On the Darker Side of Being Bright!

I am somewhat a fan of interesting quotes. One of the quotes I read was from Steve Jobs when he said

“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do”.

But, how many understand this? Very, very few!

There is a darker side to being bright and smart, especially when you do not have a ‘God Father’ or a self-less mentor.

I was in my 6th class when there was an essay writing competition in the school where we were asked to write about our favourite game or sport. I chose to write about swimming, citing one of my inspiring heroes, Johnny Weissmuller, not because of he being a great swimmer but because he played the role of Tarzan in the movie!

I cited how Johnny when he was a kid was written off as a very sick kid. But when his mother took him to swimming, his life changed to what he became. My argument, central to the essay, was that swimming is the cheapest and greatest sport!

My teacher came to me a few days later and reprimanded me for the essay saying that I created a problem for the selection committee who could not decide on the relevance of the essay to the topic since there was no consensus among the committee as to whether swimming was a sport or a game!

Anyway, I won the first prize for the essay and went on to win the competition, every year after that until I left the school for this mischief in interpreting topics and taking an uncommon position on these.

But, this episode left a mark in me at a young age. There is a darker side to being bright, simply because you see things in a different perspective, you articulate issues differently and you sometimes fore-run the crowd.

Whenever I see an article, essay or a story on how successful bright people are, I smile for myself on the pain of being bright.

You are uncommon, you are not a part of the mainstream, you are many times a perceived challenge to your colleagues and peers and you are ‘different’ when you are bright.

When I joined college to pursue my under-graduate studies, I was very interested in studying forensics. This was a problem since I was studying botany. I went to my Head of the Department and told him about my interest. He called a colleague of his and told him to re-open the option to teach forensic toxicology with plants as basis that was discontinued in the college for many years then.

Once again, I had to pay the price for being a trouble maker but the course became one of the most sought-after course in the college since it was exactly the time Government of India started to focus on forensics and established a couple of national centres in forensic science.

Shift to post-graduate college, a traditional, old-style college of repute in Chennai, with just eight students. We started to learn genetics as a major subject, a subject of my fascination.

In my enthusiasm, I began looking for some up-to-date books on the subject and came across a text book authored by De Robertis and De Robertis and brought a copy to the attention of my teachers and fellow students.

Hell broke loose with my friends pouncing on me and abusing me of making their life difficult with such ‘foreign’ books. The teacher, of course, had limited option to be too open about his displeasure to teach us elements from the book rather than the decade old ‘notes’ he prepared when he joined the college to teach!

Whether it is my brief stint with the Indian Railways as a Senior Clerk or as Head of the programme planning unit at a nationally renowned NGO in India, or as Head of the Asia programme for an international conservation organization or at the United Nations, one challenge I faced was that it is important not to let your boss or colleagues think you are bright. That will be the start of trouble.

It is like that everyone likes innovation but hate to be innovated upon.

While my management friends and ‘progressive’ human resource experts will vehemently disagree with me, it is true that being bright has a darker side.

Let me focus on some options to overcome this challenge, without getting depressed!

First, you have to have the patience and perseverance as well as intelligence to work through your peers, colleagues and bosses so that your brightness is not perceived as a threat to their intelligence, actions and decisions.

Second, you should find ways and means to show your creativity, de-linking the same from your professional priorities.

Third, be prepared to be treated ‘differently’, since you are any way a bit different.

Lastly, learn to compromise and ‘adjust’. Your brightness should not dull the image and standing of others.

One of the key points that my friend, late Dr. Calestous Juma, Professor of Practice at Harvard University told me while I was doing a lot of negotiation training for senior bureaucrats was ‘never tell anyone that it was your idea that went through’. At times, it is okay to be a bit dull for others to shine though it may be a bit painful!

 The author is the Chairperson of FLEDGE (fledgein.org) and was the youngest Secretary level officer of Government of India (as Chairman, National Biodiversity Authority).

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