Brainy and Brittle

Brainy and Brittle

I recently re-read the classic Harvard Business Review article by Chris Argyris, entitled: “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” first published in 1991.

His most insightful finding is contained in the following statement:

“People who rarely experience failure end up not knowing how to deal with it effectively. And this serves to reinforce the normal human tendency to reason defensively.”

His underlying premise is that people, especially smart people, are less capable of critical and honest self-reflection as part of the process for understanding why something went wrong. How true. Smart people have this tendency, and it’s dangerous. They run the risk of blocking their own learning if they get arrogant while they’re getting smart.

I am SupermanGetting smart can be a process that builds a self-destructive immunity to unedited self-reflection, that is, unless you’re careful not to buy into the hubris, unless you make a conscious effort to stay humble by constantly resisting the temptation to believe the fawning feedback that tells you everyone is special, but you are just a little more special.

Getting smart has its liabilities if the ego and the intellect are allowed to grow together as the wheat and the tares.

When this happens, you become not only skillful, but skillfully defensive. Your smart, but not honestly smart. And you are unpracticed and unable to manage failure for positive gain.

Finally, you may end up an interpersonal disaster because you are brainy and brittle at the same time. You’re in search of the truth provided the truth has nice things to say about you.

So, are you guilty of being a little too brainy sometimes? Have you had enough stumbles or failures in life to recalibrate your self-image, or have you coasted through life on intellectual easy street and are headed for eventual trouble? Do you know of anyone like this? What would be your advice for the brainy and brittle? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Timothy R. Clark
, Ph.D., is president of management consulting firm, TRCLARK.
He helps in strategy, organizational transformation, and leadership development.
Email | LinkedIn | Web | The Leadership Test Book

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4 responses to “Brainy and Brittle

  1. Pingback: Brainy and Brittle « Linked 2 Leadership « eMega Deals·

  2. Tim- I think it is important to always be learning and open to new ideas. It is those “smart people” that think they know everything that end up close minded and unable to handle change.

  3. Tim – great topic! It’s through failure that the greatest learning occurs, isn’t it? It’s the application of the learning we’ve garnered through the years that makes us “smart”. I liked your analogy of “brainy” and “brittle”… and to answer your question: Yes! I have had my share of brainy moments and not enough “brittle ones’! This was especially true in my early professional years when I felt the need to prove myself. For the past few years I had this quote by JFK as part of my email signature to help remind me that it’s OK to be vulnerable: “Leadership and learning are indespensible to one another”. Thank you for the opportunity to share!

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