What is Smart?


Have you ever thought about what you mean when you say someone is smart?  As an executive search consultant clients usually ask me to find “A players” for their companies, in other words find the smart people.  Do you ever wonder what the expression “the smartest person in the room” means?  Why is being the smartest person in the room important?  What about the rest of us?

In my 20 years of experience recruiting talent I have found that many of the people we think of as “smart” (because they obtained a degree from an Ivy League school or because they are the CEO of a company) turn out to be like the rest of us … complex beings who are smart about some things and dumb about other things and everything in between.

In our educational system smartness is often defined as doing well at acquiring knowledge.  In the workplace it can mean that someone has done well at acquiring dollars.  Our culture teaches us that we should “reach our potential,” acquire a degree and then, when we enter the work force, we are expected to acquire an expertise in a particular field.  In the world of work the social aspect of human life is bifurcated into something called “emotional intelligence,” as though we can separate our emotions from our intelligence.  Creativity and relational activity – what and how we create with others, a critical component of learning, growth and development – is sadly not even part of the conversation (creativity seems to only be allowed into discussions about “innovation” or design).  Development doesn’t make it into most discussions about intelligence, learning and education.

Here’s a provocative and profound statement about education by Dr. Fred Newman, the Stanford-trained philosopher and co-founder of the All Stars Project:

The issue is to recognize that who we all are is not simply our potential, which is somehow thought of in popular language as ‘inside us.’  But who we are is some complex combination of who we are and what we are becoming.  We’re not static individuals.  We are continuously changing, and we are continuously growing… This is philosophical, and it’s also the understanding of some of the most frontline 20th, 21st century critical thinkers about how to understand human growth and development.  And that has not been brought to our schools.  It has not been brought into the popular culture.

I would add that it has not been brought into the workplace either (with some exceptions, of course). Ludwig Wittgenstein was one of the most frontline 20th century thinkers.  He was a unique, eccentric and brilliant philosopher who took apart nearly every concept that underlies how psychology and education are done and examined some of our most basic assumptions like causality, essence, meaning, and the very nature of language and thought.  As my colleague, Dr. Lois Holzman pointed out in her recent class that I attended – Discovering Wittgenstein – “Psychologists and educators – not to mention, the rest of us – need to seriously examine, question and play with our assumptions and our language.”

Sounds like a smart idea to me!

If you’d like to read more on all of the above please refer to Holzman’s book “The Overweight Brain” which you can read online at http://loisholzman.org/books/latest-installment/