Cleverness Is Overrated

The best swordsman in the world doesn’t need to fear the second best swordsman in the world; no, the person for him to be afraid of is some ignorant antagonist who has never had a sword in his hand before; he doesn’t do the thing he ought to do, and so the expert isn’t prepared for him.

Mark Twain – A Conneticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court

What a clever thing to say! Unfortunately, it’s also completely wrong. The second best swordsman in the world has a decent chance of beating the best swordsman. Someone who has never held a sword in his hands will get eviscerated. The greatest swordsman in the world has doubtless seen hundreds of people flailing around without any technique. None of the clumsy attempts of an amateur are likely to be surprising, much less threatening to him. If you have no idea what you are doing, unpredictability is not much of an asset. The second best swordsman, if he knows that he is going up against the best swordsman, however, can deliberately employ faints and unorthodox techniques to throw off his superior adversary. Unlike the amateur’s inept attacks, his tactics are deliberately designed to surprise the master swordsman and are backed up by technical mastery and physical strength.

Aside from the specific context of swordfighting, the general principle espoused by Mark Twain’s quote does not seem to apply to much of anything. Put Magnus Carlsen against another top chess player and he will often draw and sometimes lose. Put him against someone who has never played chess before and Carlsen will win with ease. If you have Anthony Joshua go up against some random person who has never boxed before, he will K.O. his unfortunate opponent without breaking a sweat. Any punches the other guy manages to throw might be unpredictable, but will be totally ineffectual due to a lack of technique and physical strength. Perhaps the best case for Twain’s swordfighting analogy can be made in a game like poker, which has large elements of randomness and deception. It is indeed true that a completely inexperienced poker player is hard to predict, but there are still patterns of common mistakes that new players make and which experienced players know how to recognise and exploit. Moreover, high level players are also very difficult to predict and unlike novices, they actually understand the maths underlying poker, so their unpredictable moves are calculated rather than merely random. Due to the randomness inherent in poker, a novice might be able to beat the best player in the world if he gets particularly lucky, but the second best player will certainly have a much higher probability of winning.

I’ve now shown that the best competitors in a range of fields will have an easier time defeating random scrubs than their fellow professionals. Hardly a particularly noteworthy insight. And yet people a hundred years from now will still be quoting Mark Twain’s line about swordmen, while no one will be quoting this article. Nor is this just a function of Twain being a famous writer and me being unknown. The problem is that Twain’s statement is clever, while mine is merely common sense. This is why cleverness is dangerous: it can make an obviously wrong statement more attractive than an obviously true, but boring one.

This problem is exacerbated by fiction. When you’re writing a short story, a novel, a play, or other fictional work, having clever statements and clever actions will make your audience more interested in your story. The protagonist solving a problem through straightforward application of tried-and-true methods is rather boring. It’s much more interesting if he has to come up with some clever plan that is so crazy, it just might work.

Or consider the example of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” which revolves around the police searching for a stolen letter, which they know must be hidden in a particular hotel. Despite repeated searches examining every nook and crany, looking for hidden compartments, etc., the letter remains elusive. The solution to this mystery turns out to be that the letter is in fact just a crumpled piece of paper lying around in plain sight, which the police have ignored because they were expecting the letter to be carefully hidden. A clever solution to hiding something, but one which in reality rarely works. As any security expert will tell you, security through obscurity is very unreliable.

This is not to say that cleverness has no place in the real world. When you are in a desperate situation where none of the standard approaches works, resorting to a clever strategem might be your only hope. A good example is the empty fort strategy: Suppose you’re an ancient Chinese general in command of a small force holding a fort which is about to be attacked by overwhelming enemy force. The difference in strength is so great that any conventional military tactics are hopeless, so in a desperate gamble, you remove all sentinels from the ramparts and open the gates. If you are very lucky, your enemy will see this bizarre act as indicative of a trap and halt the attack. An exceedingly clever ploy for getting out of a sticky situation, but obviously unreliable.

This is the problem with clever ideas: unlike in fiction, they usually don’t work in the real world. This is why you should reserve cleverness for situation where you are desperate and for low-risk, high-reward opportunities. But nine times out of ten, you’re better off relying on common sense, prudence and sound principles.

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