Saturday, December 3, 2011

Who's Smart And Who's Not?

Is the recently deceased Steve Jobs smart?

Most of us do not know Jobs personally, though we're constantly told of Jobs' accomplishment, his temperament, and his brilliance. He sold me my iPod, presented me with the ever sophisticated iTunes, tempted me with iPhones, and fascinated me with his death.

Walter Isaacson wrote biographies of both Jobs and Albert Einstein, and he ponders the crucial question, “was Steve Jobs smart?” Isaacson has written biographies of two of the icons of humanity so he should be a smart guy himself.

One might think that the answer is an obvious “yes,” and Isaacson admits this. But then he tells this anecdote: But I remember having dinner with him a few months ago around his kitchen table, as he did almost every evening with his wife and kids. Someone brought up one of those brainteasers involving a monkey’s having to carry a load of bananas across a desert, with a set of restrictions about how far and how many he could carry at one time, and you were supposed to figure out how long it would take. Mr. Jobs tossed out a few intuitive guesses but showed no interest in grappling with the problem

Was Jobs being blasé? Could be.
Or he could be so smart he thought the question was an insult to his intelligence. Isaacson suggests that Mr. Jobs was smart, though not conventionally--like the nerds we find in schools, those who bury their heads in mountain of books and are sociopaths, secluded, forever-alone, and interested only in solving puzzles and sudoku.
Jobs' accomplishments didn't make him a conventional smart guy--he represented a new generation of smartness. He didn't accomplish it all by sheer luck, or even by simple hard work. Looking at his iPhone presentation video, you would know the guy standing on the stage knew the product inside out, and he's brimming with confidence, as though he was the only one who had made it possible. He captivated even the most cynical of skeptics, and turned product-unveiling-ceremony into an art form. Steve Jobs, if you'd noticed, hardly looked at the screen behind him for more than a second, if he ever looked at all. Because he understood the fact that the screen serves the audience, not him.
A recent visit to the Malaysian Institute of Microelectronic Systems (MIMOS) enlightened me on yet another harsh reality: smart nerds aren't exciting. The conference invited several speakers from Russia, and the most prominent one have had several papers published in Nature, and he turned out to be the worst presenter. He struggled and stuttered like an earthquake whilst staring not at the audience, but at the screen beside him during the entire presentation. His presentation was long, sheepish, ineffective and in short, it was in a state of derelict.

Now is this professor smart? His academic history says yes. But his performance suggested anything but smart. He’s boring, unexciting, and unappealing to the general public, and mentors like this, in a long run would cause even the most enthusiastic of science zealots to turn their back on science.

But this is exactly how we perceive smart people isn't it? Most of us believe that intelligence represents an ability to solve logic puzzles and do well on IQ tests. Instead of judging the intrinsic traits of an individual, we normally resolve to tests and exams--a two-hour exam is deemed the fastest though not the most accurate way to measure the mental capability of an individual.
But the fact is there is more than one way to be smart. The ability to solve problem, the ability to understand the presence of problem, having ideas, speaking and writing well, seeing things clearly. Sometimes you can be very good at those things, and not very good at (or interested in) logic puzzles or IQ tests. And unfortunately, the conventional two-hour examinations can't possibly measure these traits.

Steve Jobs was a college dropout, yet he could solve problems and understand things as well as, if not better than, any college graduate. Could things have turned out differently had he been to college?
One could argue that he was smart for his ability to inflict the right amount of pain to evoke the best out of his co-workers. Others might find it disturbing when he fired random employees in the elevator, or fired an assistant for having brought him the wrong brand of mineral water. Fastidious it may seem, but I would consider him as a different thinker. He wasn't a conventional smart guy after all.

He's smart, just in a different way.


1 comment:

  1. perhaps Malcolm Tang might be the next Walter Isaacson :P



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