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?