Smart people talking

Elon Musk’s staccato, recursive speech is not uncommon among smart people. Speakers seem to be listening to themselves and repeatedly revising, editing, revisiting, restating. It sounds as if what they’re trying to convey is too complex for them to capture completely, so they sort of herd their ideas instead, trying at least to keep them all going in the right direction. There’s a sense of impatience, and incompleteness about the whole thing; it sounds like these speakers are never quite satisfied with what they’re saying.

Maybe this has something to do with the fact that the only time smart people stop to listen to their own ideas in a comprehensive, collected, sequential fashion is when they’re trying to explain them to someone else. The natural state for these folks is to think and even reason in disjointed chunks.

They have to. There isn’t time to work the way regular people do, starting from first principles and thinking everything through to arrive at a fully reasoned decision, point of view, or plan of action. They pick and choose the bits to think about, race ahead and take the rest for granted.

Anyone who’s spent time around inventive, creative people has probably seen this. They make jumps, leapfrog potential issues and sidestep conventional stumbling blocks, figure out a new ‘there’ and get there from here without fretting the details or getting hung up by convention.

To the rest of us, they seem to be achieving something close to the impossible. They’ve left us behind and are operating in a parallel universe of possibilities. They execute on their ideas, deliver something astonishing, while we’re left wondering how that can be possible or how on earth it could have worked out.

Take PayPal. Musk hopped over online commerce issues, ignored conventional banking practice, didn’t stop to argue  whether or not something like that could or should even be possible. He just did it while others were still talking through the potential problems or simply claiming it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done.

He was smart enough to figure out which problems could be ignored, which ideas were important and which weren’t, and all the pieces that could be coordinated and put into place without any additional thought.

He didn’t need the distraction or the reassurance of working through all the details; he was smart enough to take all that for granted. That’s probably another reason why he has such a hard time speaking fluently and unselfconsciously about his achievements; his audience needs many of those details spelled out in order to follow him.

Sometimes smart people sound very articulate and we enjoy listening to them speak, but if we think about it we really don’t understand much of what they’re talking about. Take almost anyone talking about sub atomic physics. It’s tough for us to follow, and it’s tough for them to empathize enough to know what we need to know. Just as well; there isn’t enough time for them to backfill enough detail for us to really get it, anyway.

“How did you manage to write Fantasie-Impromptu, Herr Chopin? Can you walk us through your thinking?” someone might have asked (if only Herr Chopin had been alive when it was published.) We want to know how he got from practicing his C# minor scale to writing what was to become one of the most famous piano pieces.

“Well…there’s the piano of course, we should talk about the mechanics of that. Then there’s the whole Western scale thing, conventions regarding rhythm and harmony…I listen to a lot of folk music. How much do you need to know?”

Fact is, he went pretty much from zero to Fantasie-Impromptu (the clue may be in the title.) If he’d had to work through and worry about all that detail we feel we need in order to understand it, he’d never have got round to writing it.

And if Elon Musk’s team had insisted everyone understand every step toward every milestone on the way to realizing PayPal, we’d probably not have a Tesla yet, never mind a Space X.