June 20th, 2012
12:19 AM ET

Letters to the President #1248: 'Rule three: Get smart'

Reporter's Note: President Obama is running for re-election. This week I’m writing my favorite guidelines for any politician who wants to win.

Dear Mr. President,

You are a smart man. I once read a newspaper article (remember newspapers?) about how there was a meeting early on with your White House team and you cautioned some of the folks there to be very smart and very strong. “Because,” you said (and I’m paraphrasing, so the quote marks don’t actually mean quotes…they just mean dialogue,) “even if you’re a smart policy person, I’ll probably think I’m smarter.”

Which leads me to Rule Three: Don’t think you’re so smart.

The single smartest thing any smart person can do is stop assuming that he or she is the smartest person in the room. Frankly, I’ve always had limited patience for “pretty smart” people, precisely because they always seem to think they are “really smart” and the difference between the two is enormous.

Pretty smart people love being called smart. Really smart people not only don’t care, but they genuinely reject such accolades, because they know better.

Pretty smart people constantly want to prove how brilliant they are. Really smart people often yield the floor to others, bend to competing ideas, and seldom seem interested in impressing people with their intellect. People are impressed, don’t get me wrong, but the really smart people do not make that a goal.

And here is the trickiest part: Pretty smart people are ridiculously confident and insistent in their opinions. Really smart people are constantly asking themselves if they might be wrong, reconsidering the opinions of others, and seeking new knowledge as if they are the least educated souls on earth. That is what makes them so smart.

Pretty smart people pack the room with sycophants who will make them feel even smarter. Really smart people pack the room with even smarter ones.

More tomorrow.


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