Apollo, Gauss, Buffett, and You

This post left me musing about the things people look for in a mate.

I should start by saying that I don’t know the statistical basis for the 0.2 number. It seems rather small to me—so far to the right on the bell curve that it would be indistinguishable from its mirror on the left. But I’ll use it here as a synonym for “extraordinary people” so I’m in sync with PNN’s meaning.

What he seems to be saying, if I read the post right, is that extraordinary people need extraordinary spouses. This is why they have a harder time getting married.

My first impulse is to snark, “How do you know which 0.2 you’re a part of?” After all, it’s safe to assume that the extraordinarily pathetic also have a rough time hitching up. It’s comforting to tell yourself that you’re not married because you’re special, but “special” can be used to describe Charlie Gordon at both ends of the Algernon experiment.

But what about people who really are extraordinary? They can’t marry just anyone, can they?

Well, no. I mean, think about, say, Richard Feynman. Fun to read about, but a potential pain in the neck to be married to. At the same time, though, you can’t have two R. Feynmans in a family—it wouldn’t function. Nor would a Feynman married to an Einstein or a Spielberg or a Lance Armstrong. Or, to make it gender appropriate, to a Clara Barton, Sarah Schneirer, Annie Oakley, Sandra Day O’Connor, or Sarah Palin.

It’s no accident that highly successful people are usually married to less-successful  people. You can’t have two stars – they wind up in competition with each other, if only over who comes first. Usually, one person will wind up taking the supportive role. This is most obvious in cases like Annie Oakley, whose husband gave up his career to launch hers, or the Roosevelts or the Gilbreths, where the couple worked as a team, with one spouse contributing to the work of the other.

In fact, if you look at the best teams and partnerships, you’ll often find that it’s not an all-star lineup. Think Warren Buffet and his partner Charlie Munger (what? Haven’t you heard of Munger?), or the 1980s US Olympic hockey team.

The idea that great people need to be surrounded by ordinary but supportive people is not a new one. The Belbin team role theory grew out of a management training exercise where teams were formed and a game was played. Belbin, who ran the games, couldn’t resist throwing all the most brilliant managers into a single team, called the Apollo team, to see what happened.

What happened was that the Apollo team lost. Always. Placing third was the best an Apollo team ever did, but ninth was more typical.

Brilliant people, Belbin found, are drawn to and respect other brilliant people. They enjoy discussing ideas with people who understand them and can match wits in debate. They also spend most of their time pointing out flaws in other people’s ideas while refusing to recognize the holes in their. Instead of working as a team, Apollo worked as a group of individuals. And they failed.

In short: people who are 0.2 for brains have disastrous instincts when it comes to picking their partners. But it’s probably safe to say that being a 0.2 for anything and looking for another 0.2 is a poor strategy in general.

So what does a 0.2 need?

I would posit that truly extraordinary people need ordinary spouses with one extraordinary trait: patience. And if you check out the spouses of some historical luminaries, you will find that forbearance and respect for their spouses were their most shining characteristics.

In other words, if you’re a 0.2 then what you need most is someone who will put up with you.

Regardless of where you fall on the gaussian curve (because who really knows where they land?) I think it’s always worth pausing and reevaluating, especially when you’re about to dump someone. Are you looking for what you like, or for what you need?

13 thoughts on “Apollo, Gauss, Buffett, and You

  1. I used to think like that. Or at least, to try and think like that because some smart friends whose opinion I appreciated said so. One philosopher friend told me that it never bothered him that his spouse didn’t have the same interests, as long as she was eagerly listening to his ideas and theories.

    Well, now that I am married I know it would have never worked for me. I don’t define myself as a ‘star’ but I was definitely called ‘extraordinary’ for most of my life. In Shidduchim, of course, this is like saying ‘problematic’ but at least they try to assure you it’s a nice problem to have…

    At any rate, what I found in my partner wasn’t patience (although he has loads of that, and I agree it’s a quality a spouse most definitely should have) but the fact that his ‘extraordinariness’ is quite different than mine. He has been always recognized as ‘special’ but not in the ways I have. He is much more given than me to deep reflections, playing counselor, and investigating the depths of the human mind. That makes him the kind of ‘counselor’ friend everybody loves and results in his being frequently called for advice even by his much older siblings. His ‘métier’ is human relationships. Other than growing spiritually and being able to help others, he doesn’t have great ambitions. I am just the opposite – much less concerned with human beings, (at least in their concrete form), much more ambitious and interested in having a successful career – preferably more than one…

    So I really don’t think people who are defined as ‘extraordinary’ should marry somebody they view as ‘ordinary’. Rather, they should find a person who is just as unique in a totally different way. It’s probably important that they will not have the same definition for ‘success’, the same career expectations or the same ‘focus’. I believe that there are many types of people, and the only hard-and-fast rule is that high-level people of ALL types are much likelier to get along well. You might be ‘counselor’ ‘artist’ or ‘high-achiver’ (and yes, I know those deinitions leave a lot to be desired, but they can still be useful) as long as you are passionate about your interests and serious about your role, you might very well be the perfect match for spomebody who treats similarly THEIR strengths and aspirations, as different as they are from yours.

  2. I was reading Rabbi Bentzion Shafier’s article of marriage and such, and he presents what to be done with a bachelor with a terrible temper. Now I thought he would suggest that he wed a shy, retiring female who would accommodate his whims. No, Rabbi Shafier said; he ended up marrying a woman with a worse temper than him.

    Perhaps the moral is . . . no matter how amazing you are, you marry someone even more amazing, who will hog the spotlight?

    In the musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” Frank was so incensed that Annie could outshoot him that she pretends to fail in order to win him. While history says otherwise, apparently Hollywood couldn’t handle it either.

  3. I found PNN’s post to be extremely offputting and arrogant. (Even if it was meant to be tongue in cheek…)
    Bad4, I’d think twice before taking any cues from someone with that kind of better-than-everyone attitude.
    Being part of the blessed .2% may not be the issue, maybe the problem is that they’re so freaking arrogant about it…

  4. @Wellspring: yes, yes, yes!! No one (OK, now my science/math background is insisting that I change that “0” to “negligibly few”) is all the way at the end of every Gaussian curve for every trait. I, too, have been blessed with a husband who is average-slightly-above-average in school smarts but off the charts when it comes to logistics and understanding and interacting with people. In other words, we *both* play the roles of both star and supporter, but we are never vying for the same role in the same sphere; we both have different strengths, and thank G-d, they balance and complement. Yes, we both need a strong ability to put up with each other, but we also both have so much more to us as individuals than only forbearance.

  5. Bad4 and Anon- I disagree. I don’t think PNN was using the .2% as a synonym for extraordinary. He was simply saying that they are different. Not better or worse, just different, not similar to other people. It’s not a good or a bad thing.

  6. i don’t think there’s a formula. and you neglect to mention needing to respect your spouse. i could never respect anyone who only ever took a “supporting” role, despite how dominant my own personality is. not taking yourself too seriously and acknowledging that someone else is correct comes with maturity.

  7. Been thinking about this post for a while, as someone definitely in the top 0.02.

    May I disagree?
    1. People who think they are in the 0.02% are a particular subgroup of people in the 0.99% (not a typo). Everyone is different. I am more self-confident than most. I have a sibling who is just as smart and pretty, but really makes an effort to fit in, because that’s their personality.
    2. Would I PREFER a guy who was near my Yiras Shamayim, intelligence, attractiveness, modesty, integrity, general sophistication, who also had my easygoing personality and successful financially? Probably. That is great for dates but not for marriage.
    3. I do need my husband to be the anchor in our home. For that, he needs to be a Yarei Shamayim who loves Torah and has a sense of responsibility. He doesn’t need to be as smart or sophisticated or ambitious to be a perfect husband and make me happy.
    4. So, it’s important to know what your talents are, and if you’re in the 0.02, yay BH. I’m not engaged yet, so maybe I shouldn’t talk, but I do feel that it’s important to realize your weaknesses as well, and focus on finding someone to balance them out instead of someone to match your unusual strengths.

  8. I think you’re confusing extraordinary with famous. Just because Charlie Munger isn’t famous doesn’t mean he’s not extraordinary. He probably is.
    I definitely think there is some truth to this theory. Just looking around at all my friends who still aren’t married (and I’d like to think I’m included) they are extraordinary people who do not fit the cookie cutter mold (not everyone,but the majority). The non-descript guys were the first to go off the market. Perhaps that’s because the rest of us had higher expectations (which may or may not be a good thing) or perhaps it’s because we just aren’t compatible with as many people? Taking a more religious view on things,maybe it’s because we have more to accomplish before getting married than the “ordinary” people.

  9. I’m extraordinary. I got married. 🙂
    And I don’t think extraordinary people have to marry ordinary people. Every person should marry the person that is right for them, that suits them. Whether that is extraordinary-ordinary, ordinary-ordinary, extraordinary-extraordinary is dependant on the couple. Secondly, generally even extraordinary people are only extraordinary in only one or a few areas. Back to my main point they should just marry people who suit them. For some it will be someone who shares their particular extraordinariness, for others, someone who understands it, and for others, extraordinariness is left entirely out of the equation.

  10. Pingback: He’s So Not My Type (2 of 2) « Bad for Shidduchim

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