At the 2015 Science On a Sphere Users Workshop last week, I had the privilege of spending three days with some extraordinarily smart people. Most of the assembled professionals were highly educated about climate change, space science, software development, and multimedia applications. Powerhouse professionals from NASA, NOAA, impressive science museums, and educational institutions around the world all engaged in dynamic dialogue, testing propositions, and sharing best practices.
Smart people tend to be fun because they can often synthesize complex ideas, which in turn provokes new thoughts. Many smart people have probing minds, too. Just like engines need fuel, smart people need ideas to stay engaged. Surrounded by others of their ilk, shared experiences promote a chain reaction, essentially a virtuous circle.
Being “smart”, however, is not a blanket description. The efforts necessary for people to become specialists in their fields often abrogate the development of other aspects of life. Specialization can sometimes develop skills a thousand miles deep but only two inches wide.
The best smart people in my opinion are those who are unafraid to pose a challenging idea, even a contrary idea, but can do so without becoming a bore, or worse, a wrecking ball. This isn’t always easy to find, especially when a smart person has spent years of his or her life developing skills that others may not have acquired. Elite capabilities can mislead some people to believe that they have the right to squash those who have not achieved equivalent mastery yet. For some it’s easier said than done. Elite skills need to speak for themselves without practitioners having to mentally file everyone else into hierarchical categories.
Being a quick wit is not necessarily guaranteed if a person has a sharp mind, although when found in combination, the results can delight and inspire. Comic wit often relies on intelligence to recognize essential truths of a situation, but those same gears can be harnessed for various purposes. A quick wit often suggests a person’s ability to ride out challenges, and although resiliency is most certainly not something guaranteed of a smart person, it offers advantages to those who can develop it.
To put it bluntly, I like smart people. But here’s the surprise. There are more of them than you might realize. You might need to pay attention with different sensors to hear what they’re saying, see what they’re doing, understand where they have something to contribute.
At my conference last week, surrounded by so many people capable of so many cool things, I found myself one afternoon in a conversation with a custodian at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry where the conference was held. Much older than I, the fellow was doing what so many similar working guys do in similar situations, namely trying hard to blend in to the woodwork and take care of cleaning up for all of us tromping around his museum. Standing outside the large room we were using for coffee breaks and informal meetings between working sessions, I found myself standing next to him for a moment and that gave us an opportunity to brush shoulders where we otherwise might never have even crossed paths.
Here’s what happened. On one shoulder I had my computer backpack. In the opposite hand I had a paper cup filled with coffee. Out of the corner of my eye I was vaguely aware of a museum custodian cleaning the common area outside the coffee room, but the thing that was on my mind at the moment was how I needed to make a quick phone call, check my email on my iPhone, and maybe grab a cookie before the next session. Sure, I wanted to socialize too, but in a 10 minute break, there would be too many competing pressures, and if I walked into the meeting room there would be an almost no way to take care of the essential professional obligations I needed to handle in that brief window of opportunity. I asked the custodian if it was OK for me to set my backpack on the wooden wooden table he had just set up.
"I put it there for you", he said. With the smile I asked him what he meant. He told me that after years of working at the museum and seeing many meetings like the one I was attending, he routinely saw busy people who had things they needed to do during the short breaks. “But everyone is hungry during the breaks, too,” he said, and they always had too many things in their hands: bags, computers, cell phones, papers. "One day I decidedI should just set up some tables for them outside of the room so they could put down their things and make their phone call while they sipped their coffee,” he said to me. “There are tables inside, but the busy guys like you need a place to do what you’ve got to do without being in the crowd inside.”
Smart guy. Generous, too. I thanked him, but he was clearly uncomfortable with the collision of worlds between us, which made me a little sad. He offered a thin smile, waved dismissively and suggested something like “no problem” over his shoulder as he turned and pushed his cart down the hall.
Sometimes smart people are right in front of your nose, and yet the most easily dismissed. This man was an observer if nothing else. The fact that he was quiet and unassuming, yet perceptive about his world in ways that many others might never have noticed made the experience all the more satisfying. More to the point (and this perhaps the biggest point of all) he clearly liked the fact that by his own observations and willingness to act on those observations, he had a tangible, positive effect on the world around him.
I like hanging around with smart people, but the more I travel the world, sharing it with people of all sorts, the more I realize that smart people are out in that world everywhere I go, whenever I take the extra moment to get out of my own way and notice.