Clever Bastards

There are some people who are natural problem-solvers. It isn’t a ‘male’ or ‘female’ thing: it’s a type of intellectual development that organises a problem in a way that lets a solution (or many) fall out. We might call such people ‘clever’, but it’s just a shape: a shape of intelligence. When others defer to this accidental ability, it makes the clever person feel valued – needed – but it’s also a trap for both parties. For the clever person, the deference is a drug, and like any drug there’s a ‘withdrawal’ cycle that happens when the deference is not received. For the ‘user’ of the clever person, the payment of deference moves quickly from gratitude to drudgery: the cleverness becomes expected, and the ‘value’ disappears.

For some clever bastards, the withdrawal cycle leads them to make the granting of access to their ability conditional on paying their price – on giving them another ‘fix’. It makes them seem arrogant – even condescending – about their ability. It makes them project a belief that their cleverness is something ‘superior’, rather than just an accident of development.

For others, the withdrawal cycle leads them to become willing ‘beasts of burden’. They know that the fix they’re going to get from each solution is getting ever smaller, but they just can’t stop. They take on more and more tasks, for less and less reward and recognition. They console themselves by thinking that they have become ‘indispensable’, but the truth is that those who use them would go to any clever bastard; they just happen to be handy.

The ‘trick’ for the clever bastard is to realise that the ability to solve problems is just an accident, like having a musician’s feel for rhythm and pitch, or the artist’s feel for form and light. Such gifts can be developed, with appropriate training, but most people stumble into them. It also helps to realise that those who make use of the clever bastard are concentrating on different, equally accidental abilities. For them, the use is a kind of ‘equitable work-share’, which is one reason why the gratitude fades so quickly. And even if they are forced to continue to pay deference, it becomes insincere: an act; a manipulation.

It is also worth remembering that in any human enterprise, the people who get the lion’s share of any credit are those who are seen to be making the enterprise do what it was set up to do. The role of a clever bastard is to invent new ways in which others can be more successful. They identify faults in the organisational machine, or they invent new products and services. But the enterprise would continue without them; they aren’t ‘core’ to its function. They may be core to its competitiveness, but that’s a different thing. You get punished for not being competitive; you don’t get rewarded for just ‘staying in the game’.

There have, of course, been clever bastards like Newton, Einstein, Dirac and Tesla, whose solutions have helped many others to be more productive, and whose insight seemed almost mystical. But their genius was just as accidental as the ability of any other clever bastard. (That list is, of course, way too short; it wasn’t meant to be exhaustive.) The point is that even the greatest merely have the shape of intellect that helps solutions to fall out. They augmented that ability with a coherent set of knowledge, within which the answers were already waiting to be found, and their intellect then furnished the connections that made the answers visible.

When I sat down to write this post, it was going to be about how some people become the work-horses of an enterprise, through their ability to do their respective job ‘well’. The provisional title was even, “I’m on it!” But as I thought about my own experience [and yes, I was something of a clever bastard] it seemed to me that everyone who falls into that position has something of the clever bastard about them. They have an intuition for the jobs they are assigned to do; they know how to get round any problems that might arise. And although they may not think of themselves as ‘clever’ – perhaps even the reverse – it is only that their intellect baulks at certain kinds of problem. Perhaps it’s like the horse that won’t even attempt the triple fence jump because it just looks too daunting.

Even those who are – or see themselves as – only a little bit of a clever bastard can fall into the same traps as a more obvious candidate. Anyone can get addicted to the drug of respect for being clever. And they will only get that drug if they allow others to use them.

Featured image: Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Einstein, Paul Dirac and Nicola Tesla, from Wikimedia.

Author: sbwheeler

Retired IT consultant.

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