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?