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?