The Foolishness of “Genius”

Last night I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson here in Milwaukee. He was charming, dynamic, funny, and (of course) brilliant.

Due to my own biases regarding “technobabble” and other communication-blocking devices, I was frequently aware of the fact that he was discussing the secrets of the universe in language that I could understand without being “talked down to.”

I loved science classes in school. I was never really good at them (a ‘C’ student at best) but I enjoyed them. Dr. Tyson once again showed me the science that I loved. It wasn’t until later that night as I was falling asleep that I realized why: while he called it a “lecture” at the start, it was really a discussion.

I use the term “discussion” here comfortably. Aside from responding to a few shouted-out comments from the crowd, he did all the talking. And yet, he was still reading the crowd and adjusting. This was not some rote lecture, he was interacting with the audience even if we were weren’t speaking.

At the end of the lecture, he opened up to questions from the floor. There were microphones at the main floor and balcony and he switched back and forth with grace and fairness.

One person upstairs said that she worked in Information Technology (I.T.) and everyone around her assumed she was some genius because of the level of complexity to her work. She said that when she talked to people about her work, their eyes would glaze over. She wanted to know from Dr. Tyson, as an educator, how she could help them understand better.

Before I could leap out of my seat and run upstairs and introduce myself, Dr. Tyson answered the question exactly the way I would have. (But with better flair.) With a dramatic gesture of a sweeping arm movement and pointing at her he said that the problem wasn’t theirs. “I blame YOU!” and laughed.

He went on to explain that it was important that if their eyes are glazing over, it’s on her to find a way to communicate better. He also went on to say that when he’s on a flight and people start asking what he does he gauges how much he wants to talk to them for the next few hours. If not, he starts talking in full science mode until they give up and disengage.

For two years I held the unfortunate title of “Genius” at my local Apple Store. I say “unfortunate” because aside from using the title to win a few bar bets (“Of course I’m right, I’m a genius“) and impress our mortgage guy (“What does your husband do?” “Oh, he’s a genius.“) the term goes directly against what Apple wanted from the position in the first place.*

First of all, it set the wrong expectation for the customer. If you bring your sick, dying, or dead computer to someone called a “Genius” your expectations are probably a bit out of sync with what is going to happen. That’s not to say that the people with that title aren’t very smart or don’t know what they are doing. There is a lot of training that goes into that job and a lot of hard and soft skills are in use at once. But the term “genius” implies that computer repair is an arcane task best left to the mental elite. And that’s just wrong.

Second is how it effects the employee. At best it creates a relationship along the lines of doctor/patient. One side has all the knowledge and the other is there to receive it.

I can’t speak for everyone in that role, but my trainer described the Genius Bar appointment as a conversation, a discussion. It starts with the customer having all the information: what the computer is used for, what it’s doing (or not doing) that is of concern, and what they would like to happen. From there the “Genius” described what he/she has heard and verifies they are on the right track. If so, they provides options (not a single solution) and together both parties work together to resolve the problem.

This is true in every field and industry. When I talk to a car mechanic, accountant, or lawyer; I often find my eyes glazing over as I’m flooded with their version of technobabble. And the ones I stick with are the ones that, like Dr. Tyson, talk to me in my language.

Next time you are talking to someone about your work or hobby that has its own array of terms or processes, watch their reactions. If their eyes glaze over or they stop making eye contact, take a step back and pause.

Then stop lecturing and start a conversation.


* Microsoft and Best Buy didn’t do any better using “Guru” and “Geek” for their tech support titles.

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