November 29, 2012 - Buenos Aires, Argentina

How to be smarter than anyone else

I was in a Mathematical Analysis II class. My teacher, professor Luiz Fiorante, was by far the craziest teacher I ever had, and also the most intelligent one. I always thought I had a good mind, that somehow I was a bit smarter than everyone around me (later on I discovered that everyone thinks this way). But in his classes I felt just stupid. Sometimes he asked some questions to the class that were so simple I thought no one could ever answer it wrong, and then I did. Very often he got angry with the class, he said “No sean soretes!” (which means something like “Don’t be a piece of crap”). But not real angry, just enough to make people think a bit more before saying anything.

Once he was angry because someone used some concept wrongly, then he asked a question that absolutely blew my mind. Not because of the answer, but because in this moment a spark lit in my head. He asked: “Is an elephant greater than another elephant?”

Of course! He just cannot trick me with this one! There are elephants with different sizes and there is nothing he an say to change that!! I was thinking about everything he could possibly say, and when I was absolutely sure I said out loud: “Yes, there are”.

Fortunately enough he didn’t hear me. He answered to the class with a loud “NO!”. “Elephants cannot be compared, you cannot say an elephant is bigger than another elephant, just as you can’t say an elephant is bigger than a cat.”

Wait a minute! I don’t care where you studied or even if Archimedes himself appeared personified just for you and gave you such a revelation, but that is just wrong! Your reasoning is bad and you should feel bad about it!

Baby elephant with legend "Sorry, your Koalafications are irrelephant"

Everything happened in just some seconds, but in my head I couldn’t conceive such thing. I was wondering what on earth he would say to make it up for what he had just stated. Then he continued: “things cannot be compared this way, the only things that can be compared like that are numbers. A number is greater than another number, not an elephant. The number that represents an elephant’s hight, or width, or length or volume can be greater than another elephant’s, but not the elephant himself. Does the opposition exist? (he was talking about opposition to the government of Argentina’s president Cristina Kirchner) no! There are various groups of people who oppose the government, they are treated as the opposition…”. Then he went on with some other subjects.

This may look like something very simple, and somehow obvious. You could say “well, of course I was talking about numbers, if you asked me to show how bigger than another an elephant was I would grab the metric tape and compare their hight”. But the fact is that that was not what was said. When you said an elephant is bigger than the other you didn’t say what would be the criteria. So, given the broadness of your statement, you could be saying anything. Let’s remember that half a truth is a lie.

What fascinated me this day was that he was showing me something I had never seen before. He was teaching me to think differently. He was showing that there are a lot of things in our day to day world that we give for granted, so we don’t look at them. He showed that we can only create a real impact, a real change in something, if we look deeply into the roots of consents and prejudices that are constantly overlooked. Like the common agreement that we can say that an elephant is greater than another, even if we don’t clarify which attribute will be measured. He was teaching us to ask what no one else was asking.

There is an old story called “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. A long time ago, there was an empire whose emperor was very vain. One day, two foreign weavers arrived at the city and went to meet with the emperor. They said they could weave a tissue that was the most beautiful on earth, and that this tissue had some special properties. It could be seen neither by simpletons nor by people who were not fit for their offices. The vain emperor loved the idea and asked them to weave clothes for him with this splendid tissue. He gave them big sums of money to start weaving immediately. The thing is that the weavers were dodgers and the whole tissue story was a farce. In the due day the emperor went to see and try his new clothes, made of this magnificent tissue. When they showed it the emperor didn’t see anything, because they were showing nothing. Afraid of being a fool or unfit for his job, he asked the opinion of the officers of the crown that accompanied him. They too didn’t see a thing, but deep in their minds they were thinking “is it possible that I am a simpleton? Or that I am unfit for my officer?”. Consumed by fear of shame, both said the clothes were exquisite, that they had never seen anything more beautiful than that. Hearing the responses of his officers, the emperor pretended to see the clothes and asked to put it on. The weavers pretended to dress him and he pretended to love the tissue. Then he went to a procession trough the middle of his capital, wearing just the magic clothes. Everyone, afraid of the same shame, praised the emperor’s outfit. Suddenly a kid shouted “Daddy he is naked!”. The crowd began to whisper and then everyone noticed there was no clothe at all. The emperor decided to go on with the procession till the end and the dodgers escaped with the gold.

It’s undoubtedly a great story. The boy, probably because he was a child, had the courage to speak up and say what he thought, even though everybody else seemed to think otherwise. That’s the secret to surprise everyone anywhere you go. If you just say what no one else says, people will think you are different, that you have a great mind or that you are more clever than others. People do this because they probably think the same, but they are too insecure to say it.

My math teacher’s lesson was so important because in our day to day we don’t go out on the streets questioning everything. There may be things we disagree with but we don’t even notice because we are used to accept it. Its as if there were some kind of previously agreed upon rules by which we guide our behaviour, and we are so accustomed that when someone says he disagrees with some of them, we are perplexed. Not merely by the decision to disagree, which could be made by any of us, but by the fact that this person noticed this specific pattern of behaviour. Because in the end, you can never change something you are not aware of.

In the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, the reason no one else said they didn’t see the tissue is that everyone is insecure.People like people who say things no one else says because they are so insecure they are dying to find someone who is confident, so he can pass the sense of security to them. That’s why you should have a clear goal. If you have a clear and easily understandable goal, which you show everybody and talk confidently about it, people will tend to help you, they will follow you.

Do you know when you are with your friends and then you say “where should we go?” and no one decides? Well, if you say “that’s the place, lets go!” they’ll all follow you. Even if they don’t agree too much. As human beings we still have animal tendencies, so, if you act like you are the leader of a group, they will believe you are.

Fortunately, I discovered that. At the same time I was presumptuous, thinking I was smarter than people around me, I was also deadly insecure. I always thought people would think I was an idiot. I learned to play well the piano and the guitar, I had good grades and older people often said “Oh, he is so smart”. But I still felt as if I was only good on these things, that outside of that I was a disaster. And it was true at some level. I always asked people’s help to do anything. I could do nothing on my own, I was always leaning on someone else, leaving the responsibility to them. So, people always acted like “Oh, he is so intelligent, but he can’t stay alone at home, he is too absent-minded”. That’s how I felt, absent-minded. People said it so much I totally believed it.

The absent-minded kid, although an excellent person, cannot be trusted with responsibility and should always be supervised. Being treated this way, I thought the value I had came only from the few things I did well. So, to me, as long as I impressed people I’d be ok. That was just bad. It made me jealous of people who had some talent or stood out in some way. This kind of thinking is absolutely destructive.

My parents have leader roles and with time I began to observe and learn. They taught me uncountable good things about leadership. In the end, if you want to be a leader you should act as one. But if you want to be a good leader, then you must see what led can’t. As leader you don’t have to be smarter than the people you deal with, that’s completely unnecessary. It’s enough if you can guide them well, and to guide them you have to see farther than they see, and that’s not intelligence. A young MBA can be much smarter than an illiterate old man, but experience gave the old man ability to see farther than the enthusiastic young guy. Now, you don’t have to learn through experience, that’s the slowest and most painful way to learn. You should learn by mentorship. Learning by experience is learning from your own mistakes, learning by mentorship is learning from someone else’s mistakes. The value of a mentor is incalculable, but a book will do too.

Daniel San and Mr. Miyagi training Great people have great mentors

Learning about leadership took the jealousy out of me. There’s a book called “Leadership with purpose”, and it says that the highest level of leadership is the leader who creates leaders able to create more leaders. The leader is not jealous, he is happy when his led improve. Leaders help people getting better. they make them improve.

When you try to make people improve, you help people everywhere you go, doors start opening to you. There is a book called “Never Eat Alone”, where Keith Ferrazzi talks about the importance of networking. He explains that you build a contact network helping people. You help them, connect them, and when you see you’re creating value. And this value comes back to you later, when you need something you will probably know someone who is willing to help you.

You see, every book, film or idea is built upon an insight. An insight is nothing more than seeing what no one else had noticed before. Every great phrase or technique is nothing more than life being analysed with common sense but from a different outlook.

That day the math teacher was teaching us to be more like the boy in the emperor’s story. Because in the end, life is what we make out of it. You will be better off than anyone else if you learn to think for yourself. In the end your opinion is neither better nor worse than anyone’s, but at least is your’s, it’s sincere. While you don’t ask why aren’t life the way you want it to be, you will be fated to live it the way someone else thinks it should be.