The curse of busy-ness

Why do powerful, intelligent, and accomplished people so often exhibit cluelessness or ignorance? (Examples can be supplied on demand, in the unlikely event you need them.)

I don’t mean to rip on powerful people, many of whom become powerful because of outstanding personal traits. But I do think it’s worth understanding the puzzle of why so many people do great things in their youth, and then do apparently sillier things as they get older.

I think my post about the bias towards power contains a partial explanation: powerful people’s ideas often aren’t tested as rigorously as those of the less powerful, and they find it easier to act while ignoring good advice. As an example, a regular Joe with an idea for starting a company has to convince other people of the idea in order to attract investment. A wealthy entrepeneur finds it much easier to get silly ideas funded, in part by investing their own wealth, and in part because other people give undue weight to their words.

(This is also why superheros like Spiderman are interesting: they show what happens when basically well-intentioned people can act without constraint. The results often aren’t pretty.)

However, I think the bias towards power is only part of an explanation. Another part is that powerful people are often far too busy and focused. If you don’t create time just to fool around (“purposeless delectation in ideas” was Gian-Carlo Rota’s lovely phrase), you end up narrow, clueless, and irrelevant. It’s funny to hear that CNN’s Larry King has never used the net, or that George Bush (the elder) was amazed by supermarket barcode scanners in 1992, but, really, these people must have some massive blind spots.



  1. The puzzle of “why so many people do great things in their youth, and then do apparently sillier things as they get older” is just a selection effect. There are a small number of people who are truly outstanding and will do great things in their youth and as they get older. However, many of the people who do great things in their youth just got lucky. They have only come to our attention because they happened to have a good idea, or where in the right place at the right time. This doesn’t mean they will have good ideas in the future.
    Basically, if you average the brillance of the ideas people have in their lives, you see that there is a broad scatter in how the level of single idea corresponds to the level of all the other ideas in their lives. So, because you are only a candidate to be a powerful person if you have a great first idea, we are selecting people who not only have a high average of brillance, but many people who are “punching above their weight.” In time we note that they have dumb ideas because that is what they are capable of.

  2. “Just” a selection effect? I agree that selection is important in some fraction of cases, but I think the problems I’ve identified also contribute substantially, and this is not just a selection effect.

  3. If you don’t create time just to fool around

    While I’m all for this, the logistics can be difficult. For many people, I would guess a large majority in fact, work makes demands that largely preclude “just fooling around”. Add family commitments to that, and you have a recipe for only having time to do what HAS to get done. Then when you do have time for yourself, you’re so nackered that all you want to do is unwind — watch TV, sleep, read trashy fiction, whatever it might be. Many, many people live that way all their lives.

    I think this might be a structural problem, though I have neither the training nor the leisure (!) to think carefully through the idea. In this richest of all societies throughout history, our culture still drives us to do more, make more, produce more — and largely it adds up to count more beans, buy more crap. Our (society’s) priorities are out of whack — and I’m not sure whether there’s anything we can do to realign ’em. But it sure would be nice to have some way to make sure that everyone got time for “purposeless delectation in ideas”…

  4. Michael: You are quite right. I oversold my position, the things you identify are important. I meant that selection is a factor.

  5. Rob: It’d be interesting to know to what extent each explanation is a factor. I can think of several fairly pure examples of people I think suffer from each failure mode (selection, bias towards power, busy-ness), as well as a bunch of examples that require other explanations. Most, of course, are combination effects.

  6. Bill, yes, it’s tough. In my first draft that phrase was “If you don’t take time to just fool around”, but I revised the verb for the more active “create”, because I think that’s what it requires. Wish I could say I was personally all that successful with it. Lots of my blog posts seem to be self-admonition.

    A related story: when I got my first faculty position, at first I found myself insanely overbusy, with never any time for doing the solo thinking and research that I love. I was very unhappy about it. My wife suggested that I set aside 30 minutes each morning to sit at my desk at home and just bask in research, commenting that that half an hour couldn’t make much real difference to what else I did. I did it, and found that I actually got more done during the rest of the day, because I was happier, expanded the time to an hour, and then to two, and then…

  7. Michael: I agree that there are likely many factors, but it seems to me that you missed one obvious one: age. As people get older, their mental performance declines. This is offset by experience and wisdom, but, for certain kinds of problems, that’s not enough. In particular, age seems to make it more difficult for people to learn new technologies.

    Even though I’m just in my late twenties, I’ve already seen the start of this in myself. I already find that I am less interested in learning and understanding every new technical innovation out there. This may just be because I’m wiser and more selective about how I spend my time, but I’m sure that, over time, the “brain circuits” that are responsible for learning technology will atrophy. In a decade or two, it will probably be substantially harder for me to learn new technologies.

    Lack of understanding of technology can lead to all sorts of clueless and stupid decisions.

  8. Hi Travis: my personal opinion is that people, especially physicists, over-estimate the effects of age. Not that I don’t agree with you that it matters, but I don’t think it matters to anywhere near the extent many people think.

    Youth is certainly _correlated_ with mental acuity, but I don’t think it causes it. In fact, my post is in part an explanation of why I think this. Older people tend to become more powerful, busier, and more focused, and this contributes to them making sillier decisions.

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