Idea Strain

Why do brilliant people go quiet?

I’m not a brilliant person, not even close. I’m probably just about average.

But I’ve met a few brilliant people. And they get quiet. I’ve seen it happen a few times, and it’s never pretty. Now I’m trying to figure out why it happens.

My hypothesis is a simple one: they get tired. It’s hard work being brilliant.

But how do they get tired, and how can we stop this from happening? After all, more brilliant people thriving will presumably lead to the rest of us thriving as well.

As I see it, there are at least two subcategories of brilliant people.

1) The visionaries. Brilliant people who can see the future. They have a vision; they know the map.

2) The executors. Brilliant people who can put ideas into practice. They obsess over the details. They make sure things get done perfectly.

Visionaries get tired when there’s no one implementing their ideas. They see the future, why can’t you?! They look at what’s happening, the silly mistakes people are making, and they know how to solve the pain points.

For visionaries, going to work is like talking to a friend who always gets into bad relationships. You advise, cajole, beg, plead, but your friend keeps going back to the worst type of people.

Eventually, visionaries get tired of being the only ones with vision. They stop sharing their vision. They settle in, they get frustrated. And then they leave.

To the outsiders, visionaries give you whiplash. They’re bouncing from idea to idea without any traction.

Executors have the highest standards of success. But that comes at a cost. They’re misunderstood. In a system greedy for-profit and production, they are focused on the craft. Quarterly earnings? Who cares. They want to create something beautiful, something useful, something with purpose.

For executors, going to work is like a Buddhist mandala. You create it ideally out of the sand, and the next day the sand is swept away, and you must start again. Buddhists do it to teach non-attachment. But the executor is attached, permanently. How could they not be? Their mission is a higher calling.

To the outsiders, executors are annoying. Their standards are holding up everyone else’s ability to make a paycheck, to ship, to get things done.

So what do we do to make sure idea strain doesn’t hurt our companies? What can we do to make sure brilliant people keep speaking up?

A few thoughts:

First, don’t try to change them. I mean, you can try, but I’ve never seen it work.

Instead, I’d do two proactive things:

1) Give them opportunities to build a community around similarly minded people. 

2) Make sure they have a partner at work who balances them. Every executor gets a visionary. Every visionary gets an executor.

Brilliant people are like plants; they need soil and water, and the sun to thrive. In this case, the earth, water, and sun are a community of people who can help them turn ideas into action.