Rendered Fat Content


Chen Hongshou: painting of Tao_Yuanming (Ming Dynasty)
"Everyone's Smarter than everyone else."

I used to help facilitate experiential leadership workshops where I'd invite participants to engage in a variety of what I referred to as Silly Little Games. Those games were anything but silly, though they certainly often appeared absurd, at least at first. I'd often ask after an exercise ended, when reflecting upon what had just happened, "How did you exhibit leadership during that exercise?" It became quickly apparent to me by the shocked looks on people's faces when I asked that question that many had not thought they'd exhibited much in the way of leadership during the exercise, and some would readily admit that they'd missed an opportunity to exhibit it, since I had not declared that the purpose of it was to provide a medium for each person to demonstrate leadership. Though we were in the middle of what had been advertised as a leadership workshop, I'd felt no pressing need to re-remind every participant of the workshop's advertised purpose. Besides, I figured individuals could use the experiences for whatever purpose they wanted and I didn't want to hold them hostage to satisfying my needs for them. With a little subsequent prodding, though, almost everyone came to recognize that they'd somehow exhibited leadership however they'd engaged, even the wallflowers, even those who'd taken a bio-break rather than actually engage. We came to rediscover that leadership, whatever that might entail, comes in at least ten thousand different guises and can often only be recognized by the one engaging in it, and then, only if that one's rather generously observing themselves. Influence extends far beyond anyone's senses.

I was thinking about that exercise as I entered a BIG box hardware store yesterday, on a mission to find a tool which I could not describe to myself, much less to any clerk, in the unlikely event that I might encounter a clerk there.
I can never parse the central organizing principle of any hardware store, since those places seem filled with items largely beyond either my imagination or experience. I can usually recognize the paint department, but I was seeking a power tool attachment. I only own a couple of power tools because they represent the greatest mystery to me. I won't usually agree to have them around because they universally scare me. I circumnavigated the place as usual, trying to find my bearings, and after only a short mile or two stroll, discovered what I firmly believed to be the correct section. I felt like Magellan. I found a dizzying array of attachments, of which the precise purpose of many I could not readily discern. Finally, a clerk approached and I very poorly described what I was looking for. He pointed to this gold-plated thing, twice the price I'd expected. I thanked him before searching a little further then finally acquiescing and heading for the checkout stand feeling terribly stupid.

I always feel terribly stupid in hardware stores, which is why I usually avoid the BIG box ones, favoring a friendlier mom-and-pop shop where I need never actually know what I'm seeking to find it. We've long ago concluded that I'm an idiot, but an idiot in rather welcoming company, for small hardware stores have not forgotten that they're in the idiot supply business. The BIG box boys believe their customers are Smarter than their clerks are, a presumption that sadly proves generally accurate. The smaller operators understand that few could possess their clerks' depth of experience, but they know better than to rub anyone's nose in this fact. It's just what it is, and I've grown to accept just how stupid I must seem to them. It's become a point of pride for me. Had I been working in the hardware business for four decades, I'd probably be every bit as smart as the best of them. We come from different experiences, so it's a false comparison to conclude that they're Smarter than I. They might know more, but if I invited any of those guys to write a short essay, they'd find themselves wearing my hardware store shoes.

Smarter has become the universal comparator. When (not if) someone does something stupid, we quickly conclude that we're Smarter then they are, though we might just be more situationally experienced. Even a genius like Einstein used to routinely get lost when walking a familiar route home. Smarter seems like IQ exams, which have been largely discounted as somewhat of a sham, for they favor some perspectives and experiences over others. I'm still learning that everyone's Smarter than everyone else within their world experience. When I was in fifth grade, a kid in my class moved from West Virginia. He could not read and he spoke with a mouth so full of marbles that few could understand anything he said. I happened upon his place on one of my bike rides, and he invited me into his room, which was a corner of an unheated garage. He offered me a SenSen, which he insisted covered up the tobacco on his breath. Oh, yea, he also smoked. He showed me a carburetor that he was rebuilding. When I asked how he'd learned how to do that, he claimed that the carburetor had taught him. He inhabited an intelligence I could not comprehend, and I'd been recognized as one of the smart ones at school.

Our enemies invariably seem stupid at first. GIs drafted to fight the Japanese during WWII, took solace in their belief that they would be opposing an inferior race, a near-sighted, short-statured people who could not even properly pronounce 'R.' How smart could they be? Their comfort lasted up until they actually encountered a vastly more experienced and well-trained enemy absolutely dedicated to achieving their strategic objectives. Once they began accepting, albeit begrudgingly, that they fought a supremely and differently intelligent enemy could they usefully employ their native intelligence to succeed. Insisting that another's not smart never, ever makes anyone Smarter. I might lose at least fifty phony IQ points whenever I enter a BIG box hardware store, but others lose at least an equal amount of theirs whenever they enter my lair. I'm learning that I can usually reliably tell when I'm in the presence of someone who's really grown into their intelligence because I always feel smarter when I'm around them. Before, I encounter degrading jockeyings for position, as if we were being graded on our performances by harsh line judges. I try to imagine not just who I'm encountering, but where I'm encountering them and who that person might one day become if I could only know their trajectory. I can't. Every genius was an idiot until they stumbled upon their discovery. Maybe only a carburetor introduced them to themselves. Maybe it was something else, like themselves immersed in an experiential leadership workshop. Everyone's Smarter than everyone else.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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