The Brain Pill

Talent Management

February 28, 2011

by Alicia Bassuk and Marshall Goldsmith

One of the most pernicious impulses among successful people is our overwhelming need to prove how smart we are. It’s drilled into us from our earliest school days, when we’re graded and ranked and bell-curved in a winnowing process that separates the average from the smart from the super-smart. It continues through high school, college and graduate school, where it’s even more deeply ingrained because we think the competition to be smart suddenly has lifelong consequences. We continue this competition into the workplace, although our report cards now are promotions, paychecks and praise rather than test score percentiles.

I say it’s pernicious because the need to be the smartest person in the room can lead to incredibly stupid behavior. It leads to dumb arguments, in which we fight to prove that we’re right and someone else is wrong. It’s the reason we feel the need to tell someone who shares valuable information with us that we already knew that, though it devalues them. It’s the reason we will fight to the death to defend an opinion or decision that has worn out its welcome. It’s the reason bosses can’t resist improving a subordinate’s idea by saying, “That’s great, but it would be even better if you …” Frankly, it’s one of the reasons so many of us are such poor listeners. We’re so invested in presenting ourselves as smart that we believe we don’t need to hear everything that people tell us; we’re smart enough to tune out people and still succeed.

Not everyone behaves like this. There are people who are willing to sacrifice the fleeting buzz of needing to be smart for the more valuable feeling of being effective — of delivering on time, of bringing out the best in others, of finding the simplest route to a solution.

To find out which side you fall on — smart or effective — consider this hypothetical brain pill question.

You are offered a brain pill. If you swallow this pill, you will become 10 percent more intelligent than you currently are; you will be more adept at reading comprehension, logic and critical thinking. However, to all other people you know, and to all future people you meet, you will seem 20 percent less intelligent. In other words, you will immediately become smarter, but the rest of the world will perceive you as dumber, and there is no way you can ever alter the universality of that perception. Do you take this pill?

Your answer says a lot about how you value your reputation. A lot of people would take the pill, happy to have the added brainpower — and to hell with the world’s diminished opinion.

I wouldn’t take the pill. It’s not that I’m smug and self-satisfied with my brainpower as is. It’s that I don’t feel the incremental gain of 10 percent in smarts is worth the 20 percent reduction in how my intelligence is perceived by the world. All I’ve done is create a 30 percent gap between how smart I think I am and what everyone else thinks.

That’s a big gap, providing a major blow to my reputation and an unwelcome load of professional frustration. After all, what’s more frustrating than believing you’re smart, yet being powerless to impact a world that believes you are not?

Let’s take the brain pill question out of the realm of the hypothetical. Let’s say you’re a design engineer developing a product for your company.

Engineers constantly face the choice of doing something brilliant or doing something practical. In this case, you can propose either an elegant solution that will be rejected by the company or a solution that is 20 percent worse but will be accepted. Which would you prefer?

Do you want to be known as someone who builds elegant objects that never get made or as someone who provides practical solutions that always ship out the door? There’s no correct answer here. Some people won’t compromise their talent or principles to be more effective; some people will.

I’d like to suggest that we shouldn’t think of these decisions in terms of compromise. That suggests an inauthentic choice, something that’s not true to our beliefs and goals. Instead, I’d like to posit that these choices are easier to understand and make if we have a clearer idea of the reputation we’re trying to build for ourselves.