Intelligence and non-zero-sum thinkingPosted: May 6, 2008 at 8:10 am in journal, people
Yesterday was the last class of my master’s program at Columbia (I have one more final next week, but no more class sessions). A bunch of us technology management students went out for drinks afterwards in celebration, and ran into another group of students from our marketing class. And it was interesting chatting with them and getting their perspective on the class, since we hadn’t mixed much during the class itself.
It was also interesting to hear what they thought of me personally. Apparently I had been dubbed “physics boy” after I let it slip in class that my background was in physics (I raised my hand in one class when the professor asked who had experience with data mining, and he asked me what my experience was).
I was also surprised at the resentment a couple of them felt towards me. I had spoken up in class pretty regularly, as I was trying to ensure my class participation grade, but I had apparently come off as a snarky know-it-all. Admittedly, that’s a reasonably accurate description, but I had thought I had learned how to keep that under control. Good to know I should still be working on that.
The reason I’m writing, though, is that one person (fuelled by alcohol) complained that I was “too smart”, and made the rest of the class look bad. I find this interesting because it ties into the research of Carol Dweck, who studies the corrosive effects of praising people for innate qualities like intelligence rather than acquired qualities like persistence and effort. If we are valued for our intelligence, then when somebody comes along with more intelligence, we are less valued. We have less worth. And that’s devastating.
I’ve experienced this effect firsthand, as going to MIT is a brutal experience. All students arrive at MIT having been the smartest person in the class for their entire lives, so it’s an incredible shock to their self-image to meet people who are not just smarter, but ridiculously smarter (like my freshman physics classmate who regularly doubled my test scores). MIT’s former policy of all freshmen being graded pass/fail was a life saver for me, as it took me an entire year to adjust to this new reality.
Another implication of Dweck’s research is that praising for innate qualities contributes to a zero-sum view of the world. If somebody else is smarter, that takes away from the specialness of my own intelligence. Their gain is my loss. So it’s in my interest to tear them down or find ways to show how they aren’t as special as me.
But that’s not how the world works. I need to finish Robert Wright’s Nonzero one of these days, as it details the ways in which progress occurs because of non-zero-sum interactions. When we “grow the pie”, everybody benefits. When we fight over our percentage of the pie, everybody misses out on those possible benefits, even if they have a larger share of the existing pie.
We go further when we work together and learn from each other. In industry, we benefit from being surrounded by talented coworkers, as our collective product is more likely to be successful. This assumes that one is in a team-oriented environment, and not one that practices destructive practices like rank-and-yank. But, in general, we try to hold on to the talented people around us, as we benefit from knowing them – talented people do wonderful things which we can participate in and learn from. They also tend to know other talented people in a meritocratic version of the old boy network, and being able to draw on those weak ties is a huge benefit.
Another interesting observation is that I’ve never gotten any vibe of resentment from my technology management classmates. In fact, they were defending me last night to this person. This provides some confirmation that real world experience leads away from the zero-sum your-success-is-my-loss view of the world, as everybody in my program has years of experience in industry. Meanwhile, the classmates who felt resentment were much younger – I think they were recently out of college. They may still be thinking they are being graded on a curve, where somebody else’s success pushes one’s own grades down.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of non-zero-sum thinking, and have been seeing it everywhere recently. I’m not sure it totally applies to this particular situation, but I think it does.
P.S. I should start posting more regularly again with classes being done. As usual, I have a ridiculous backlog of ideas that awaits only me being motivated enough to write them up.
P.P.S. I couldn’t figure out how to fit this into the post, but I wanted to comment about the weirdness of being praised for intelligence. There’s no reasonable reaction. “Thank you” is disingenuous, as intelligence is innate and I can’t really take credit for my genes. It’s also weird because intelligence really doesn’t mean that much in the big picture. Effort and persistence matter far more. Intelligence and all other innate qualities are only a starting point – what you achieve with the gifts you have been given is a far better measure of character. We should measure ourselves against our potential and what we could achieve, and starting with more luck in the gene lottery just means our potential is higher and we should be striving to achieve more.