The genius trap

I have said it before, and the GOP catastrophe last Tuesday won’t stop me from saying it again: Karl Rove is a feckin’ genius. He’s easily one of the smartest men to ever slither into Washington, and the fact that’s he’s almost pure evil doesn’t mitigate his brilliance.

Joe Gandelman’s analysis of Rove’s grand miscalculation over at The Moderate Voice is a great read because it gives us a bit of insight into what went wrong for the Karl and Dubya Show, and it provides an invaluable lesson for future empire-builders. For me, though, it also illustrates what I call the “genius trap.”

So, imagine that you’re a genius (and some of you reading this no doubt are geniuses, so no imagination is required). This means that you’re literally smarter than about 98 percent of the people in the world. If you broke 1300 on your SATs, you’re probably in the top one percent, in fact (on this kind of measure, anyway – there are many kinds of intelligence and IQ tests don’t evaluate all of them). Even if you work in an environment where you’re surrounded by smart people, odds are that you still spend a lot of time being the smartest guy/gal in the room. This doesn’t mean you’re always right, but you’re probably right a lot, and you’re almost certainly better equipped to come up with good answers more often than many of your co-workers. Even if you’re not the expert on a subject, there aren’t many conversations you can’t at least follow and contribute to.

But being a genius is a condition that breeds an interesting and potentially dangerous mindset. For starters, it’s a bit lonely. As your self-awareness grows, you come to realize that you really do have to rely heavily on your own judgment because you’re smarter than most of those around you. In this respect you’re set above and apart, and your integration with the herd is never quite seamless.

The down side of this dynamic, though, is that the shadow of hubris looms over you. Self-awareness and arrogance dance closely on a razor’s edge: the honest comprehension that you must trust and privilege your own intellect tempts you to believe that you can’t listen to anybody else’s opinion. The knowledge of your brilliance slowly shifts from conclusion to assumption, and nothing in Cart-Before-the-Horse Land is quite so lethal as deciding you’re right before the deliberations even begin. Slowly, but surely, dissenting voices are depositioned and exiled, and the resulting unanimity that surrounds you closes the self-fulfilling feedback loop.

Before you know it you’ve made an idol of your intellect, transformed your greatest virtue into a fatal vice, and unwittingly replaced thought with dogma. Once this happens, it’s not a question of if there will be a crash. Only when, and how bad.

The genius trap is avoidable, of course, and the secret lies in how the aforementioned self-awareness is understood and empowered psychologically. If nobody else can keep you in check, then it’s up to you to keep you in check, and that means that you have to routinely turn your critical guns on the person in the mirror. You not only have to tolerate challenges to what you believe, you have to actively seek them out. If you’re the smartest person in the room, you need to do all you can to increase the smartness of others in that room. Invite smarter people in and always work to improve the intelligence and analytical capabilities of those around you. If this fails, find a smarter room to hang out in.

More importantly, you have to realize that a significant element of your own intellectual capacity stems from an ability to process information, and there is no greater or more essential source of information than the people who comprise our own personal networks. The dumbest guy you know is right sometimes, and the smartest guy you know is wrong more than he’d like to acknowledge, and a big part of the reason why you’re effective as a thinker is that you can figure out when people are on the money or off the mark. If you’re helping raise the level of conversation and thinking around you, that means your network should always be on an upward incline. If you find you’re dismissing people more and more, that’s a pretty good sign that your attitude-to-ability ratio might be tipping in the wrong direction.

Finally, even if you’re the smartest human being alive, there’s a significant gulf between “smartest” and “omniscient.” The geniuses I know are plagued by how much they don’t understand. So another indicator you might keep an eye on is whether you think more about what you know or what you don’t know.

I’m not one of Karl Rove’s confidants – never even met him, in fact – so this is purest conjecture on my part. But it sounds like he has authored a case study in how to fall victim to the genius trap. I’m not terribly unhappy about this, of course – I wish he’d taken that header a couple years ago. Regardless of how I feel about the individuals involved in the example under consideration, though, I’m always fascinated by these kinds of powerful lessons in life wisdom. I try to learn from them and I always hope that others are doing the same.

Now I guess we’ll see if the Democrats can find a savant of their own, and if so, will he/she manage to avoid taking the eventual face-plant into the genius trap?

Stay tuned…



26 thoughts on “The genius trap

  1. Rove A Genius?
    If Rove is a genius then the bar has been lowered beyond measure. A mantra of ‘Truth Is Meaningless’ is not a mark of genius. It assumes simply and I mean SIMPLY – that people are stupid. That they are eminently malleable, ignorant and fundamentally incapable of discerning an objective reality. As a true independent I rebel against this notion. It is insulting, demeaning and ridiculous. It is also I hope and believe a losing strategy for now and ever. Here is a message from Iowa to Mr. Rove and his supporters. ‘The Greatest Energy In The Universe Is Not Bull****’

  2. Re: Rove A Genius?
    I guess you can define genius however you like, but the definitions I use are exclusively about intellect and mental capability. It has nothing to do with good or evil or morality or right or wrong. Those are critically important concepts, but they’re a different spectrum.
    What you (or I or Rove) think about the intelligence of the electorate is also beside the point. Whether they’re brilliant, stupid, or something in between, not all people are equally capable of understanding them and persuading them to a particular course of action.

  3. Re: Rove A Genius?
    I absolutely agree with your point ‘not all people are equally capable of understanding them and persuading them to a particular course of action.’ However my statements are not intended as a moral argument but as repudiation of an intellectual political methodology that tries to manufacture its own reality. It simply is not a mark of some kind of inherent brilliance to do this imho. The failure of Rove isn’t JUST the election. It is the vacuum of credibility around his administration. I am speaking for myself. Everything that emanates from this administration I believe must be vetted by degrees of fiction. That’s where I am with his genius of no credibility. It just didn’t seem to work this election did it?

  4. I guess it all depends on definitions. Isn’t there a school of thought based on emergent properties that says there’s really no such thing as individual genius? That an individual wouldn’t be able to do a thing alone and that “genius” only manifests itself as part of a larger, integrated network? There’s only “collective” genius. Rove might just be a single (if really fast or well-connected) chip in a dynamic parallel processor. πŸ™‚ Using this model, what your anonymous poster is saying could actually make a bit more sense.
    But what do I know? I try to avoid intellectual razor blades all together. πŸ™‚

  5. You’d make a lovely structuralist.
    Even if I buy a fairly radical collectivist argument, for the sake of debate, I don’t see any intelligent way around the fact that some nodes are more powerful than others. In a way, this individualist/collectivist debate is irrelevant. Sure, no genius evolves in a vacuum, and all of us stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. As my own post indicates, a good part of what makes us smart has to do with how well learn from others.
    But this doesn’t mean all nodes in the network are equal. If you want to test the theory, hand your financial portfolio over to one of my cousins instead of whoever your current advisor is. Then get back to me when you retire.

  6. I don’t have a financial advisor. But, I would assume that if one were such an advisor, you’d have to be in a decent network to be any good. An individual outside of a network wouldn’t be able to do a lot. Even Trump has a team of investors with him. Any joe schmoe on the street, no matter how “invidivually smart” they might be, couldn’t get hooked into that uber network right off the bad. At best, given time, their respective networks would merge.

  7. If you’re trying to lure me into suggesting that the collective either doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter you’re wasting your time. It does. But the individual component matters, too. All pieces aren’t interchangeable. You cannot replace the smartest node in a net with a node that’s half as capable and expect the network not to lose capacity.
    The collective shapes the individual, which then strengthens the collective. Not either/or, both/and.

  8. genius, etc.
    I found my way here by way of a RawStory link and am very happy I did.
    In my humble over-1300-on-my-GRE opinion, this is a brilliant analysis and I’d like to add another element or two.
    Geniuses do to tend to have to rely on themselves to make decisions and they begin to realize this at a very early age. At that same early age, the genius’ peers begin to notice the great big gulf between themselves and the genius, then standard child behavior ensues (bullying, ostracizing, etc.) UNLESS the genius is also likeable, friendly, and one of the crowd. The genius child can end up isolated by both their own sense of differentness and the treatment of their peers. That can, in turn, lead to disdain for other people and, in Rove’s case, to outright sociopathology. But it doesn’t have to be that way (obviously).
    Geniuses are far less likely to end up in the trap later in life if they have a few key elements in their childhood. One is how the parent handles the child’s differences – my mother hammered into me the requirement to be humble. She didn’t do it by humbling me, but by continually pointing out the strengths of everyone around us – the benefits of this mindset paid off for me as a child and I could see that for myself. One of the payoffs was that I had more friends, the other was that I collected ever more insight, knowledge, and perspective – things I was drawn to in the first place.
    The other reason a genius doesn’t get isolated is by having some community-oriented activity that they are good at and that they love beyond their intellectual prowess. I had team sports – what more need be said about how different that experience is from social isolation? It doesn’t mean you don’t grow up to have some disdain for people who WON’T think, but the sociopathology is kept to a bare minimum.

  9. Re: genius, etc.
    This is an excellent analysis – and so far about the only one from the Raw Story crowd that doesn’t really disappoint me. Your point about team sports really hits home with me, because I benefitted tremendously from that environment, too. As a result, even when I’ve been trying my best to do the genius thing I’ve always been a team guy. My best work always seems to be in a team concept of some sort.
    Really glad you added this line of thinking in. It’s very valuable. If you like, you might even wander over and drop the comment into the xpost thread at That’s a pretty smart crew…

  10. Re: genius, etc.
    Haha. Guess it depends on the sport. I was smart enough to be independent, and independent enough to be isolated. It didn’t help that my “team sports” of choice were track and cross country. Or that I was good enough at those to be independent/isolated there as well. Now, I’m just a cynical, lonely, semi-intelligent bastard. πŸ™‚ I often wondered what I would be like if I played something like football instead. Would I be like Payton or like Tyrell? Hahaha.

  11. Re: genius, etc.
    You, football? Only if you could slip between tackles – if you got caught by one, you would have been broken in half. Of course, they would have had to catch you first…

  12. Re: genius, etc.
    Unfortunately, as said, this only works if your activity isn’t also isolating. For example, I was in track and in the band and orchestra in high school, and in my school that meant you were a wimp (track wasn’t a “serious” sport – only football, basketball, and baseball qualified) and a band weenie. Combine that with being smart, not afraid to let other people know I was smart, and a couple of idiot teachers who illustrated publically how smart I was, and I was a target from almost day 1. My school years were most definitely NOT “smart friendly,” and I hope to avoid that with my own kids.

  13. Re: genius, etc.
    Heh. Actually, the only reason I was as thin as you remember me is BECAUSE I ran track and cross country. My brothers are both a lot bigger than me. One, in fact, DID play football, at least in highschool. I think I would have been a decent player if I’d gone that route. But, being the independent minded person that I am, I would have probably ended up playing a DB. Which, of course, requires just a tad bit of intelligence. πŸ™‚ Now that I’m fat, dumb, and blind, I guess the NFL is outta the question. Maybe I could play in Europe, though. Too bad the XFL failed. haha.

  14. Re: genius, etc.
    With all that oxygen down there, how can you NOT run? As someone whose cholesterol check recently indicated that he was at high risk for a heart attack at the tender age of 33, I strongly urge you (and everyone, really) to get back on the exercise bandwagon.

  15. Re: genius, etc.
    I still run 2-4 times a week and ride horses 1 a week. But genetics is running even faster. And most of the oxygen down here has been replaced with smog from LA and ash from all the damned wildfires we have down here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s