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Why are Many of the Worst Mistakes Made by the Most Intelligent People?

Smart StoogesWe have all seen at least one mistake or error in our lifetimes and wondered how no one was smart enough to avoid it. The better question, posed by Pearl Zhou in a post from Future of CIO, is “why are many of the worst mistakes made by the most intelligent people?” A big part of the answer to that question is that you must make mistakes in order to succeed. A large number of missteps usually reflect an above average amount of effort. Furthermore, those in power tend to, at least most of the time, have a high level of intelligence. Those intelligent people in power are the ones who are in charge of the most important decisions that have the most dramatic consequence. Therefore, a mistake on that level, even made by an intelligent person, will have grave consequences.

Zhu offers points to consider when trying to avoid these mistakes, the first of which is focus on communication. Listening to the right people will give you a wealth of information on the decision you are trying to make. However, you must also consider the type of decision you are making. Strategic and tactical decisions should be dealt with differently than other decisions. Furthermore, if you communicate about the impact and type of decision, you may find that the responsibility to make a final call may not be yours at all. Often, intelligent people look unwise because they made a decision that was not theirs to make in the first place.

It is also important to remember that being intelligent does not automatically make a person into a good decision maker. Having knowledge and having wisdom are two different things, especially in the business world. The key to success, Zhu suggests, is to think critically:

The importance of critical thinking – that implies critique, playing devil’s advocate, and trying to challenge one’s logic and assumption. Asking other intelligent people for the critique is crucial. Making big changes step-by-step, and incorporating learning from each piece into further work allows to avoid going too far down the broken path…Decision-making that relies only on intelligence and does not take advantage of experience can also have some fairly disastrous outcomes.

When a company or an individual is thinking critically, it will be easier to see the value of wisdom over knowledge. Knowledge tends to only consider the input of one person where wisdom relies on lessons learned throughout time. When wisdom is used but a mistake still turns out to be terrible, the upside is that the individual or individuals involved will be wise enough to not repeat that same mistake in the future.

Zhu reminds us that intelligence can be a responsibility. There is great importance in “finding the right balance between confidence and humility” so arrogance does not lead to terrible decisions. As was hinted at earlier, the responsibility of important decision making should be shared whenever possible. The fact of the matter is, intelligent people with a large amount of power are going to make the most publicized mistakes. However, another important responsibility of people one of the most intelligent people is taking a terrible mistake and making it work to the advantage of you and your company in the future.


About Anne Grybowski

Anne is a former staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success, with a degree in Media Studies from Penn State University.

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