Personal charm beats out smarts

June 24, 2010


My time is short and so is yours, so why not tell the truth: A person can get along very well in life without one bit of the mathematics and physics they rammed into our brains in high school. Fifty years later, and there hasn’t been a single moment when I’ve thought, “Oh if only I could remember higher algebra!”

No, it isn’t smarts, it’s personal charm that propels you forward in this world and I, who grew up on the windswept godforsaken plains, know this for a fact. We Midwesterners have a charm deficit from day one and never catch up. Southerners have it in spades and many big city people and Texans and Unitarian women and Hispanic folks and black church ladies and hospital nurses and Jewish mothers, of course, but we prairie dogs are solemn and cold and people do not gravitate toward us and I, having been brought up fundamentalist, am a colder fish than most. That’s what drove me into the radio business.

And I admit that I have often hired musical performers for my radio show (heard weekly by more than 400 people) because those performers were pleasant and smiled and were Fun To Be With. I used to hire brilliant troubled artists, but I don’t anymore. They are a pain in the wazoo and usually more troubled than brilliant, and what’s the point?

A terrific smile will take you a long way in this world. If Barack Obama had grown up fundamentalist in Minnesota, he would not be the Leader of the Free World; he’d be reading the news on an AM station in St. Cloud right now and doing commercials for fertilizer and used-car lots.

I was brought up imagining that cream rises to the top, merit wins out, the race is to the swift and riches to men of understanding, but it ain’t necessarily so. The swift stand a better chance if they are also beautiful.

Someone in Massahoosetts wrote to me saying they want to give me an award for something and I wrote back, saying that I am unworthy, etcetera, which, as you know, is true. Awards should go to those who have suffered for their art and not to one who has had a whale of a good time. But then I thought, “What if they don’t insist? What if they say, ‘OK, you are right, we made a mistake there. Sorry.’” I might never receive an award again.

So I tore up the declining letter and said Thank You instead.

Awards are notoriously unfair and some of the best people go unrecognized and some of the deadliest and dopiest get one Lucite trophy after another, but awards are major jujus in the world you and I live in. In the writing trade, if you win a Pullet Surprise, this is the Heisman Trophy, Get Out Of Jail Free card and Magic Twanger all rolled into one, and though it’s awarded by a roomful of large enchiladas at Columbia University in New York, and The Upper West Side Prize would be a more accurate brand name, nonetheless it has juju power all across the land. People bow low and tug on their forelocks when a Surprise winner walks into the room. Dogs are silenced. Fresh flowers are strewn. Maidens offer themselves.

This is how the world works. The lonely striver with bad hair and serious overbite who is scratching out her thoughts in the Omaha Public Library is facing a wall of sheer granite a thousand feet high and luckily for her she doesn’t know it now but someday she will and my heart goes out to her.

This Massahoosetts award should go to her, I guess, but it’s not mine to give, only to receive, and it is blessed to receive an award though my upbringing tells me that probably the day after the award ceremony I will be struck by a speeding bike and get a broken leg that will need replacement, knee and hip, with titanium joints and I will never polka so gallantly as I do now, but if fate dictates, who am I to protest?

If your kid flunked out of school, don’t worry about it. Teach him to love his life. Teach her to do good work and not expect recognition. Not smart? No problem. Be useful. That may be better for humanity than to be brilliant and troubled. And it wouldn’t hurt you to smile more. Just do it. Thank you.

— Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.


puddleglum 7 years, 8 months ago

well, I dunno bout all that, but I do know that I am a very pretty person, full of charm and people find me irresitable constantly. I would say the best way to get ahead is to be beautiful like me, but I am afraid that is so far outof the question for the 99.9% of the population who aren't as pretty as me. It would be tough to even come within lets say 35% as pretty as me-but you all can try if you would like. In the meantime, continue to view me but please don't touch-my skin is perfect and I don't need your skin oils or whatever rubbing on me.

LoveThsLife 7 years, 8 months ago

I don't agree with this. Cognitive abilities tests (IQ tests) are the best predictor of job performance hands down. The more complicated the job the better predictor it is. While most corporations pair cognitive abilities testing with personality tests to avoid lawsuits and also to give a well rounded view of the applicant, the score on the cognitive abilities test is still very important in the hiring process. Math is an important skill to master, it can and does affect the job one can obtain. i always laugh when I hear younger people say they want to major in psychology or sociology because they don't like math. I always wonder how they are going to manage through their various statistics classes...or how they are going to enjoy graduate school (if they could even get that far.) I know this is hard for people to hear, but it is important to learn those skills that will help in your pursuit of what you desire to do. Whether you want to be a CEO, operations manager, counselor, mechanic, or plumber....you better figure out what skills you need in order to get there. I think the biggest thing is to learn how to think critically and to learn how to learn. People who have good critical thinking skills and know how to learn are far more likely to be successful because they have the tools to solve problems. Bottom line -Don't depend on charisma to get you a job. ..especially in this market.

Chris Golledge 7 years, 8 months ago

Who's to say what exactly IQ (smarts) is or is not. I'm going with the idea that it takes just as much processing power to figure out the nuances of social relationships as it does to solve some difficult mechanical problem. But tests are most often geared toward the math and mechanical side of reasoning. I can outdistance my wife without trying when it comes to mechanical/math problems, but I'm a rock compared to her when it comes to understanding the social side of things.

Smarts to be successful? Depends on how you define it and what the needs are.

billbodiggens 7 years, 8 months ago

Garrison Keillor can be a very funny man, but many times he can be tiresome, laboring and trite. This piece has all the charm of a 15 year old who does not want to go to class. How dull and boring can it get?

bre2008 7 years, 8 months ago

Math is important to a point. Every individual home budget, taxes, insurance, saving for retirement and possible medical needs, understanding money markets and mutual funds, interest rates both for your dividends and finance charges. The world is not a simple place and you can get taken easily. However common sense, people reading & communication skills are just as important in these matters. You can get someone to advise you in higher math situations if you have people reading and communication skills. You mentioned CEO...manager...etc but if you don't have the social skills it doesn't matter what the math computations are your going to loose at some point. I know people who could do the most complex math with doctorates in more than one math field but they couldn't deal with people in any manner and their life was miserable. See someone like this can still make it well if those who have the people skills accept and support him with their skills allowing him to support them in their need for his skills. Mutual community strength.

I knew still others who couldn't do a math problem if their life depended on it but they were such good people persons that they had all the honest advise and councel they could ever need in math matters at their side through friends and sensing when someone was really honest & knowledgeable or otherwise. We go with what gifts we have and are ment to share them with those that don't. Don't force people to perform at what they can't and consider them pathetic or failures. We must do our best in all areas but to force feed higher learning in high school or college in an area beyond ones ability is a waste of time money and humanity. If a student is lazy it is usually that a need has not been filled or an ability has been overlooked. While boredom is a choice some have been pinned in life by other circumstances not under their control no one helped them at the moment they needed it. Hope or creativity was squelched, until that is rectified or overcome it could only get worse. Our society breeds this within its roots the family, whether its from the overpampered or the split and continuely strained relationships.

Nuture both the gifted area and the non-gifted you will have a society and community of confident team members working together for the mutual good. Happily & passionately buzzing about doing their best at what they do best backed up by others who do their best at what they do well. Each appreciating both what they have in themselves and others.
You'd be supprised then at how much better at the weaknesses one gets when they aren't pushed into it but come about it in their own time. Likewise if a person doesn't seem to have an aptitude in a skill area but has a passion for it that passion & determination can often over come the difficulty. We can see this all throughout the history of man.

LoveThsLife 7 years, 8 months ago

I wasn't just talking about math, although I did point to that as an important skill that is simply not valued enough by our society. I was talking about critical thinking skills and IQ as it relates to success in the work place. I suggest if you want to undertsand more of the point I was making you look up the topic "I/O Psychology". That is the psychology of persons in the workplace. Within that focus of study it is well known that IQ tests are the best predictor of job performance. It is a better predictor of job performance than past experience, GPA or personality tests. When companies go to hire you they are looking for 1) what kind of skills you possess that are beneficial to them 2) do you have the capacity to solve problems that may arise on your job 3) Personality. While the last one has to do with personality..it still doesn't have much to do with charisma. Tests such as Meyers-Briggs look at ones personality and the strengths and weaknesses of certain attributes. Those tests are given to help them see past the "charisma" and get a good predictor of the skills and abilities you can potentially bring into the organization.

What I am saying is probably intimidating to people, but it is what it is. That's why it is so important to stay current and grasp whatever opportunities for growth and development available if one wants to be successful.

Yes, I agree not everyone needs a higher education to be successful. However, to claim that people can make it in life on charisma ( as the author argued) is a bit absurd. In each discipline there is a required skill set. It is important to understand that and master it if you want to get far. Critical thinking is very important if you want to move forward in a career, because it involves the ability to learn and solve problems.

My point of the matter was...get all the training and education you can within your desire. If you want to be a plumber than go out and get the training and education you need to be the most skilled plumber. If you want to be a CEO than find out what skills companies look for in their executives and work on those skills and get the experience necessary so that you reach your goal.

Charisma is nice, but it only goes so far. Trust me in the majority of cases a senior executive at company has had a lot more than charisma to get them to that point. Just as a good car mechanic didn't get their knowledge from a smile and a wink. Bottom line- don't count on people skills to get you a job. Make sure you have the skills and knowledge needed within whatever discipline of your choosing.

denak 7 years, 8 months ago

I put smarts over charm but it has been my experience that hard work wins over both of them.

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