Josh Goldberg

No Unattainable Intelligence

Sep 28, 20225 minute read

In trying to make ourselves relatable, we reinforce the negative perception of intelligence gaps.

Smart people are everywhere. Everybody has a unique blend of knowledge and skill. Seeing other people’s knowledge and past successes that you don’t have (yet) can make you feel like you’ll never get them and don’t belong.

I’ve observed experienced and novice people alike utter the following two phrases a lot (and have said them myself):

I think they get repeated for a few very admirable, logical reasons:

Caring about creating a friendly, welcoming community for newcomers is great. But I’ve come to believe that these “false modesty” phrases can actually harm community building by reinforcing the view that competency in a field requires high amounts of brains and talent.

For both phrases, let’s dive into why they can be harmful.

“According to people much smarter than me…”

Some folks suffer from a false perception -often considered a variant of imposter syndrome- that the average competent player in their field is an unapproachable intellectual powerhouse. Describing differences between people in terms of intellectual superiority reinforces that perception. While many experts are shockingly smart, many are not — and it can be demotivating to think that you need to be a genius to be competent.

Worse, if you’re being perceived as an industry insider yourself, folks suffering from imposter syndrome might already think there’s an intelligence gap between you and them. Phrasing other experts as much smarter than you can make it seem like there are multiple impossible-to-bridge intelligence gaps.

It’s fine and good to give credit and recognition where they’re due. Calling out individuals as being very smart, saying you respect them greatly, and many other compliments are totally fine. Just don’t dig an unnecessary trench between newbies and the rest of the field.

“This is a dumb question, but…”

When you describe a question you’re asking as dumb, you risk alienating others who had the same question. Sure, you’re admitting that you might not be a genius expert — but what about everybody else who had the same question? You just said their question is dumb. Not nice.

What you probably meant to imply was that you’re not confident in your question, or that you want to encourage others to ask “beginner” level questions like it. Those are good drives. Maybe directly say that instead?

Handy Replacements

The motivations around approachability behind those two phrases are great. I don’t want to discourage anybody from taking action on those motivations. Instead of perpetuating the harmful perception that experts’ intelligence is unattainable for most, though, try to use phrases that convey your intent more directly.

According to people much smarter than me, …As phrased by people I greatly respect, …
This is a dumb question, but…Apologies if I missed this, but…

Potentially harmful phrases with less disruptive counterparts

It’s important to make sure discussion spaces don’t reinforce the imposter syndrome. Don’t encourage the false thinking there are huge gaps between newcomers and the average participant in your industry.

Finally finding the words to describe my thoughts on this subject because of a Lean Coffee conversation at Strange Loop 2022 — my first chat in that format. Props to Trevor Menagh for leading a great group discussion!