Masterminds or Muddlers?

This is a sincere question, based on things I’ve been mulling over from comments in posts below. In the course of my life I’ve known some very intelligent, capable people, a few brilliant people, and a handful of those I’d genuinely characterize as geniuses. I have never encountered anyone who struck me as a mastermind.

Regardless of intelligence, charm, or capability those I’ve met in life have struck me as muddlers, trying to make the best of the circumstances in which they find themselves, occasionally very effectively but generally with mixed results.

Have other people had different experiences?


In thinking this over some more, I’ve realized that I was insufficiently precise in my question above. The prototype for a mastermind would be Napoleon, someone who with a combination of brilliance, insight, savvy, guile, and the urge to power was able to bring complicated plans with many moving parts to fruition. That Napoleon was able to attract and gain the assistance of other masterminds, e.g. Talleyrand, is a testament to his charisma.

Most of the highly intelligent people I’ve known have been more like Einstein than Napoleon, i.e. disconnected, in this world but not of it.

I’m no mastermind. I might barely have the intelligence and could possibly have the savvy. I definitely don’t have either the guile or the urge to power. I have almost none at all of the latter.

In recent political figures Bill Clinton is frequently touted as a mastermind. I think that Clinton is bright, savvy, and charismatic. Mastermind? I don’t see it. I’m not sure what he’s lacking. Discipline? Vision?

It’s possible that Rahm Emanuel is such a figure. His stage management of the Democratic Congressional races in the 2006 mid-term elections was certainly masterful.

George W. Bush was not only a muddler but a bungler. I doubt that he was malicious. I just think that he was absurdly optimistic.

I think that most people, even highly intelligent and capable people, are muddlers, lurching from crisis to crisis the way a drunk lurches from lamppole to lamppole walking down the street.

Does that give a little more texture to what I’m trying to convey?

7 comments… add one
  • I’m guessing the smarter and more capable you are, the less others impress you. I’ve met quite a few genuinely impressive people in my day but only a handful that I thought were truly geniuses and probably no one that was just great at everything.

    Of course, according to the Myers-Briggs tests, I’m a mastermind. But I think that’s a different usage!

  • steve

    I think that what you are looking for is someone with exceptional intelligence in multiple spheres, in particular emotional or social intelligence. My son is an Aspie. He was reading and understanding Hawking at the age of ten. (Like most parents I probably overrate my son’s raw intelligence, but I am trying to make a point.) OTOH, my son has essentially no friends. He has very low emotional intelligence. He just doesn’t get people very well. It is very unlikely that he will go on to run a company or earn big bucks. He will, I hope, find some happiness in some research endeavor or someplace where his skills will do him well, sans the empathic skills needed for larger success. I think Heckman has done interesting work in this area.

    Ambition is another key factor along with self discipline. I have no idea what we do or do not do that instills these in people other than leading by example.


  • Maxwell James

    I suspect that the world has gotten too complex for masterminds, or at least for them to rise to the same level of prominence as Napoleon. The number of moving parts that need to be accounted for at this point is simply too large.

    And honestly, I wonder about the extent to which even Napoleon was no Napoleon. His rise to power was after all fairly short-lived. A brilliant man no doubt, but in the end he was brought down by his own mistakes and limited vision. I wonder if he wouldn’t be seen as more of a muddler nowadays.

  • Michael Reynolds

    I was unable to mastermind a move from one side of Irvine to the other. Where are the remote controls? Where are the FedEx mailers? Why does this table have no legs?

  • Michael Reynolds

    Napoleon took on Russia and the Royal Navy. Not exactly a clear path to victory, although at least he had the excuse of being the first to try it. He also went chasing off to Egypt for no very clear reason.

  • Tad

    Perhaps Vladimir Putin?

  • Icepick

    Most people in the elites are muddlers – including most of those at the very, very top. But just because one is a muddler doesn’t mean one isn’t ambitious. Work hard with a purpose, and one might only need one or two good ideas to get on the right track. Especially if one has connections. And once in place all one has to do is defend one’s position – which is why the people at the top hire lobbiests.

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