There are too few smart people in the world

I know you’ve all thought it at some time of your life, but Chris Dillow thinks it really is true:

It could be that the reason why so many “top jobs” are done badly is not that second-raters do them, in which case the problem would be solved by hiring the right people. Instead, it could be that the jobs are so demanding that no amount of brains and ability would suffice. …Humans just lack the skills to do many complex tasks.

It does seem unlikely that many high-pressure, and highly paid, jobs would have only incompetent applicants. Or that the interviewing panel wouldn’t care enough about the future of their firm to put some effort into finding the right person for the job. Yet it is common to hear people complain about how terrible this politician or that CEO are. So perhaps the job really is just too much to expect of a human.

Dillow’s solution sounds like a good one: design jobs that humans can do rather than looking for super-humans to do them. It probably makes sense even if there are some super-humans out there. Not only would the search costs to find them be immense, but so would the salaries that they command! Of course, you have to wonder why, if the solution’s so obvious, someone hasn’t done it before? Maybe the (meta-)problem’s just a bit harder than Dillow is giving credit for.

4 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:

    After reading the post I was under the impression that its not an issue of “too few” smart people – it is an issue of “no” smart people. 

    Large institutions really are different beasts, and the public choice issues that exist in government exist for them as well.  Whether any regulation is necessary or this is just the way of the world, and a point we need to keep in mind as potential shareholders, is the hard question for me.

    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      I’m not prepared to rule out the possibility that there are a special few who have the ability to do those jobs competently. Maybe Dillow would have put it differently, but I don’t like the idea of a zero probability.

      I don’t really see how regulation would help, but Dillow seemed to be suggesting that the organisational design requires roles that can’t be done. If it was as easy as changing the job specifications or design of the organisation then I don’t see why it wouldn’t have been done already. Surely the rewards for figuring out how to reduce error rates in pivotal jobs would be huge.

  2. John Brothers
    John Brothers says:

    I would say that the challenge in ‘designing jobs humans can do’ is that this requires exactly the kind of super-human brains that aren’t available.  

    The coordination problem reigns supreme – it is possible for some people to absorb quite a bit of knowledge, synthesize it and come up with good answers, but only to a point.  Everyone drowns in details eventually, and starts losing details.  Splitting that job up between multiple people ensures that details are lost, which is even worse.

    And then to be a CEO or a politician requires this incredible skill at synthesis and incredible narcissism and a obsession with money, status and power and pathologically skillful ability to lie with a straight face and superlative people skills.     

    I’ve known lots of people with two of those traits, maybe a couple with three.   But society is not set up to let some ambitious, self-absorbed intellectual dork take the reigns.   Society would rather have a moron with good hair and a good speaking voice.   

    If you wanted to put the smart people in charge, and break complex jobs up into reasonable ones, humanity would have to be genetically/pharmaceutically re-engineered to not care about status, power or charisma.  Hey, that’s the plot of “This Perfect Day” by Ira Levin.


    • jamesz
      jamesz says:

      I agree entirely. There must be good reasons why it hasn’t happened if it’s such a good idea and the ones you cite are probably important. Obviously I just need to read more 😛

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