I’m thinking about the myth of the genius jerk. You have probably encountered this before. Some man (and it’s inevitably a man) is renowned for his intelligence. He “calls it like it is” and is probably uncomfortably mean. His insight is legendary. So is the sharpness of his tongue. But hey, you have to forgive a little…what do we call it? Cruelty? Sure. That’s the price of genius, after all.
Many of us, in the years 2016 and on, have begun to question whether being a rich jerk really correlates with intelligence. But I look back on things that I thought in the years 2014-2015, and wonder: what the hell was I thinking?
Some of it, I strongly suspect, is because at the time I was reading multiple Steve Jobs biographies—most of them, borderline hagiography. And, to be fair, Steve Jobs may legitimately be a genius. But it probably had nothing to do with his being a jerk.
In my head, I have a contrasting figure to the jerk genius: Sandra Day O’Connor. I worked for her after I worked for someone who completely fit the mold of jerk genius, and that experience left me emotionally wrung out, on the verge of incompetence.
I was used to getting yelled at for the smallest things, and so one day a few months after I’d started working for SOC, she called me and said in a very serious tone of voice: “I have a really important matter to discuss with you.” My heart started racing. I was convinced that I had screwed up something huge and she was going to tell me off.
Instead, she said, “Thanksgiving is coming up, and I want to check to see if you’re going home to family. If you aren’t, I have friends in the DC area who would be happy to host you.” (At the time, she was spending as much time in Arizona as possible to look after her husband.)
I was stunned. I was touched. That—her warmth, her compassion, her human decency—is why I worked more for her than I ever had for the jerk genius who came before.
Are these supposed jerk geniuses getting better results? I doubt it. I don’t think our brains are designed to operate at their best when we’re in fight/flight mode. I knew all that on a very personal level in 2014, and yet I hadn’t internalized it.
In some ways, I think it was because the truth was heresy. Because I’d heard the myth so often that despite seeing it in action, I didn’t believe my own eyes or my own experience. I had to see it not just once, but twice, three times, four times, before I was able to articulate what I disliked about what seemed like a comfortable, given truth.