How to be Brilliant

The meeting droned on. Something about something was being said. Someone mentioned someone. Suddenly, the spotlight turned my way.

“What do you think, Donn?”

I was there, yes. But I wasn’t. My mind was on dinner, due an hour ago. My mind was on my wife, waiting patiently for me, an hour now, for dinner. My mind was everywhere, but here.

I slowly nodded my head in contemplation. “I think,” I said, “we have to look at the numbers in greater detail.”

It wasn’t a lie. We did have to look at the numbers in greater detail. Despite my mind wandering, I knew damn well what needed to be done: study the numbers. And think.

But I hadn’t done that. It was the usual suspects: I was busy with other tasks; I was unclear about what the objectives were (no explicit agenda); and frankly, I didn’t really give a shit.

No brilliance from me today.

And then next target was picked. This time, the answer was so brilliant I wished it was me saying all that. The thing is, the answer was so polished I knew damn well it didn’t happen based on pure brilliance. This was a man who knew his stuff.

This time though, the target answered so well I could’ve sworn he’d prepared for it. It was almost as if he’d studied.

That’s when the epiphany hit me: he probably did.

I don’t know why it took so long for me to realise it, but whenever someone sounds like he or she knows something at a meeting, chances are: he or she probably does. And it didn’t “just happen” — quite a bit of work and thinking probably went into “knowing something” well.

I’ve had my fair share of “brilliant” moments. Being more technically-minded than many, I’ve solved unsolvable computer problems that stumped the smartest but technophobic people.

It’s not that I’m smart or brilliant, it’s just that technology is my thing. I read technology books for fun. I’ve built websites for the sake of building websites. I’ve long refused to give in to “printer not found” issues. Always having had such an interest in technology, I’ve never shied from it.

As a result I’ve had lots of experience in it. “Uncommon” computer problems are common problems for me, by virtue of my just having had more experience. “New” problems are often just old problems in disguise.

So, I’m brilliant because I’m prepared. The achievement of the magic of brilliance lies in preparation. In having a store of brilliant ideas and thinking, just waiting for the right question to be released.

Brilliance at work is similar, the only thing being that problems are a little more less structured and domain-specific. This means that preparation comes less from “objective” and universal-knowledge sources like books and websites, and more from actual thinking behind issues specific to your organisation or cause.

It pays to anticipate these issues. To spend time thinking about them before they’re brought up (“building up experience”), because if you don’t, you won’t have had the luxury of time to think about your answers when the issues are finally brought up.

Between an answer that’s been thought about for days, and an answer that’s given less than five second’s thought, the latter is highly unlikely to be more brilliant.

Brilliance can be achieved if an effort is made to identify key issues, and time made to think about solutions and insights to these issues.


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