Types of Thinkers

You have to do much more now to get into a top school like Yale or West Point, and you have to start a lot earlier. … I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. … It turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12. ….

People who can climb the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy they decide to attach themselves to. But I think there’s something desperately wrong, and even dangerous, about that idea. … The head of my department had no genius for organizing or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going. … Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. …

You will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader. … For too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place. …

What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. … Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets. (more)

It is tempting to agree that our organizations are inefficient because they systematically fail to reward the right sort of thinking.  After all, the author of the above and I fancy ourselves as this other neglected but superior sort of thinker.  But while there are indeed many sorts of thinkers, this author offers no evidence that the currently rewarded mix is actually the wrong mix. (And it is a bad sign that it doesn’t seem to occur to him to look for such evidence.)

Routine-preserving conformists may not look as impressive to the eyes of foragers, to Versailles courtiers, or to me.  But they may still be what our world most needs, and so most rewards. See also the overlapping debate on if multitasking is vital or vile.

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  • I sat on the Yale College admissions committee a couple of years ago. … It turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12

    Is that true? I was at Yale and was in the class of 2007, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t have 10 extracurriculars when I applied. Six sounds about right.

  • wermenst

    “Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? ”

    The “Peter Principle” nicely addresses that hierarchiology

    (“…in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”)

  • Brian Hewes

    Just the ability to keep the routine going… This comes across as incredible naive. Yale has a process that works incredible well for them. Why on earth would they put a free thinker in charge of that? Steve Blank once asked what would happen if you took a startup executive and put them in charge of a Wal-Mart for a day? Inevitably she would change the store around and in the process shut the store down. God knows you don’t want me running anything that is already successful.

  • “Routine-preserving conformists may not look as impressive to the eyes of foragers, to Versailles courtiers, or to me. But they may still be what our world most needs, and so most rewards.”

    “Most needs” is highly ambiguous; does it refer to what our society most needs on the margin, or to what society needs the most of? No one would dispute that we need a greater quantity of iron to run an industrial civilization than platinum, but platinum is still the more highly valued metal, because the magnitude of its relative scarcity greatly exceeds the magnitude of its relative uselessness.

    It seems very likely that society needs more hierarchical thinkers than abstract/verbal thinkers to function effectively, but this tells us nothing about which one should be more rewarded, because it doesn’t take into account the relative scarcity of abstract thinkers compared to hierarchical thinkers. It does seem fairly strongly that abstract thinkers are even lower in number than the (already low) relative number that society needs, implying that they should be valued highly, like platinum compared to iron.

    Of course, this usually doesn’t happen, as you note. Instead of just assuming an efficient market, I think we should take notice here of the huge positive externalities involved in good abstract verbal thought; virtually the entire wealth generated by physics, for example, is in the form of positive externalities rather than direct returns to physicists. Such a huge positive externality is an obvious market breaker.

    • michael vassar

      Didn’t Robin’s paper “He Who Would Pay the Piper Must Know the Tune” basically say this?

  • Incidentally, as a Yalie, the comment about Yale admissions isn’t really true. Admission is indeed more competitive, but having ten extracurriculars won’t give you a serious edge over having six. The admissions committee is looking for people who will become CEOs later on and donate large sums of money to Yale, and CEOs tend to me more focused on becoming leaders and excelling in a few activities than in doing everything at the same time.

  • Steven Schreiber

    What matters more is whether we realize how the institution is maintained and whether we adjust our estimation of it accordingly. I think the adjustment is well under way, considering how much prestige other universities have garnered despite differing philosophies.

    I think we’re seeing a re-estimation of many institutions brought on by the mid-1990s tech boom, which seemed to shatter a lot of deeply held beliefs about what it took, and meant, to be successful.

  • I enjoyed his talk. It brings up some ideas that I’ve had for a while.

    -The idea of being the “thinker,” the guy who finds new ways, who questions the current system and goes against the grain, sounds like a fortune teller’s story that is applicable to just about everyone. We all want to think that we’re different, that we’re the one who can come up with a new way to do things, a better way, etc. To me it sounds like the speaker is just a part of the bureaucracy, inspiring all these cogs to go work hard in the system with the hope of being the one who comes up with the new idea, the new system, but in reality they’re (we’re) all just pushing the current system along it’s merry way.

    -I don’t think the current batch of leaders is actually a group of hoop-jumpers. As Dr Hanson said they have different skills than what the speaker values, and what our market-based republican democracy rewards often doesn’t line up with who you or I think should be rewarded. I think a lot of the people at the top now are coalition builders, not idea builders. They are people who can put together teams of people, some of whom are the idea people he pedestalizes, to produce not just a new idea, but also an organization. I see the rewards and top spots generally going more to coalition builders rather than idea builders.

  • Peter


    This article would be great to read in relation to this post. It touches on the thinker/leader dynamic and lots of other Hansonian themes. For instance,
    “There’s a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers—holders of power, not its critics.”


  • A lot of this seems like sour grapes bullshit to me.

    Any great people stuck in the middle probably have some executive function defect preventing us larger members of society from maximally exploiting their ability.

    It’s a real optimization problem, trapped talent, but I see the best resource managers at the top of many organizations -it’s not some weird exception when it happens.

    What initially prompted my reply is “It turned out that a student who had six or seven extracurriculars was already in trouble. Because the students who got in—in addition to perfect grades and top scores—usually had 10 or 12. ….”.

    I find that hard to believe, since most of us smart peers of yale admission committee types already know being great at 2 or 3 things is more impressive, even in a well-rounded way, than having 12 extracurriculars.

    For example, in addition to great grades and test scores, no quantity of activities should trump (1) being a nationlly ranked high school athlete in a major sport, and (2) placing highly in the Westinghouse Science Competition -or two other similarly divergent accomplishments. And really the two accomplishments could be one rung lower than that example to have a superior resume than the median of the entering class to any university in America.

  • ravi hegde

    Looks like this person had smooth sailing for a long time in their earlier life .. they were told they were “gifted” .. were “brilliant”and so on .. they never encountered a real failure until one day they finally hit the wall .. and then “bam” .. faced with the need to confront the reality that they are just another brick in the wall .. they instead escaped into denial .. a dancer who says that the floor is uneven else they would dance better than the top dancer ..

    I am so glad that I have had to surmount obstacles at every step of the way .. keeps me humble .. and prevents me from becoming a grumpy old man .. like this guy. Hidden behind elaborate intellectualization, lies the simple emotion of envy ..

  • It’s worth adding that we’re rich in thinkers in 2010, relative to the past, as far as I can tell. I don’t see twitter or facebook as a detriment to that. It seems tome the internet is a huge facillitator.

  • Tracy W

    I’m suspicious about this article, Take this one:
    The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write.

    Is this true of Shakespeare?

    More generally, he talks a lot about the need to think for yourself, but the whole tenor of his speech strikes me as a bunch of cliches, things that people have been saying for decades, if not centures. “We don’t encourage creative thinking, organisations are full of bureaucrats, schools turn out students who only know how to jump through hoops”, etc. Yawn.

  • josh

    Those he cites, Yale and West Point, are two particular institutions without incentives or efficient mechanisms for evolving toward optimization of resources. They fundamentally lack an ownership structure that may exercise managerial control. They end up nominally operating on behalf of their customers, while really operating in the best interest of their employees. Compare to another high status institution, Apple Computers. Do you think they are still using the same hiring criteria as in the 1980s?

  • But they may still be what our world most needs, and so most rewards.

    What a marvelously vague statement. The world has needs? To whom or what are you referring? The desirability of different types of thinkers depends entirely on one’s values and goals. Given the miserable material conditions of the species compared with what is theoretically possible with present technology, by my goals and values the folks in power are doing a stunningly lousy job.

  • Jon

    It all depends on what the society needs. if it needs “thinkers” like Robin and the author of the original article claim to be. or if it needs “hoop jumpers” that keeps the current system working.

    This is something that will go in phases. Where we got an system that is kept going by the “hoop jumpers” until the flaws of the system makes it collapse and the “thinkers” get an opportunity to invent an new system for the “hoop jumpers” to keep going until the flaws of the new system makes it collapse. And this cycle keeps on repeating itself. until we get one system that doesn’t collapse until after we have killed ourselves. Or we find some perfect system that doesn’t have any flaws and makes the “thinkers” not needed. Which will then eventually remove all “thinkers” from our society. and we will stay in one perfect flawless system.

    So we “thinkers” will actually make ourselves useless if we find a system that has no flaws. so shouldn’t we keep on inventing system that sooner or later fail? Or should we try finding an system where the “hoop jumpers” and “thinkers” can both be needed?

    writing this made me wonder. what exactly is a thinker? Is it just people that try to improve the system? or does it include scientists, and other people trying to find out the facts about our universe. but not really interested in the way we control each other?

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