Warning for smart people – beware invalid rationalisations

A decade ago I worked in the venture capital team at Reuters, a company then famous for only hiring smart people, and I saw first hand the dangers of only working with clever people. The smart folk at Reuters would embark on projects that they thought were in the company’s best interests and make strong arguments why they should get more funding and keep going. They were also smart enough to get themselves invited to all the key meetings that might effect their project so they were present to make their strong arguments when it counted. The problem was that there were lots of smart people doing exactly the same thing, with the result that there were loads of projects protected by their clever sponsors and the company could never rally around the best ones. Sclerosis set in.

There’s a good post up this morning about the Curse of smart people which explains this problem more generally:

Smart people have a problem, especially (although not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize nearly anything.

Rationalisation is a powerful tool, but it gets dangerous when used to justify decisions or opinions that are in fact made for emotional or intuitive reasons, particularly when there is a lack of data. In my next venture capital job after Reuters I saw this first hand from a colleague who I still rate as one of the smartest I’ve ever worked with. He knew he was smart too. However, in the heat of one deal, which he wanted to get done for emotional reasons he let his intelligence get the better of him and rationalised the deal in a way that he wouldn’t have let anyone else get away with. When I pointed it out to him he got emotional and started questioning my ability.

I’m now of the firm opinion that smarts without a high degree of self-awareness and emotional intelligence can be very dangerous.