Intelligence and non-zero-sum thinking

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.

13 thoughts on “Intelligence and non-zero-sum thinking

  1. I wanted to comment about the weirdness of being praised for intelligence. There’s no reasonable reaction.

    It’s just like being complimented for your beauty, or your voice. The standard reply is: “It’s very kind of you to say so.”

  2. What a great, honest post! Thank you!

    I also wanted to weigh in on responding to praise for your intelligence. Your classmates probably don’t really know your IQ (do they?) so they’re really praising your responsiveness and thoughtfulness of your comments and input in class and on projects. If you weren’t working to maximize your potential, you probably wouldn’t come off as intelligent as you do, and nobody would bother to say anything. Does that make sense? Anyway, I think that if you’re grateful for the person’s acknowledgment of your contributions, “thank you” is a perfectly reasonable response!

    But then, I feel slightly proud when I do well on an eye test. 🙂

  3. I’m always pretty psyched when I give blood and the phlebotomist is all, “Hey! You have great veins!”.

    Hells yeah. Take that, all the rest of you aenemic dehydrated heroin-addicted mofos.

    Uh.. but congrats on being done. Rock on.

  4. Do you have any insight into the differences between your MS degree and an MBA?

    Which is better for someone who wants to lead/run a tech company?

    My guess is the answer is not cut & dried, I’m just interested in any pros/cons you may be aware of.


  5. Beemer: That’s a great answer. I’ll have to file that away.

    Gillian: Good point. The idea of being grateful for acknowledgment is a powerful one, and I’ll have to think on that.

    Jofish: Pthbthbhthbhtht.

    Frank: Contact me via email (nehrlich (at) and I’ll break it down for you. Short answer: I think the Columbia program is a great fit for technologists who are interested in moving to the executive track. It’s specifically focused on teaching the skills necessary to make the business case for technology. MBA programs seemed a bit too general-purpose for me.

  6. “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.”

    This is just a really oddball way of looking at the world to me, and one that I haven’t seen firsthand since my ex-girlfriend was in a pre-med program back in college.

    This train of thought isn’t necessarily directly related – but whenever I look for a new job, I’m looking for people who are *smarter* than me – I’m confident in my ability to learn and grow, and I want to find someone whose experience I can learn from. Maybe this guy, unconvinced of his ability to learn, feels that people who have more experience simply highlight his deficiencies.

    Still, when it comes to projects, I never try to take down the people who are better than me, but I’m *ruthless* to people who I think aren’t pulling their weight. And while that has something to do with perceived intelligence going up (if I have a hardworking but obviously stupid boss, I have little respect for them), but not nearly as much going down (a slackerly “smart” guy who’s not pulling his weight, for instance, instantly becomes a “f**king idiot”).

    This is obviously a point of difficulty, since most teams don’t allow you to simply excise people who you don’t like working with – but if I had a team where some guy was deliberately trying to keep the good people down so he’d look good, I’d throw him out the window into a barrel of razor blades.

  7. Yeah, feel the same way about being complimented on intelligence (adding the factor of vast uncomfortableness), which I usually try to defuse with a self-deprecating comment (“Yeah, and apparently the chicks go nuts for that. Oh wait… that’s not working out for me at all…crap!”)

    But in re other students’ attitudes: I don’t think I got much feedback when I was taking grad classes.. well, I guess there was a case or two when classmates that were clearly clueful told me “Nice presentation,” etc. I do wonder about the class I took at University of Toronto, with my former boss’ advisor. It was a 50/50 mix undergrad/grad, so there were often cases where only the older students spoke up in class. The next time the class was taught, a friend of mine took it; it seems like some of the undergrads are filled with snarky/resentful comments. So it might just be a straight-up maturity/experience in the workforce difference.

  8. Seppo: I definitely lean towards your point of view. I can only benefit from working with people that are more competent than me. It may be a self-confidence thing, as you point out – insecure people feel threatened, where more confident people think about what they can learn and how they can use their coworkers. For instance, in a couple class group exercises, it was frustrating to me to feel like I had to review my classmates’ work because I wasn’t sure I trusted what they would produce. I’d much rather work with people better than me where I could give away work and trust that it would be done right.

    Bats: Yeah, I think maturity/experience/confidence plays a role. It was primarily the tech mgmt people that spoke up in class, plus a few other folks who also had a lot of experience. I think there’s another factor in play for me, which is something you identified: I now consider professors to be peers rather than authority figures, because I have so many PhD and professor friends. I’m pretty sure that influences my behavior somehow.

  9. Eric —

    Do you know Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences? Last time I checked, I think he had identified 9 different, orthogonal human capabilities which warrant the name “intelligence”, abilities such as logico-deductive reasoning, musical capabilities, verbal abilities, etc. Under this model, there are very very few people who score highly on every single dimension – indeed, maybe nobody does.

    Being praised for one or some capabilities or dimensions knowing full well that you are hopeless on other dimensions overcomes the problem you identify, IMO.

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