People Don’t Care How Much You Know Unless They Know How Much You Care

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“If you are afraid of being lonely, don’t try to be right.” – Jules Renard

I was giving a presentation to a group of colleagues recently. I was talking about a complex area of law and had my audience’s rapt attention. Somewhere in the middle of my presentation a fairly new attorney named George raised his hand, his eyes wide. He spoke excitedly and loudly as he pointed out a typo on one of my Power Point slides. He chuckled awkwardly. He seemed taken aback when the other attendees rolled their eyes and shook their heads at him, irritated by his disruption, as I brushed off his comment and continued with my presentation.

If George had really wanted to help me, he would have waited until after my presentation and met with me privately, saying something like, “Hey, thanks for presenting. That was informative. By the way, I believe there was a typo on that one slide.” Making a proclamation loudly and in public about the typo, however, suggests a different motivation than altruism.

George’s behavior suggests that he values being ‘right’ to the exclusion of other values he could have demonstrated, such as being a good listener, being mindful of the needs of people around him, learning more about a subject or being a supportive colleague. By showing how ‘right’ he was, loudly and in public, George also seemed to think others would view him in a positive light.

I think the reaction George expected from the people around him was, “Gee, who is the new guy? What a sharp attention to detail he has – he must be sooooo smart.” Alas, the actual reaction he received, as stated to me by some attendees who approached me after my presentation was, “Who’s the jerk who interrupted you?”

Why do I think I know George so well? Because I used to be a lot like George.

I remember a time when I found it hard to ignore my impulse to point out mistakes in someone else’s work. I grew up in an environment in which success was defined as being smart and doing well in school – often to the exclusion of other values. My compulsion to point out others’ mistakes was really my way of saying that I was smarter than they were. That I had high standards. That I was someone with a sharp attention to detail – and didn’t you wish you were just as discerning as I?

The mistakes I would point out would be something as simple as a spelling mistake or a grammatical error. I wouldn’t mention anything about how terrific the rest of the work may have been, probably because I hadn’t noticed it. I was too focused on finding a mistake so that I could feel valuable. The result was that my feedback was understandably interpreted as a put down, even though that was not my intention. In addition, I missed out on the value of someone else’s talents. The only one who lost out on my approach was me.

Somewhere along the way, my emotions – not my intellect – informed me that something was amiss. I noticed that I was not receiving the “Hey! You’re really smart! Thanks so much for your input – you’ve really helped!” response from others that I expected. Meanwhile, my intellect continued to say, “But, I’m right! Why is that person upset with me? I thought I was being helpful.” Hmmm…. what was I missing? Where was I… wrong?

I had to leave behind the belief that being right was the most important attribute to which I could strive. Instead, I learned that a sharp intellect is one of many positive characteristics that we may possess. I believe that the intellect can be a valuable tool, but that it should be in service to the true purpose of our lives. Smart people have been employed to figure out wonderful things, like how to eradicate polio. Unfortunately, they have also been employed to figure out terrible things, like building the atomic bomb. Having a sharp intellect is not nearly as important as what we do with it, and what we do with it should be directed by our other values, like kindness, generosity and altruism.

When I see people touting their own intellectual ability while failing to develop any values, emotional maturity or relationship skills, I don’t consider them successful. I think those considered ‘successful’, ‘accomplished’ or ‘role models’ should be held to a much higher standard than simply being ‘smart’.

What I have learned since my days as Little Miss Smarty Pants is that we each have a spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical aspect to our being. While we probably lead with one of those more than the other three, keeping them in balance as much as possible is deeply satisfying – to ourselves and to the people around us.

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