Bertrand Russell once said that the problem in life is that stupid people are always more sure of themselves, but the brightest people are full of doubts. That would also explain why it’s not always the smartest or best-educated people who are successful.
A lot of the most important positions in our society are held by extremely incompetent people, the kinds of people who aren’t very good at anything except bossing other people around.
The BBC made a documentary on the topic, called The Problem With Smart People. There’s one particular thing it in that really stood out. Mediocre people are often the successful ones in our society because they have full confidence about their limited knowledge.
They know how to “sell it.” Ignorant people are masters at getting people to notice them. In the modern business world, everyone has to know how to pitch themselves. Just look at social networks like LinkedIn. If you go through people’s profiles you’ll notice how many resumes say “I’m an expert in…”
But then there are intelligent people. They usually don’t even feel comfortable talking about themselves. They don’t see themselves as experts. They don’t have that same firm confidence that ignorant people have, because they focus more on what they don’t know than what they do.
Ignorant people and the Dunning-Kruger effect
Back in 2012, McArthur Wheeler had planned out the biggest moment in his life. He was going to rob the Pittsburgh bank, and he even had the magic recipe for it: lemon juice. When he got to the building with his duffel bag ready to take the money from the vault, something went wrong. He didn’t know why; he was enraged. I’m supposed to be invisible, he repeated.
His story didn’t take long to make it all over the world. McArthur Wheeler was fully confident that if he put lemon juice on his face he’d be invisible. That’s how he planned to go through with his robbery.
Errol Morris, the journalist who covered the case and interviewed Wheeler, almost admired how thoroughly convinced he was about it. It wasn’t a mental disorder that made him think it, though. What really gave him the idea it would work was his confidence and self-assurance.
His stupidity, said the journalist, kept him from becoming aware of his own stupidity. This strange story is also a great example of something called the Dunning-Kruger effect.
It’s a cognitive bias where people with low ability have a false sense of superiority, and see themselves as more intelligent than everyone else. Of course, even though they come to the wrong conclusions and make bad decisions, their incompetence makes it impossible to see it.
So if intelligent people have more doubts, what can they do?
Intelligent people have more doubts. They doubt everything: what goes on around them, what’s happened to them, what other people say, and even what they think. On the one hand, this can be really helpful for them to pick up more and more knowledge.
But it can be a big disadvantage too, because they have a harder time making concrete decisions. Plus, we all know that being able to react fast is the most important thing in today’s world. We don’t get time to reflect on things, because we have to go from analysis to action in no time.
Charles Darwin actually talked about this in his book The Descent of Man. He complained about how people in his time asked him for immediate answers to all the questions his theories rose. But knowledge takes time and a lot of precision, he argued. You can’t reach the truth in a day or two; sometimes it takes your whole life.
But something else we all know is that nowadays we can’t wait our whole lives to get in position. A career won’t wait. If you think about it, you probably all know brilliant people who haven’t achieved their goals. Think about when truly exceptional people get stuck under people who are clearly incompetent.
Tips to help intelligent people grow
So if intelligent people have more doubts, what’s the key to dealing with that? Not having any more doubts? Well no, not at all. What it really takes is re-focusing the way they look at things.
- Never under-value yourself. Smart people should be aware of their abilities and have faith in them. A lot of the time they’ll look at other people and notice qualities they don’t have (determination, extroversion, charisma, social intimacy). But there’s no need for that. What they should do instead is learn to measure themselves and appreciate their own amazing qualities.
- Have determination. Since intelligent people have more doubts, they need to learn to direct their complex, sometimes chaotic thoughts. They have to combine thinking with determination.
- Find a place for your talents when the time is right. Sometimes intelligent people are also extremely pessimistic. They feel like it’s almost impossible to find a place where they can develop and show their true potential. That makes them frustrated, brings down their self-esteem, and sometimes leads them to conform. But instead of giving up, they have to stay alert. It’s important to be receptive to opportunities and ready to take action when the opportunity comes.
To wrap up, persistence and determination are like the two best friends for an intelligent person who still hasn’t found room to grow. So if you add a little bit of wisdom, you’ll have the perfect combination to beat mediocrity and opportunists who don’t have any real talent.