Wednesday, August 6, 2014

You Should Never Be the Smartest Guy in the Room

Imagine a dimly lit police station. Or a break room at a hospital. Maybe a bank of desks at a dot-com startup. It's night. The characters (a spattering of men and women, different races and ethnicities) are all huddled together, miserably contemplating their challenge. It's hard. They don't know what to do. If they don't get this right then they're doomed, but they have no idea how to tackle the concept.

And then, from the other side of the room breaks the voice of their savior. He (of course it's a he) strides across the room to them, oozing confidence and charisma peppered with a healthy disdain for their inability to see what's right in front of them. "Here is how we will solve the problem," he proclaims. "It's so simple, you should all be fired for missing it."

His coworkers object. His proposition is too risky, too out there. They could all get fired. A coworker, maybe a woman or a man of color, tells the hero, "We've looked at it from every angle. There's no way this will work."

"Of course it will. But if you want to play it safe and ruin everything then fine. Go ahead. I don't really care either way."

He sits back and sips his coffee while around him the office is thrown into chaos. They debate. They seethe. And finally, they choose his path. It works. Of course it works. His coworkers throng him with praise, thanks for saving them all, and he brushes it off. He doesn't care. "You should have seen it," he sneers. "It's so obvious."

Familiar, isn't it?

The scene I've just described, the scene that I could write from memory based on a dozen movies and television shows, has to be one of my all time least favorite narrative/character tropes: the smartest guy in the room. You know what I mean. That inevitably male character who spends the whole plot out-thinking everyone, but not just that, telling them how he's out-thought them and then sneering that they should have been able to do better.

Like, say, Shawn Spencer in Psych. Or Dr. House in House. Or Sherlock in Sherlock. Or the 11th Doctor in Doctor Who. Or Rodney McKay in Stargate: Atlantis. Or Topher in Dollhouse. Or Denny Crane in Boston Legal. Or Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (and probably real life). Don Draper (early seasons) on Mad Men. I can keep going, but I feel like you've gotten the point.

What really gets my goat is that all of these guys are the heroes on their shows. They're the main characters or close to it. They're the ones we root for. We like that they're the smartest guys in the room. When they cut everyone down to size, we're like, "Yeah! You tell them!"

And let me be clear about what "smartest guy in the room" is. It's when a character, usually male, usually white, is so far above everyone else in the scene or situation mentally that he can barely hold in his contempt/amusement at their pitiful fumblings. He's so far past them that it's hard for him to countenance that they don't see the totally obvious solution to all of their problems. He generally ends up solving the case or saving the patient or fixing the problem, sure, but he also belittles everyone around him while he's doing it.

This is probably the most important point about this character, actually. That he thinks because he is smarter than everyone else, better at solving the problem, he is inherently more valuable. That because he knows the answer, he is worth more. And that this gives him the license to be a dick.

I hate that.

I hate it for a lot of reasons, actually. First, I hate the assumption that because a character is smarter/faster in one particular area, he is more valuable as a human being. In other words, I hate the idea that analytical intelligence, say, is more valuable than social intelligence or existential intelligence or verbal intelligence or emotional intelligence. The assumption that you are worth more because your skills are more applicable in this one situation is, well, stupid. And an indication of low self-esteem elsewhere in your life. If all of your personal validation is based on being smarter than everyone else, you must really suck to be around.

Second, I hate that so many characters (and the writers who create them) think that being smart gives you license to be an utter dick. It doesn't. It really doesn't. Because someone who is genuinely intelligent, and not just over-compensating based on low self-esteem and a need for validation, realizes that their intelligence is just one facet of the world. If you really are smart, then you know that there are lots of people smarter than you. As Socrates said, "All I know is that I know nothing." Or something like that. It was a really long time ago, and he said it in Greek.

Lastly, and this is my real issue with the trope, the "smartest guy in the room" thing misses the point of why these problems need solving in the first place. Or, to put it slightly less weirdly, it misses the human connection.

So, Dr. House is really good at figuring out what's killing people, right? He's really, really good at it. Better than almost everyone else in the world. That's wonderful. Really. What's less wonderful, though, is how he treats the people around him. He treats them like crap. And he also treats his patients like crap. Which is kind of weird. He will go to ridiculous lengths to save them, but he refuses to have a normal, honest conversation with them. Like it's too hard or too taxing or not worth it.

Or how Sherlock Holmes finds it worth his time to solve murders and mysteries and all that, but he insists on doing it by completely humiliating the detectives at Scotland Yard. There's no reason why he has to do this, no particular motivation. It won't make it easier for him to solve the case if they're all pissed at him, and it doesn't do anything to improve press relations or spread the truth. He doesn't seem to care much about the truth getting out in any case. He just wants to solve some cases.

And that's fine. Or it would be fine if he were less of a dick about it. But he is a dick about it, at least in Sherlock, where the titular character spends about half his time talking down to people who are just trying to do their jobs. Not only does Sherlock appear to find their values determined by their analytical intelligence, he also seems to think that because he is smart he is worth more than all these "mundanes" and that their petty social intelligences or emotional values are stupid and boring and not worth anything.

Sherlock doesn't give two craps about the people actually in the cases he solves, unless one of the cases directly hits upon one of his friends. He seems to care much more about looking clever and making fun of the people around him than catching the bad guys. And you could argue that he's emotionally progressed past this in the most recent season, but, well, I don't think he has. He's still a prick. 

Fundamentally what I take issue with is his priorities. I take issue with all of their priorities. Because when a character (or person) decides that they have the most value because they can see the answers faster than anyone else, they have lost sight of something very valuable: what they're finding the answers for.

If you value your achievement, but not the people who helped you or the people who you will help with that achievement, then what is the real value of your achievement? If I save the world, but have not love, have I saved anything at all?

Put another way. I could learn a dozen languages, word perfect, spot on, beautiful accent. And none of that means crap unless I actually use those languages to communicate with another person. Because who cares? Communicating with another human being (through conversation or by reading their works) is the entire point of learning a language. Without it, without regard for the people around you and love for them, then nothing you do has any point at all. If I learn every language in the world, but never use them to speak to another person, I have wasted my time.

What it comes down to is this: people are the point of any valuable human endeavor.

That's why I'm so disappointed in Steven Moffat's takes on Doctor Who and Sherlock. These seem to be shows that have disregarded the value of humanity in favor of cleverness. The Doctor and Sherlock are, yes, very clever, but they don't seem to care much about the human impact of their actions. And I hate that.

By contrast, some shows take this trope and tell it to shove off. Like Elementary, where the whole arc of the first season involves Holmes discovering the human value to the people he meets on his cases and coming to see the love needed to solve them right. Or Criminal Minds, where Dr. Spencer Reid might be an utter genius, but he uses his genius to save people because he loves them. And he never talks down to them.

I don't believe that anyone is fundamentally better than anyone else. I don't believe in that kind of value judgment, that one life is worth more than another life. We are not justified or made better by our intelligence or social value or money or anything else. We're all under grace. You can't earn grace.

When I was younger I used to get into arguments with people because I thought I was smarter than them. I was the terror of my church's Sunday School program, and I caused four teachers in a row to quit. At the time I was very proud of this record, because I figured that if I knew better than them, then they shouldn't be trying to teach me anything, right?

I realize now, though, that I was being a jerk. I made people miserable because I thought that it was more important for me to prove I was right than it was for me to listen and realize they had something to teach me. Or even if they didn't, maybe I should have shut the hell up and let someone else in the class learn something. I thought that my opinion and education and intelligence was worth more than everyone else in the room, and I acted like nothing they did mattered. I was a dick. And I'm sorry. I really am.

If this article boils down to anything at all, I think it can be summarized like this: Don't be an arrogant jerk. Which is philosophically simple, but frustratingly hard to do.

Because if there's one thing we know about people, it's that we're all trying to find a way to justify ourselves, a way to prove that we're worthy of being on this planet and breathing the air and eating the food. Well, I have news for you. There is no way you can prove that you are worth being alive. You just can't. Better to accept that now, and realize that everything we get is grace. You are not worth more or better justified because you can do math really fast or solve cases or cure disease. 

We're all people. That's why I think that you should never be the smartest guy in the room.

Surprisingly well subverted in Brooklyn 99. I appreciate that.


  1. I actually think that Denny Crane on Boston Legal is a nice little inversion of this trope - he THINKS he's the smartest guy in the room because he used to be, but age has caught up to him and he's wrong more than he's right now, an idea that terrifies him to no end. Alan Shore is still comfortably the smartest guy in the room, and he does all of the things you describe here, but his relationship with Denny is touching because he knows that that's where he's going to be in ten years. At its heart, that show is really about fear of aging.

    I also think that House was great at getting to your point. The entire arc of House's character and every good character development moment in the show pointed to exactly what you're saying - that he was too cold, too obsessive, too unable to see the human element, and it would make him forever miserable until he could start to relate. But as soon as he tried, he started losing a step, making mistakes, stopped trusting himself.

    1. That's a good point about Denny Crane. I actually really liked that show, but I occasionally got kind of annoyed by how those two were always right, you know? Still, very valid point.

      I found it very interesting to see how the entire show actually relied on House *not* developing emotionally. He couldn't become a better person, or else the show didn't work. Which is a shame.

    2. Agreed on Denny Crane on this one. From the last time I watched the show -- several years ago -- what I internalized was a somewhat unlikely, comic, irrational element whenever Denny turned out to be right. And I internalized the idea that the *show* never regarded Denny as the genius he (publicly, at least) regarded himself.

  2. So no Ayn Rand for you then. ;) Nice article.

    1. I have read Atlas Shrugged, and it made me have a sad.

  3. I was going to say you were being too hard on the Eleventh Doctor until I remembered that once meshed with his psyche, even the *Cyber-control* renamed itself "Mr Clever."

    Patrick Jane from the Mentalist remains the example I most despise.

    1. I never really watched that show. It felt like the playing it straight version of Psych. Is it?

    2. More or less.

  4. I was okay with House being such an asshole because he admitted and everyone else knew that he was miserable. Not as in that was his excuse but that it was the end result. Being an asshole was ruining his life and would continue to ruin his life and he knew that his problems weren't from the chronic intense pain in his leg but from not being able to go more than a few days without being an asshole. It was like he was just inherently a jerk (I love that they actually had an episode involving him trying to solve why a patient is inherently nice because that has to be a symptom) and it's sad to think what his life would be like without Wilson there to love him unconditionally because who else would put him with that in their personal life?

    Sherlock always seemed like he didn't know how not to be a jerk. While with House it was this sickness in him that he couldn't stop he still knew how to put it on hold. With House it was like, "I can be nice if I want to. I just really don't want to because it's exhausting." But with Sherlock he misses so many social cues and just doesn't seem to know how to interact with people. I feel sorry for him in a completely different than House.

    The Doctor. Yeah, no excusing that one. Especially in episodes like when he got that female prime minister fired and acted as if that woman in Cold blooded was one of the worst humans imaginable. Two episodes I nearly stopped watching the show I was so pissed at him.

    1. While the reasons for these characters and their jerkitude usually make sense in the world of the show, I guess it gives me pause that the writers have chosen to highlight these particular characters, who are jerks, and make them the heroes. You know? Because the writers didn't have to make House or Sherlock or The Doctor jerks, they could have made them a little dysfunctional but working on it (like in Elementary). Instead, they decided that lovable ass was a great idea for the lead, and that their characters should not be encouraged to change or else the show would fall apart. That's what I have a problem with.

  5. Like, say, Shawn Spencer in Psych. Or Dr. House in House. Or Sherlock in Sherlock. Or the 11th Doctor in Doctor Who. Or Rodney McKay in Stargate: Atlantis. Or Topher in Dollhouse. Or Denny Crane in Boston Legal. Or Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (and probably real life). Don Draper (early seasons) on Mad Men.

    This doesn't go for all of these characters, but a lot of them are stunted when it comes to functioning in normal society - the way Watson is protrayed as having to "manage" Holmes, or Cuddy House, and it's a vibe Moffat lays on a lot of female characters when it comes to the Eleventh Doctor * (and it looks like it'll go for the next one too). Put together with...

    That's why I'm so disappointed in Steven Moffat's takes on Doctor Who and Sherlock. These seem to be shows that have disregarded the value of humanity in favor of cleverness. The Doctor and Sherlock are, yes, very clever, but they don't seem to care much about the human impact of their actions.

    ... their actions seemingly driven purely by entertaining themselves rather than any sense of responsibility to other people, I'm reminded of how you compare the sitcom manchild to Peter Pan, and wonder whether this is the drama equivalent.

    * Again, Elementary is different. Joan Watson has to manage Holmes, yes, but it's not shown as his due as the genius too elevated for normal concerns - it's an imposition on her, and one he learns to try to mitigate as time goes on.

    1. Personally, that's why I love Elementary. Because the show is aware of this trope and then runs like hell to avoid it. Sherlock's character arc in the first season is entirely devoted to his decision to not be this guy. He sees that he is acting in an egotistical way, and decides to change. His friends help him and call him on his crap. It's beautiful, and one of the many reasons why I prefer Elementary to Sherlock.