Ten Signs You Are Too Smart To Learn And Too Incognizant to Know

May 15, 2012

The very first article I assign in my MBA class on Organizational Behavior is “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” by Chris Argyris. People that are too smart to learn are very skilled problem solvers, but very unskilled at reflecting on and changing their own behavior. Successful people just like you and me are most likely to be too smart to really learn. It’s difficult for people to understand that there is a difference between performance and learning.

It’s tough getting through to smart people. Their defensive reasoning mechanisms create a stronghold of incognizance. If you even care to know, here are ten signs that you might indeed be too smart to learn:

1. You spend your time and energy trying to convince others your views are right instead of trying to understand their views.
2. You believe that making mistakes is a sign of incompetence
3. People that know you can’t remember the last time you changed your behavior in any significant way
4. You look for someone to “blame and shame” whenever something goes wrong
5. You take great pride in your intelligence
6. You consider yourself an expert
7. You would rather be recognized for your accomplishments than for your efforts
8. Self-esteem is the focus of your self-reflection
9. It’s impossible for you to question your assumptions because you’ve either never taken the time to identify them or have long since forgotten them
10. If you read outside of work, it’s primarily for pleasure

Our organizations are full of smart people masquerading as leaders. Do you want to be an authentic participant in the process of real leadership, or is being smart good enough?

What do you think? I know I’ve probably missed something, so please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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Comments (18)

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  1. Bret, I am not sure why people who fit this description would be considered smart. Sounds like foolish behavior to me.

    My father-in-law was always right (or so he thought). He didn’t get comfort from it though. It is better to be happy than right all the time.

    Just a thought. Miriam

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    It is foolish, Miriam, but the fool never seems himself that way. I know a LOT of people like this, and none of them would ever see it. Thanks! Bret

  2. Jim Taggart says:


    When I saw the title of your post I immediately thought of Chris Argyris and his landmark treasure Teaching Smart People How to Learn. Low and behold, that was your subject.

    This should be mandatory reading, as you note, for not just those in management positions but any professional. Indeed, anyone working as a consultant or in the capacity of giving advice would do well to reflect on Argyris’ message.

    I’m now out of Canada’s federal public service (after three decades) but those in senior positions would do well to read this paper. One of the worst learning disabilities is being consumed with your own self-perceived brilliance.


    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Argyris is brilliant. Even though all of my students read the article, I honestly believe only a few of them get it. Most start too smart. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  3. tvannest says:

    Great post, Bret. Some take-aways from this list based on years of working w/brilliant physicians who are learning to lead (just 4 from a long list I’ve developed):

    1) Don’t let the participant settle with 1 right answer; keep pressing for a broader, more complete solution;

    2) Bring assumptions to the surface by getting the group to list them;

    3) Don’t label behavior right/wrong–rather, ask what alternative behaviors would make the response more complete/satisfying (e.g., communicate a standard AND gain ownership); and

    4) Empathy, empathy, empathy (get the group to anticipate and legitimize others’ experiences–then incorporate for a more complete solution).

    Thanks for your thought leadership, Bret.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Todd. Thanks for sharing these additions. All are great, but I LOVE #3. Right and wrong sets up an unnecessary dichotomy. I’m sure you can testify to the fact that getting folks to practice even these four is easier said than done. Thanks! Bret

  4. Bret,

    I like this post. It was pointed out in some of the other comments that those who fit this description never realize they are like that. I think there are many cases where they have been in a world where “they are always right” for so long that they don’t even comprehend the idea that they may not be. In many cases, they have gotten away with “being right” for so long that they really think they are always right. The smartest people in the world that are the true leaders. They realize that they don’t have all the answers and understand the value of getting input from others regularly. Thanks for the great post Bret!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Excellent points, Brandon. I can think of someone that fits the first part of your description perfectly. I’d only add that the true leaders are wise – not smart – and there is a big difference. Thanks for sharing! Bret

  5. Beth says:


    The list you supply in this post is a near-perfect description of a classic verbal abuser.

    One reason that these “smart” people keep feeling so smart is that they direct malicious and cruel comments and behaviors at anyone whom they feel might challenge their complete rightness.

    In doing so, they protect their inflated but fragile self-image — and drive away anyone who might care enough to help them get past their distorted view of the world that will ultimately lead to missed chances for emotional intimacy, appreciation of beauty, and purposeful living.

    My advice to anyone in the orbit of such a person: read The Verbal Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans. A life-changer for me.

    Thanks for validating what a lot of people have been feeling under the surface for a long time and never articulated.

    – – Beth

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I think you make a very valid point, Beth, that smart people might also be prone to be bullies. Interesting hypothesis – thanks for sharing!! Bret.
    P.S. I hope people click the link and check out your blog!

  6. Santosh says:

    Hi Brett ,

    Thanks for the pointer to the article.

    I will be teaching OB and was wondering about the topic on learning . This comes at the perfect time. Thanks a ton.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Good luck! Bret

  7. P says:


    I really enjoyed your article. In the past I have been of the opinion that I am definitely right until proven wrong. After all I am a fairly smart guy and in the past I would have rather taken my perceived 95% chance of being right over the 75% chance that I thought anyone else may have. However, as I got older I began to become annoyed with the fact that many people around me would wait for me to make a mistake. Then they would spring into action so that they could prove that I was wrong once in a while, no matter how trivial the issue. After realizing that I was bringing this on myself with my behavior, and being humbled somewhat by both marriage and pharmacy school, I began to make a few changes. While I definitely identify with signs 1,2,5,7, and 10, and do participate in these behaviors quite frequently, I do feel that I am becoming the opposite of signs 3,4,6,8, and 9. I do try to change my behavior when doing so will improve a weakness. I look for solutions to problems rather than someone to blame. I do not consider myself an expert in anything. Self improvement has become the focus of my self reflection, and I feel that questioning my assumptions is the only way that I can truly improve. Also, as a part of my efforts to improve, I will be reading the article by Argyris as soon as the PDF copy I ordered appears in my inbox. Like someone else posted, thanks for helping to articulate my behavior. Once it’s named or described it can be changed. Thanks again

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  8. Too often these days, people become all wrapped in proving they are right. Yet, somehow it does not matter too much if they are actually correct. Being truly humble (and not just acting humble) can go a long way toward avoiding this ” self-inflicted pitfall” of being too smart to learn.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks, Darren! Bret

  9. Joe Bulger says:

    Great article and list Bret! One of the traps people fall into is only seeking validation for what they already know and do. And once a learned person wears the expert’s mantle, it’s tempting to keep posturing as the revered expert.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing, Joe. Bret