How “Smart” People Think

Published time

It has been puzzling me why an elite, b-school type of people don’t seem to think in a certain manner that aligns with good thinking. This is obviously over-simplification, but you know they exist. Although they are supposed to be "smart" people, they don’t seem to know what they are talking about. This is pronounced in the emerging tech industry.

I concluded that this is because they suck at low-level thinking. Bright people I know can travel back and forth between the high and low-level thinking. Let me explain.

We learn new things by mastering a specific thing and then abstracting it: generalizing a concrete example so that you can apply that generalized concept to other things.

For example, when you think about why an even number * an odd number = an even number, you express a number with a symbol instead of thinking about actual numbers like 7 or 9.

an even number => 2n an odd number => 2n + 1

You can see this all over the place - it’s how you learn math, it’s how science works and it’s how you write code. The act of abstraction allows us to think at a high level, without dealing with overwhelming details. This is how “smart" people think.

Here is the problem with clueless business people. They skip the process of abstraction and just master names. If you ask them how the Proof of Work system works in a blockchain, they wouldn’t be able to explain. They know only the high-level concepts but not the low-level details.

In “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”, Richard Feynman beautifully explains the difference between knowing the name and knowing what it really is(if you prefer the video, here it is.)

“one kid said to me, “See that bird, what kind of a bird is that?” And I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown throated thrush,” or something, “Your father doesn’t tell you anything.” But it was the opposite: my father had taught me. Looking at a bird he says, “Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese it’s a . . . in Italian a . . . ,” he says “in Chinese it’s a . . . , in Japanese a . . . ,” etcetera. “Now,” he says, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”

Clueless businesspeople love speaking in big abstractions, talking about “token economy” or “deep learning”(Hello, my previous-self.) But they are merely parroting names of birds. Their ideas often either don’t make any sense or are infeasible. It’s easy to memorize the names of big ideas and combine them like a puzzle. The hard part is to go down to the detail and understand how they work.