Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

People who make you feel stupid…

In his latest book, David and Goliath, Gladwell points out not everything is as it appears with respect to prestige and strength. For example, when you look at the productivity of economics PhD, the average new doctor from Harvard will be less productive than the best graduate from a much lesser school. This is despite the fact that the average Harvard graduate would have initially ranked among the best in the lesser school.

To Gladwell, the explanation is simple: what most determines your productivity is your current rank. If you feel like a loser at Harvard, even if you are much smarter than 99% of other students, you will act like a loser.

The story is entertaining. But I don’t think it is a satisfactory explanation. I don’t think there is any harm to working with people who are smarter than you are. Whenever it happens to me, it boosts my productivity. I actively seek out smart folks.

Yes, they will tell you to your face when you are wrong. You have to learn to say “I don’t understand”, “I’m confused”, “I got it wrong”. It is not that hard.

However, we have all felt less productive after others have impressed upon us how superior they are. And there lies a danger. In a highly competitive setting, some will use intimidation to keep the competition at bay. And it works!

The first international conference I attended was on wavelets. At the time, the topic was new. One of the keynote speakers, someone with little experience in the field, admitted to having spent an afternoon convincing himself that Haar wavelets were orthogonal. This may sound fancy but everyone laughed. It was like he admitted that he couldn’t figure out why 2 plus 2 is 4.

Alas people rarely admit that they can be dumb at times. Worse: for every fellow who will admit that he has been wrong, you will find ten who will do everything in their power to make you believe that you are dumb, should you be in their way.

They proceed with what I call “proofs by intimidation”. It involves being absolutely confident about the superiority of your idea, and systematically dismissing others and their ideas. All sorts of arguments can be used. For example, they may invoke their superior mathematical abilities or their long experience. If needed, they just make up arguments.

This can be devastating. About 6 or 7 years ago, I had arrived at a decent research result. Slightly proud of myself, I emailed my idea to a well-known expert. He proceeded to tear apart my idea. I vaguely felt that his arguments were unjust… but he knew so much more than I did about the problem… I got discouraged. My productivity on this problem went to zero. A year or two later, slightly bored, I picked up the problem again and completed my paper. It has now been recognized, many years later, as a solid contribution. The early criticisms that I received were not founded. My work was worth pursuing.

A similar story happened during my PhD. I had worked out some good results and was told, forcefully, that it was without interest… only to see a string of papers on the same topic the following year… some by the very people who told me that it was without interest.

Sometimes, whoever proceeds to intimidate you is right, sometimes they are not. Not all “proofs by intimidation” are so devastating, but I think that they are common. How many people dropped out of school because people made them feel dumb?

You know how some monkeys fight for dominance, without ever shedding blood? I think that human beings follow similar patterns… except that the attacks take the form of intellectual intimidation.

And the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy: once someone has you convinced that you are dumber, you will act dumber. It is hard to undo the damage.

So there is nothing wrong with hanging out with smart people… However, next time you are chatting with an overly competitive smart individual… and you start to feel like a loser… leave… stop the chat… protect your self-esteem.