Maybe you’re too smart for them

I’m reading an interesting book right now by the business journalist David Bolchover.  Called The Living Dead: The Shocking Truth About Office Life, the book’s thesis is that large corporations contain a surprisingly large number of people who are significantly underworked (that’s right, UNDERworked) and largely ignored.  Written in 2004, many of the statistics in the book are doubtless obsolete but the description of life in a corporate office environment is probably still quite relevant today.  I don’t claim to have any particular knowledge or expertise about the business world, so I hesitate even to say that much.  But why would you take my word for it one way or the other? Snag a copy of the book and decide for yourself.

At one point Bolchover cites an analyst named Lucy Kellaway who made the following observation: “Think what characterizes the really intelligent person.  They can think for themselves.  They love abstract ideas.  They can look dispassionately at the facts.  Humbug is their enemy.  Dissent comes easily to them, as does complexity.”

I was so struck by this superb and practical summation of what intelligence looks like that I did a Google search on Kellaway’s name to find the original column and read it in its entirety (I found it quickly enough by Googling “Lucy Kellaway Financial Times ‘Humbug is their enemy’ “). Here is the original column, titled “Companies don’t need brainy people”. It’s fascinating reading.  My highlights:
1. After the quotation above about intelligent people, Kellaway warns us that “These are traits that are not only unnecessary for most business jobs, they are actually a handicap when it comes to rising through the ranks of large companies.”

2. She tells of an interview she conducted with an unnamed British executive who told her that one problem in his company was that it had employed too many intelligent people.  Kellaway summed up his view as to why intelligent people do not fit well into large corporations: “There is nothing worse than a managerial meeting of brilliant minds, all seeing multiple sides to complex problems. What you need are energetic people with gusto who get things done. They can be smart – but they must not be cerebral. Big companies need one or two heavy-duty analytical brains: beyond that, declining returns set in.”

3. Kellaway disposes of one of my personally most-hated cliches: “thinking outside the box”.  She writes: “One of the greatest corporate fallacies is that companies want people who ‘think out of the box’. This is one of the most irritating phrases in the English language. Where and what is this box? And what is so bad about it? In fact, companies really want people to think inside the box at all times. They demand assent, not only on what the company ought to be doing but also on how individuals are feeling.”
bizarro youre fired
This is all fascinating stuff.  Bear in mind that both Bolchover and Kellaway are staunch defenders of the capitalist way, people who earn their livelihood in the business world; they are not making any pejorative claims based on anti-corporate ideology.  Both Bolchover’s book and Kellaway’s column are worth reading and pondering for anyone in the field of education, since a big portion of our time is spent (1) trying to help students become more intelligent, and (2) trying to help prepare them for their future careers.

These two goals may not be compatible as some people think.