised him.

Actually, just how happy is he? A book he had read a couple of years ago, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton reminded him of a theory of happiness: that happiness derived from being more successful than one’s peers is a very real thing; and that after one reaches a certain standard of living (not very far above the poverty line), one’s happiness depends more on the optimistic/pessimistic disposition of one’s psyche than anything else.

For the first point, he realised that comparing himself to the best would mean that he was seeing himself as one of the best. People generally compare themselves with their peers. It has been found that people who are too far above or below themselves, in terms of the comparison, are out of the consideration group when it comes to “seeing who’s on top”.

A runner who runs a five minute mile (pretty fast), for example, would not compare himself with a person who runs sub-four minute miles, but rather, those who run within “attainable” timings from himself (i.e. if they try hard enough, or if he tries hard enough, their timings could potentially be the same).

As for the standards of living: if one reaches a certain standard of living, happiness stays more or less about the same. Surveys were conducted between inhabitants of developed and those of less developed countries. People who were povertry-stricken were found to be more unhappy in general compared to the rest.

But those who were not under the poverty-line, even if they were earning significantly less than others, were found to have about the same levels of happiness. It was found that people who were better off economically didn’t feel like they were that much better off than those just above the poverty-line; and why? Because they were comparing themselves with their peers!

And so, after taking away the fact that he had the option of comparing himself to the object of envy or not, and that he was, objectively, much better off than those who were poverty-striken, he thought about his disposition.

He had a rather cheerful personality: perhaps more so than the object of his envy.

If my fundamental objective, he thought to himself, is to be happy, and I have a more cheerful disposition — then… I win!.

And he carried the message of “if you want to be happy, think that you’re happy, and you will be!” the rest of his life.