Searching for “Smart” People

Defining clearly what smartness is when hiring for smart people.

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I have been hiring people in a profession that demands intellectual capital; not just bodies. I am often asked how high (or, low, depending on how you see it) bar I set for the “smartness” in people. To set a bar, I first need to define what it is and I usually get rolling eyes when I tell them the answer.

So, what exactly is meant by being “smart”?

As it turns out it’s hard to put a precise definition to the term. Most people often conflate three different attributes into a single abstract concept of being “smart”.

  1. Intelligence: This is the processing power — not the storage capacity — of the brain, being able to understand the situation and calculate the action based on it, processing quickly and so on. It is often measured as IQ.
  2. Knowledge: This is how much you know about a specific topic. This is completely different from intelligence. How many pairs of shoes you have is a piece of knowledge which is something you know; others don’t. That’s a knowledge. Likewise knowing all the synonyms of all the words and hence cracking the crossword puzzle is more of knowledge than intelligence.
  3. Drive: And finally, how much you want to apply yourself to advance and to deliver the results, is the drive and attitude you have.

Smartness is a function of all three:

Most people consider smartness as one of these three; but it’s not that simple and it is dangerously myopic to rate one that way. Back in my college days I participated in highly competitive trivia tournaments, working very hard to maintain my position in the first three places almost always. All those who were in that exclusive bracket were labeled “smart”. But the word in that context merely meant knowledge. We just possessed a gargantuan amount of knowledge about various stuff that may or may not have had any immediate practical significance. Compare that with the number of shoes you have. You know that; I don’t. But that does not make you intelligent nor make me dumb; it’s just a piece of knowledge. If you tell that number to me, well … I know it now. It does not make me any more intelligent than ever.

Native intelligence is usually what you are born with; either you have it or you don’t. Given a choice, no one will just choose to be dumb, just like no one chooses to be not good looking or healthy. Hence the possession of intelligence alone is not a yardstick for being smart. Of course a higher degree of intelligence possibly makes the acquisition of knowledge easier. See the stress on the word — easier — not automatic.


This brings us to the last trait — drive. Drive means how effectively you command your faculties to accomplish an objective. An intelligence person may score off the charts in IQ but may be absolutely lazy, yielding nothing as a result. Or, another high-IQ person may just get tangled up in processing, not make any decision or headway and yield nothing. Similarly, accumulation of knowledge may be easier with higher IQ; but the effort to accumulate comes from the the will of the person; it is not on cruise-control.

Speaking of knowledge, the effectiveness of someone with dge abundance of knowledge in a given area is directly proportional to actually harnessing that knowledge at the right time and with right cadence; not the mere possession of it. Once again, that is a function of drive.

Drive is the Key

This is why the function is valid; but putting equal weight on the three parameters is dangerous. I look for the drive as a hugely disproportionately impacting parameter to the function, compared to the other two. Knowledge is of twp types: generic which is the knowledge about technology or the process that is generally understood, e.g. knowledge of Excel and proprietary, which is the specific knowledge required in the workplace, e.g. what a system or tool developed internally does. A newcomer to the company does not know the latter; but will acquire that knowledge. Long timers in the company will know that, just like people visiting your home will know the color of your front door; but that knowledge does not make them any smarter.

What about Soft Skills?

But, but … you may want to object — aren’t soft skills the most important?

Absolutely. But what are the soft skills? Ability to work well in a team, politeness, resourcefulness and so on, right? Now pause and think for a minute: why does a person develop or inculcate these skills?

These skills are not products of intelligence or knowledge. On the contrary the people with drive develop these skills not only to accomplish their objectives but to excel at them. This is why drive trumps all.

And finally, drive is a choice. Intelligence definitely is not; and knowledge is a function of time and exposure, neither of which can instill the attribute called drive.

The next time you meet somebody, assess what they have acquired via their drive. If they are intelligent, don’t deem them superior; they are fortunate. Likewise, if they are not, they are just unlucky. Remember, given a choice we all will be intelligent, good looking and disease free. Possession of knowledge may mean exposure to proprietary information not available to anyone else, yet. It can be remedied. But drive? It’s a choice of the individual and truly deserves to be respected. Assigning weights to the attributes:


That’s what I mostly look for in hiring.

Award winning data management and engineering leader, Chief Architect of Cloud Data at JPMorganChase, raspberry pi junkie, dad and husband.

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