When I was a child, I was told that I was smart. I wasn’t great at socializing, but I was alright. I was the class clown, the smartass, so I did have some friends. But I never really developed the deep, lasting sort of friendships that some people have for life. Sometimes I felt like I was missing out, but most of the time – even now – I think of it as, ‘that’s just what life is like for misfits’. There’s good and bad, and that’s the ‘bad’. The price you pay.
It took me two decades to really begin to aspire to be kind.
What’s so good about being smart?
1. There is a certain intrinsic pleasure to knowing things. Richard Feynman describes this beautifully in “the pleasure of finding things out”. (He was also a very kind person, I believe.)
2. There’s a practical value to it. Smartness is generally correlated with making good decisions that lead to superior outcomes. (It’s necessary but insufficient – smartness is the sharpness of the knife. You still need to handle the knife well, and apply it to the right things. Lots of smart people obsessively sharpen their knives but don’t use it for anything useful or constructive.)
If you’re smart, in the conventional sense, you should recognize opportunities (in my view this requires sensitivity, in the ‘perceptive’ sense) and take advantage of them (in my view this requires strength, in the ‘executive’ sense). You should also spot potholes and avoid them. (Spotting the pothole is perception. Avoiding it is execution. Smartness is the gap between seeing and doing – smartness is orienting and deciding, maybe.)
3. There’s also a social aspect to smartness. I’m not saying that smartness guarantees social success (though I do believe that if you’re truly smart rather than superficially smart, you’ll figure out how to achieve your social desires and/or modulate them appropriately). What I mean is that there’s a sort of global subculture that venerates smartness. Think of all the tropes of trickster type characters, and how people love brilliant assholes like Tony Stark and Dr. House. If you’re smart, you can satisfy quite a lot of your social needs by scoring points with smartness geeks.
The smartness-as-spectator-sport trap
Here’s where it gets a little dicey – winning friends in most smartness tribes – their approval requires being right. It requires Winning. I’m talking about smartness as a contact sport for spectators. You get rewarded for the most brutal takedowns (“Liberal DESTROYED conservative with simple argument, leaves him SPEECHLESS!”)
When you start to get addicted to winning, you start to get attached. You start to avoid certain things – particularly areas that you’re not so sure about. You start picking your battles according to what’s winnable, rather than what’s most interesting or useful.
This is where we get to what separates the pros from the noobs. The smartest people embrace their ignorance. They are intimately familiar with the limitations of their models, and they are excited when they discover that they’re wrong about something. (I recall this book about physics – “Time, Space and Things” – where the author would spend paragraphs explaining the imperfections of all the models he was about to show us. It was lovely.)
Where does kindness enter the picture? Kindness nourishes (not coddles) fragile things and makes them strong
I find myself thinking about Pixar’s Braintrust. It’s a sort of council of storytellers who provide advice and counsel to whoever’s working on a story. They understand that ideas in their formative stages are precious, fragile things, like babies. You can’t shake them too hard at the start, or they’ll die. You need to nourish them and let them flourish first. You need to ask lots of exploratory questions with good-faith, rather than cross-examine them looking for flaws and mistakes. Once it’s found its legs, THEN you can start to challenge it, spar with it, and it’ll grow stronger as a result.
When I was younger, I truly believed that the best way to learn and grow and progress was to subject everything to relentless scrutiny. To debate, argue, attack from all sides. I still believe that that can be true in some cases, and that individuals who are deeply committed to learning and intellectual development can benefit tremendously from welcoming such behavior. Inviting criticisms and takedowns. Soliciting negative feedback.
BUT, I’ve also grown to learn that there’s this whole other side to the picture. What you see is NOT all there is. There’s a lot that you haven’t seen, that you can’t see – and if you saw it with an open mind, you’d almost definitely revise your model of reality.
In the past, I used to argue violently with everything and everyone. Not in a vicious way, just in a high-contact way. It was a sport, it was a way of life. With every fight, I was learning. (On retrospect, I was often just learning how to fight better, or to pick fights where I’d have a higher probability of winning, but that seemed like progress at the time.)
I lost some friends along the way, which I was sad about. But I usually found a way to live with it – mostly by convincing myself that they had in some way been too sensitive.
I had a Kurt Cobain quote in mind – “Better to be hated for who you are than loved for who you’re not”. It seemed radically profound at the time, but on retrospect that’s entire oversimplistic thinking. We have more than two options. (Also, I’m now the same age Kurt Cobain was when he died, and next year I’ll be older than he’ll ever be. Just a thought.)
Here’s what you miss if you’re unkind or non-kind: people opening up to you in private.
A lot of the most interesting information in the world is locked up inside other people’s heads.
If you care about having an interesting life, you have to care about winning over other people – so that you can access that information. If you really want to be smart, you’re going to have to tap into people’s perspectives, insights, questions and so on. You can’t learn it all from books and essays – because there’s a lot of “living knowledge” that never makes it into those things.
People only started opening up to me in private in the last 3-5 years or so, and it’s completely changed my life. I mean, I did have conversations with a handful of close-ish friends a decade ago, but now I have people actively coming to me and telling me things that they wouldn’t dare say publicly. And that’s some very powerful, very interesting stuff. It’s great at many levels. And it’s a very beautiful feeling to be that person that earns other people’s trust.
Just to wrap up – it’s possible to be both smart and kind, obviously. That’s the end goal. Being smart doesn’t mean you’re going to be kind, not-kind or unkind. Being kind doesn’t mean you’re going to be smart, not-smart or stupid.
What I’m saying is – there’s definitely a subset of smart people (and people who aspire to smartness) who think that being kind is unnecessary, or tedious, or for pussies, and so on. And I think that’s extremely unfortunate. Your intelligence gets enriched by kindness. That’s the case I’m making here.