This is what the Amazon founder looks for when he wants to know if someone is really smart.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos sits atop one of the most successful companies of our time, not to mention a personal fortune of some $150 billion. I think we can all agree that by any meaningful definition the guy is pretty smart. It’s also obvious he has a talent for surrounding himself with other smart people who can help make his vision reality.
How does he find them? It’s a question he addressed when he stopped by the Basecamp offices a few years ago, the company’s founder, Jason Fried, reports on the Basecamp blog. And the answer Bezos gave was the exact opposite of what most folks would expect.
Smart people are actually wrong a lot.
Most of us, when we want to figure out if someone is smart, ask if the person is frequently right: Do they have correct knowledge about the world and their area of expertise? Do they come up with the right answers when faced with hard problems? Do their predictions turn out to be right?
But Bezos’s counterintuitive strategy isn’t just to look at how often people are right. Instead, he also looks for people who can admit they are wrong and change their opinions often.
Bezos has “observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking,” Fried reports the Amazon boss saying.
“Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
That willingness to consider new information goes hand in hand with a willingness to admit your old way of thinking was flawed. In other words, to be super smart you have to change your mind a lot. Essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Bezos apparently agrees that consistency is overrated.
“He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait,” Fried reports. “It’s perfectly healthy – encouraged, even – to have an idea tomorrow that contradicts your idea today.”
It’s not just 19th-century philosophers who agree with Bezos. Modern science does too, although psychologists have a less poetic way of speaking about the flexibility of mind Bezos prizes. They call it intellectual humility. Studies of decision making show that people who are more willing to entertain the idea that they’re wrong make markedly better choices. Being wrong, they understand, isn’t a sign of stupidity. It’s a sign of curiosity, openness to new information, and ultimately smarts.
If famous essays, top CEOs, and the latest research aren’t enough to convince you that to be smarter, you need to also be frequently wrong, you can also take it from the undoubtedly smart futurists at Palo Alto’s Institute for the Future. According to Stanford professor Bob Sutton, they encapsulate this trait of highly intelligent folks this way: “strong opinions, which are weakly held.”
As the futurists explained to Sutton, weakly held (and therefore often changed) opinions are important because they mean you aren’t “too attached to what you believe,” which “undermines your ability to ‘see’ and ‘hear’ evidence that clashes with your opinions.”
So next time you’re trying to determine if someone is actually super smart or simply bluffing, don’t ask whether they’re always right. Instead, ask when was the last time they changed their opinion. If they can’t name lots of times they were wrong, they’re probably not as smart as they want to appear.
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