Tuesday, June 09, 2015


What Smart People Look Like

Dear Hollywood,

Did you know that many of the smartest people in their fields got that way through hard work?

It’s true!  But you wouldn’t know it from portrayals of smart people on tv.  It’s getting pretty bad.

I’ll start with the obvious: smart people come in all colors, sizes, genders, races, ages, and the like.  Some are conventionally attractive, some are not.  Some are wildly unkempt, some are not.

That’s not what I’m talking about (though it’s a valid point on its own).  I’m talking about the consistent portrayals of smart people as effortlessly brilliant, and brutally dismissive or contemptuous of everyone else.  The “genius as misanthropic jerk” genre.

You know the type.  Dr. House.  Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man.  Rainn Wilson’s latest.  (Interestingly, the examples that come to mind are all white guys.  Again, not my focus here, but worth noting.)

That’s not how intelligence works.  And I think the consistency of the misrepresentation does real damage.

Most of us in higher education would give vital organs to never again hear a student say “I’m just not a math person.”  Nobody is.  Math is a set of skills and a way of thinking, and it can be developed through sustained practice.  But that means accepting the possibility of having to work hard to get it.  It means having faith that not getting it the first time doesn’t mean that you never will.

In academic circles, we speak of a “growth mindset,” as opposed to a “fixed mindset.”  The former is the idea that intelligence is a muscle, and that it can be trained to get stronger.  The latter is the idea that intelligence is a given trait that you have or you don’t.  

Lots of people believe in the “fixed” mindset, even though it’s largely false.  Worse, it’s debilitating; it suggests that if you struggle to learn something, you probably shouldn’t bother.  You’ll never be good.  Hard work is a sign that you’ve already failed.  

I’d like to see some vaguely realistic portrayals of reasonably smart people actually working to figure something out.  And I don’t mean the reflection of the young man’s face in a computer screen, either.  I mean actually grappling with something, making mistakes, and getting better.

You don’t seem to struggle with the concept when it’s applied to sports.  I’ve seen plenty of shows and movies in which the athlete has to train hard, and fail repeatedly, before becoming successful.  But for some reason, you don’t seem willing to do the same for mental tasks.

I’m asking because I’m tired of sending unwittingly damaging messages to students.  You don’t have to be instantly brilliant to be smart, and you don’t have to be an insulting jerk, either.  In fact, some of the people who are most effective at actually getting things done are capable of working with others, and of accepting some degree of false starts and errors as part of the process.  I’ve seen some very capable people come to grief because the “soft skills” -- the stuff that movie geniuses denigrate as beneath them -- weren’t there.  In most organizations of any size, getting results means working with others.  If you alienate everyone, you will quickly find yourself the target of all manner of sabotage.  It’s a fact of life.

Better portrayals of smart people can be done.  Back in the ‘90’s, the show Homicide featured a detective team who embodied the two mindsets.  Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) was the genius who know everything from the first moment, and who could be brutally dismissive of those who didn’t.  His partner, Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor), was much more hesitant than Frank.  But Bayliss got results, too; he just had to put in the work to do it.  The constant uncertainty made him a compelling character.  I’m not asking for something unprecedented here.

Self-impressed jerks happen enough naturally without being encouraged.  Would it kill you to show some collaborative characters who succeed through repeated, sustained effort?




You left out "The Big Bang Theory". Plenty of good examples there.

Even Sheldon, who clearly cruised through school and university ang grad school without taxing his neurons, has hit a wall more than once where hard work had to replace "genius". And he has had to own up to some huge errors.

But it isn't just TV. Faculty do it also when solutions or writing appear to come very easily because the thousands of hours of preparation are out of sight. There has to be a way to convey that fact, but I don't know what it is. (The use of Teacher's Editions in K-12 also sends a message about math that the answers are all in a book somewhere. I'll never forget when one grad student discovered that the answer to his dissertation problem was not in the back of ANY book!)
"I’d like to see some vaguely realistic portrayals of reasonably smart people actually working to figure something out. And I don’t mean the reflection of the young man’s face in a computer screen, either. I mean actually grappling with something, making mistakes, and getting better."

Well, it's not always "realistic" -- but this is actually what I loved about the first Iron Man movie (and it's an element that continued in the second): Tony Stark spends half his time figuring out how to do something that should be impossible. And usually he flubs it up *hilariously* a couple of times. Overpowered thrusters. The de-icing problem. Accidentally poisoning himself. Heck, the fact that he makes mistakes and then solves them is actually the punch line of the first movie!
One of the few movies that I think did this better was "Real Genius," which unfortunately is probably too dated for today's students. The characters at Pacific Tech (CalTech) work on difficult physics, while studying their butts off in classes, as well as pulling epic pranks.

More recently, the "From the Earth to the Moon" miniseries created by Tom Hanks had a number of good episodes that showed the long-term struggle to do work. The episodes that showed the building of the Lunar Lander, and the training of astronauts to be geologists show a lot of trial and error, without being tiresome.
Dean Dad, YOU are one of these brilliant people. I know because marrying me was one of your best ideas. If only Hollywood would recognize your brilliance by making a movie of your book. George Clooney could play you and I would play myself, of course.
I'd agree with Sapience as far as the first Iron Man movie went. His latter appearances, though, are a great example of what Dean Dad is complaining about.

"When did you become an expert in thermonuclear astrophysics?"
"Last night."

Although, even the latest Avengers movie does show him struggling - he keeps failing to create Ultron. And, of course, even his success in that was really a failure.
One of the nastiest insults I've ever read was the barb that Newt Gingrich acts how a dumb person thinks smart people act.

Sick burn.
My understanding is that almost all smart people are white dudes. TV is pretty clear on that.

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?