You are Not so Dumb

“You are what we call a processor,” my boss said in a one-on-one meeting. “You study the details of a question before you answer. It might take you more time to arrive at a conclusion, but once you do, you come up with some unique, creative thoughts. There’s nothing wrong with it. We just think differently, and when I say we,” Merri added to soften the blow, “I include myself, for I am a bit of a processor too. So, it takes one to know one.”
Merri added some personal anecdotes to elucidate her point, but the gist of her comment appeared to spring from the fact that she was a quality manager who knew I was struggling under the weight of a quick thinking co-worker that she considered a marvel. I may be speculating here, but I think Merri knew that the best way to get the most out of me was to sit me down and inform me that in my individual manner I was a quality employee too. That woman just called me slow, I thought as she continued. She may have dressed her analysis up with a bunch of pretty adjectives, but the gist of her analysis is that I was a slow learner. I tried to view the comment objectively, but the sociocultural barometers list a wide array of indicators of intelligence, but foremost among them are speed and quickness. She just informed me that I was the opposite of that, so I considered her analysis the opposite of a compliment. I also tried to come up with some compelling evidence to defeat her analysis of me. Yet, every anecdote I came up with only proved her point, so I chose to focus on how unfair it was that those of us who analyze situations before us, to the point of over-analyzing, and at times obsessing over them, receive less recognition for the final solutions we find. We receive some praise, of course, when we develop a solution, but it pales in comparison to those who “Boom!” the room with a quick formulation of the facts followed by a quick one. Even on those occasions when my superiors eventually deemed my solution a better one, I didn’t receive as much praise as the person who came up with a quick, quality one in the moment. I don’t know how long Merri spoke, or how long I debated my response internally, but I changed my planned response seven or eight times based on what she was saying. Two things dawned on me before Merri’s silence called for a response. The first was that any complaint I had about the reactions people have to deep, analytical responses as opposed to superficial, quick thoughts, were complaints I had regarding human nature, and the second thought I had was any response I gave her would be a well thought out, thoroughly vetted response that would only feed into her characterization. I figured she might ever respond, “And that’s exactly what I’m talking about.” Putting those complaints about human nature aside for a moment, Merri’s characterization of my thinking pattern was spot on. It took me a while to appreciate the depth of her comment, and that probably proves her point, but she didn’t really know me well enough to make such a characterization. I think it was a guess on her part that just happened to be more right on than she’ll ever know. Merri’s characterization gradually evolved my thinking about thinking, and it led me to know a little bit more about knowing than I did before my one-on-one with her. Her comment also led to be a little more aware of how I operated. Before I sat down with her, I knew I thought different. I went through a variety of different methods to pound facts home in my head, but I never considered the totality of what she was saying before. This was my fault for the most part, but I never met a person who thought about the thinking process in this manner before. They may have dropped general platitudes on thinking, with regard to visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles, but no one ever sat me down and said, “You’re not a dumb guy, you just need to learn how you think.” Merri’s commentary on my thinking process was an epiphany in this regard, for it led to a greater awareness about my sense of awareness, or what psychologists call my metacognition. The first level of knowledge occurs when we receive information, the second regards how we process it in a manner that reaches beyond memorization to application, and the third might be achieving a level of awareness for how we do all of the above. When she opened my mind’s eye to the concept of processing speeds, I began to see commentary on it everywhere. I witnessed some characterize it as ‘deep thinking’. This might be true in a general sense, but I am inclined to view this as a self-serving term. Slow processors have endured so much abuse over the years that we consider this re-characterization a subtle form of revenge against those who have called us slow. When a person informed me that I might be a deep thinker, I loved it so much that I wanted to repeat it, but I cringed every time I felt the urge, because I think we should leave such characterizations to others. There is an element of truth to it, however, and it arrives soon after a processor begins to believe he’s incompetent, slow, or dumb. Most reflective processors are former dumb people. Intelligent people may disagree, but if most theories are autobiographical then we must factor my intelligence into the equation. My autobiographical theory goes something like this. I spent my schooling years trying to achieve the perception of a quick thinker, and I failed miserably. When the teacher asked a question, I would raise my hand. My answers were wrong so often that a fellow student said, “Why do you keep raising your hand? You’re always wrong.” I would also hear groans, ridicule, and embarrassment for other incorrect answers in other classes, until I was so intimidated that I didn’t answer questions anymore. The byproduct of this was that I began considering my answers to the questions more often, until it achieved a cumulative effect on my thinking processes. Before Merri provided my thought process a much-needed title, I assumed I didn’t know enough to know enough. I took this perspective into everyday situations. I didn’t just consider other, more knowledgeable perspectives to resolve my dilemmas I relied on them for answers. The cumulative effect of this approach led me to begin processing information more and more often, until I gathered enough information to achieve some level of knowledge on a given subject. In my search to find intellectuals who could conceptualize this notion in different ways, I discovered the term ‘down the stairs’ thinking. If a ‘down the stairs’ thinker attends a corporate meeting in which a corporate idea, or concept, is introduced, the supervisor will conclude that meeting by asking if anyone has any questions or input they would like to add. The processor says nothing, because he can’t think of anything while in the moment. The meeting ends, and he walks back to his desk (down the proverbial stairs), when an idea hits him. I write that specific timelines to stay true to the analogy, but my ideas unfortunately do not occur that quickly. I often have to chew on the problem at hand for far too long, and the cliché ‘let me sleep on it’ definitely applies to my thinking type. This dilemma might lead one to ask, if an idea is good enough, who cares when an idea hits as long as it hits? The processor who wants the perception of being quick cares. He wants others to marvel at his intellect in the moment. The seeds of frustration and confusion are borne here, until someone comes along and clarifies the matter for us. A college professor once praised a take-home, assigned essay I wrote on some required reading. She claimed that the ideas I expressed in that essay were “unique and insightful” and she wrote that she wanted me to participate more in in-class discussions, because she said she thought I could add something to add to them. My wrong answers in high school and the resultant teasing all but beat class participation out of me, but I wanted to live up to her compliments. I did try to participate more often in the college class, the next day, but the experience only reiterated why I shouldn’t be answering questions in class. I was so wrong so often that she gave me a worried look. When we took the final in this class, it involved an in-class essay on another book. This teacher watched me in a manner shop owner might a suspected shoplifter. I think she suspected that I cheated on the take home essay, and she wanted to see if I could provide an equal performance on an in-class essay. I received the same grade on that final, and many of the same comments followed that grade. She and I both walked away from that experience with the knowledge that no matter how hard one tries to promote it, or affect it, we all think different. There are quick-thinking, reactive brains that can process information quickly and instinctively produce an answer in the manner a knee pops up when a doctor hits it with one of those rubber hammers. Others require some slow roasting, and while it may be embarrassing and frustrating for those who can’t come up with a quick answer, once they learn how they learn, think about how they think, and become more comfortable with the way in which they operate, it can liberate them from the idea that they’re as dumb as they once feared. The theme of David McRaney’s You are Not so Smart was obviously that we are not as smart as we think we are. The various essays in that book describe why we do the things we do, and how various psychological mechanisms condition us to do the things we do. I loved that book so much that I’ve written probably thirty of my own articles on the theme. This particular article is the antithesis of that book, and its purpose is to provide some relief for the confusion and frustration some have regarding their thinking style. If the information in this article spares one person from the decades of frustration I experienced in this regard, I might even consider this the best article I’ve ever written. I would do so without ego, for I am merely passing information along. If the reader identifies with the characterizations we’ve outlined here, I do have one note of caution: You may never rid yourself of this notion that you’re less intelligent than the firecracker over there in the corner, but if you can come to grips with the manner in which you think, process information, and know it to the point of arriving at an answer without all of the frustration you experience when everyone else is shouting answers out, I think you might be able to achieve some surprising results. You might never reach a point of bragging for I don’t know how they would, but attaining knowledge of self can go a long way to understanding how we operate, and it’s our job to take such information and use it accordingly. 

There are no simple solutions anymore, only complex matters

David Axelrod, President Barack Obama’s Pygmalion*, mused: “(President Ronald) Reagan significantly changed the trajectory of the country for better and worse. But he restored a sense of clarity. (President George W.) Bush and (Vice-President Dick) Cheney were black and white, and after them, Americans wanted someone smart enough to get the nuances and deal with complexities. Now I think people are tired of complexity and they’re hungering for clarity, a simpler time. But that’s going to be hard to restore in the world today.”{1}

img-hp-main-aging-presidents_151014150686The description “Nuanced thinking to deal with complex matters,” is a dog whistle to the left.  It’s onion matter for nuanced listeners that know that the “new and improved” method of packaging thought sells the product, in the same manner Proctor and Gamble packages “new and improved” products for greater sales, with minimal variation of the actual product. These like-minded listeners do enjoy watching black and white thinkers try to peel through the layered complexities, however, to get to something that isn’t there.

Nuanced thinkers know that the complex problems, of the complex world, cannot be resolved with simplistic solutions anymore, and the key word in that sentence is anymore.  Does that mean that the previous solutions were wrong, not necessarily, but it’s complicated.  Does that mean that the current solutions are better than those in the past, not necessarily, but it’s a different world now, and what worked in the past may not work today.  It’s complicated. I have to imagine that there are some that haven’t heard this line of thought before, for I know that there are some that don’t pay attention to politics and history.  Those that know their history, however, and the strategies of such politics, know that this line of thought was probably used, in some incarnation, by some leaders, in early Mesopotamia.

Complex, nuanced thinkers get it.  It’s their password into the club, and they feel a little sorry for those of us that struggle so hard to understand.  They understand, and that’s what is important to them, and if they don’t get it, exactly, they know enough to fill in the blanks for those that don’t.  It’s what intelligent, nuanced thinkers do.

The other thinkers, those black and white thinkers that need everything to be spoon-fed, grow confused, and no one wants to admit to being confused.  Nuanced thinkers are never really confused, or surprised, by events.  They know the world is complex, and nuanced, and they know that it’s their leaders’ job to avoid saying anything that could be pinned down in right and wrong arenas.  The nuanced speaker learns to give himself an out in their speech, in case history doesn’t line up exactly how they thought it would.  This is, some say, good politics, for if history proves to contradict their position statements, they will say, “As I’ve said from the beginning … ”  They then give the illusion that all previous position statements they made now line up in the exact manner they predicted.  Did they say it that way in the first speech?  No one really knows, because no one really knows what they said, in the first speech.  This is what passes as approaching complicated matters in a thoughtful manner, using a nuanced approach.

Those that ask a nuanced speaker to clarify their statements and positions, are usually greeted with a minutes long filibuster that ends up either exhausting the questioner to the point of being embarrassed that they don’t really know what the speaker said, or that they feel satisfied that the speaker gave their question such thought and weight.

If you’re one that scratches your head anytime a nuanced speaker details his thoughtful, nuanced approach to complicated matters, or you’ve rewound your DVR over and over to try and get some sense of what they’re talking about, and you’ve felt dumber each time you’re tried to understand it, you can go ahead and stop now.  You can go ahead and take your self-imposed dunce cap off.  It’s not you, it’s them.  They’re nuanced thinkers.

A nuanced speaker, or thinker, provides their nuanced approach to give the illusion that they are above the fray.  They don’t seek simple solutions, like those other guys.  They’re above that.  They are the “new and improved”.  They are deep thinkers that receive applause from high-minded crowds, seeking high-minded approaches to this new, complicated world.

They marvel at the vocabulary “their” nuanced speaker provides, and they find the speaker’s sentence structure, and cadence, sublime.  They don’t know any more about what the speaker actually said than anyone else, but they take comfort from the speaker’s ability to address it in a manner that captures these, most complicated times.

Bottom line, black and white, thinkers would be just fine with all of the flowery language, and the Ivy League theories, as long as below the bottom line, concrete results are achieved.  They do achieve results, the nuanced speaker’s acolytes will scream, but they may not be the type of black and white results that can be placed in a spreadsheet.  It’s way more complicated than all that.  “We are not talking about accounting figures here,” is something they might say.  “We’re talking about living, breathing human beings.”  That’s fine, say black and white thinkers, but at the end of the theoretical, nuanced thinker’s tenure, shouldn’t they be judged on the totality of their performance?  This isn’t a sports game, the nuanced thinker’s acolytes will say, and I think we’ll find that this whole question of performance will be judged in a sophisticated, complicated manner that displays the fact that thoughtful, nuanced thought wins out over simplistic solutions that fail to consider the big picture.

The annoying aspect of bottom line, black and white thinking is that it gets so caught up in judging performance that it fails to account for presentation, nuanced thinking, and compassionate, inspirational intentions.  Black and white thinkers can listen to the same beautiful speech on a matter that “no one else wants to talk about” and stubbornly refuse to gauge the speaker on the merits of their intentions, and they will end up thinking that the speaker said a whole lot of nothing.  They think that he avoided the complicated matters, to avoid placing his bottom on the line with clarity, and when they turn to their nuanced counterparts, they find that the “post-game” discussions involve more of what he didn’t say versus what he did.

“He didn’t say that,” the black and white thinker responds to the nuanced thinker’s assessment of the speech.

“He didn’t have to.”


“Watch the tape again,” the nuanced thinker says.  “It’s obvious what he meant.”

If you are a black and white thinker that debates theoretical, nuanced thinkers, you’ll often find them ceding to the fact that some black and white solutions may be viable ones, and that those solutions may even exhibit some understanding of the complexities of human relations, but they’re so black and white that they don’t account for the totality of the complexities involved.  The import of their message is that black and white thinkers are not wrong, per se, so much as they’re not right enough.

The next logical question this argument provokes is, are nuanced thinkers really onto something when they suggest that we black and white thinkers aren’t giving complicated matters enough thought, or have they simply found artful answers that allow them to avoid appearing uninformed when they try to articulate an answer?  Before we answer this question, one more, vital, point needs to be made.  Black and white thinkers don’t necessarily say they are correct with their first solution and stubbornly adhere to that solution.  Most of them are willing to adapt to complicated matters that arise in the course of their solution, but they think it’s important to formulate a well-thought out plan and adjust accordingly.  The nuanced, theoretical mind will leap upon this characterization of black and white thinking with a counterpoint that suggests that all those adjustments should be made beforehand, and that that is the virtue of pursuing a more thoughtful approach.  As we’ve seen in the current administration, and it’s defenders, however, this line of thinking usually leads the nuanced thinker to get so bottled up in the search for the perfect solution that they end up hoping that a solution will eventually present itself.  Thus, the answer isn’t as simple as “knowing, and not knowing”, but the presentation of most likely knowing, with the idea that “knowing” how to resolve a matter condescends to the complexity of it.

I’ve heard some black and white thinkers wonder why members of this administration won’t answer one question directly, “Just one!” they say.  The answer, I believe, is that members of this administration probably don’t want to go down this road, for that would set a precedent from which they’d have to answer other questions directly, until their record on these matters could be firmly established, and they could be called right and wrong on a case by case basis, until the perception of their intelligence, and overall mystique, is damaged.  It’s much easier to simply obfuscate, and filibuster, all answers that might lead to some favorable interpretations.

“I answered your question,” nuanced thinkers will usually reply to follow up questions.  “I just didn’t answer it in the manner you wanted me to answer it.  It’s not a cookie cutter world anymore, in which one answer will resolve all complexities.”

As David Axelrod stated, Americans grew tired of black and white thinking after the eight years of the Bush administration. They found out that Bush’s below the bottom line, black and white, and results oriented thinking was often wrong, and they wanted a leader that wasn’t wrong.  Or, at least, a leader that wasn’t as wrong as a below the bottom line, black and white, and results oriented thinker can be wrong.  They grew tired of the simple solutions approach, and a president that didn’t present himself well on the national stage.  They wanted someone that gave them more confidence.  They wanted someone that provided the nation a better leadership mystique package.  They wanted a nuanced thinker that gave greater weight to complex matters.

The thing about nuanced thinking though, as evidenced by this current administration, is that too often complex matters are deemed unsolvable, and even though intelligence reports may label some matters inevitable, the nuanced thinker waits until all evidence is in before acting.  When the inevitable eventually occurs, and it’s far more extreme than it would’ve been had they acted on intelligence, and enacted some form of substantial proactive measure, the nuanced thinker cautions all thinkers from believing that the outcome could’ve been any different with a simplistic approach.  They state that those old, black and white, proactive, preventative measures that worked so well in the past, wouldn’t have worked in this case, because this situation, in this new world, is far more complicated than it used to be.  A statement that various “new world” leaders surely made to their countrymen when Alexander “the Great”; or the Romans; or the early tribes in Mesopotamia threatened their borders and eventually took them over.

*Pygmalion is a figure of mythology that fell in love with a statue he had carved.