The Test of a First-Rate Intellect

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intellect is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” This concept is extremely important for ourselves, our clients, and our coworkers. Every issue has a circle around it, and every point on that circle represents a perspective. Our ability to navigate those perspectives is what separates the amateurs from the professionals.


Picture a political news segment with two opposing officials, OR two lawyers arguing a case for defense and prosecution, OR two scientists thinking through if a theory could or should be expanded. For any argument, we want to imagine at least two experts in our mind, each with a convincing point of view. Being able to consider multiple perspectives at the same time is a very valuable skill.


For ourselves, we should seek out the best opposing view to our natural opinions. We don’t have to agree with it or even change our minds, but we should be able to state what an alternative perspective is. On the occasions where do find a new insight or actually change our minds, we have achieved something truly special.


For our clients, we should be equally mindful of when someone is stuck with a single perspective and no ability to see other options or stuck with too many and no ability to find a decision. This always starts the process of education. There is an art form to doing this in a non-confrontational, enlightening way. ChannelSocrates – ask questions. 


For our coworkers, we should seek methods to play devil’s advocate in an effort to drive forward progress. With two or more opposing viewpoints, we can harness the power of a group by exploring diverse perspectives and then weighting them to arrive at a decision. See Philip Tetlock’s work on “superforecasting” where he describes team decision making processes for prediction markets.  


Last but not least, remember that the quote ends with “and still retain the ability to function.” For ourselves, our clients, or our coworkers, analysis paralysis is real. There is real value in knowing how to uncover ideas, weigh them, and measure forward progress.  


h/t to Josh Wolfe at Lux Capital for discussing this quote on The Knowledge Project podcast. Also, see F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” for the original source material and more.