Wonkish vs. Visionary Intelligence

Today’s post is about politics and about giftedness, which I’ve written about separately but that certainly can overlap in meaningful ways.  We’ve recently seen a candidate who is clearly intellectually gifted defeated by one who clearly is not, which I know is not a PC thing to say, but as a large subset of Trump’s followers want to liberate us from being PC, I trust they won’t mind my frankness.  As we’re already trying to find candidates to challenge this man in 2020, it’s a good time to talk about what giftedness looks like in leaders.

I started thinking about this back during the Democratic primary last year, when one of the most common commendations I heard for HRC from her enthusiastic supporters was that Hillary was just so gosh-darn smart.  She knows the details of her briefs down to the last detail!  She juggles so many real, practical details!  She can excel in any area of policy!  Well, this is all true as far as I can see, and it’s something I also admire about Hillary Clinton.  Hillary absolutely has a high IQ, a strong g factor, whatever measure you want to give it.  And she used that well-oiled brain to become a wonk’s wonk, winning over 90% of the vote in the City of Wonks itself, Washington, DC.

dc tidal basin shutterstock_527729869

That’s why I refer to this manifestation of smarts as wonkish intelligence.  A wonkishly intelligent person can draw quickly and reliably on small details from the vast quantities of information that s/he has memorized (as opposed to envisioned).  And if you think the system is running just fine, that’s what you want.  A wonkishly intelligent leader is likely to keep the ship of state sailing smoothly along the charted path.

Back during the primaries, I interacted with groups of Democratic primary voters who actually think our country and our system are doing just fine and, frankly, don’t get what people have to be upset about.  They’re free to think what they want, of course, but this does put them at odds with the majority of Americans, judging from the record of responses to Rasmussen’s famous poll question, “Is the US going in the right direction or is it on the wrong track?”  More than 60% of those polled answered that it’s on the wrong track in every poll between February 2015 and Election Day 2016; in October 2013 and a few times in 2011, Wrong Track responses reached 80%.  That obviously includes more than just Fox News devotees.

When that many voters think the USS Status Quo is heading for an iceberg, wonkish intelligence is necessary but not sufficient to be a successful leader.


Enter visionary intelligence.  A person with visionary intelligence conceives of new options and forges new paths to achieve an overarching goal.  Doing this requires absorbing sufficient data to see how the system works. It requires both a high level of knowledge of some areas and a broader understanding of many interconnected domains—the better to enable the visionary to come up with novel ideas.  It also requires a high level of critical thinking, because that’s the most important tool for a leader forging ahead into uncharted territory.

Visionary intelligence is like—but at a high level goes beyond—what we call “thinking outside the box.”  Of course, as much as we praise such thinking, changing the box is daunting.  We see Democrats pointing this out all the time.  (Republicans don’t have that tendency, but I digress.)  Wonkish thinkers therefore accept the cardboard walls, humming away industriously inside the box.  The problem is that wonks and their supporters often think that the visionaries are less intelligent because they don’t accept the same barriers.

And that just ain’t so, guys.  If we’re trapped in a box, we’ve got to recognize it and find a way out of it, no matter how daunting the task.  Those with visionary intelligence apply their skills to devising ways to do that.  They connect disparate domains, asking new questions to generate new knowledge and new ideas to remodel the box.  This is a different skill set from the wonkish skills that help keep the box itself in tip-top form.

A bright person who’s heavy on wonkish and light on visionary intelligence might well be a product of the training described in a thought-provoking book by former Yale professor William Deresiewicz called Excellent Sheep.  Check out this blurb about the book, emphasis mine:

As a professor at Yale, William Deresiewicz saw something that troubled him deeply. His students, some of the nation’s brightest minds, were adrift when it came to the big questions: how to think critically and creatively and how to find a sense of purpose. Now he argues that elite colleges are turning out conformists without a compass.


Excellent Sheep takes a sharp look at the high-pressure conveyor belt that begins with parents and counselors who demand perfect grades and culminates in the skewed applications Deresiewicz saw firsthand as a member of Yale’s admissions committee. As schools shift focus from the humanities to “practical” subjects like economics, students are losing the ability to think independently.

Deresiewicz is essentially saying that our most elite colleges are all wonk, no vision.  Their students may be bright, but they’re trained to always seek Right Answers accepted by an Authority, while internalizing constraints without questioning them.  Questioning constraints might threaten that GPA, after all.

It must be said that no one is all wonk or all visionary.  Just as educators often talk about people being highly gifted in math or verbal realms, you’re not necessarily bad at math if you’re exceptionally gifted with language.  Hillary might have had visionary intelligence and was just afraid to put it to use, having been shaped by hard knocks over the course of her life when she did so.  Hillary—and even more so, her campaign managers—were likely trained in the Excellent Sheep model.  That was the path to success under previous conditions, after all, when the USS Status Quo was hundreds of miles away from any icebergs.

But now we’re in an ice field.  Now we need to nurture more visionarily intelligent political leaders, because while wonkish frogs may be able to recognize that they’re in a pot that’s beginning to boil, they’d better have a frog visionary to help them climb out.

Visionary intelligence 1 - shutterstock_192540662

As I went to clean up this article for publication, I came across a recent article that reveals that the Democratic Party’s favorability rating is 9 points lower than Donald Trump’s.  Let that serve as a reminder (because it seems like the Democratic Party inexplicably needs a reminder) that we can’t count on voters rejecting Trump in 2020 just because he’s awful.  Voters want to rally around something positive.

I trust the Democrats to find someone sufficiently wonky.  What they need to add to their plan is visionary intelligence.  And the first step is recognizing that.

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