Don't go on
On friendships, loose lips, and what Benjamin Franklin might whisper into Elon Musk's ear if he'd only bother to listen
Plenty of Benjamin Franklin's advice is uncannily relevant to the present day. Consider: "It is ill-manners to silence a fool, and cruelty to let him go on."
■ A fool doesn't have to be unintelligent. Some people are naturally short of wits, but many others are endowed with substantial intelligence which they choose to apply unevenly (to put it diplomatically). And when that happens, everyone needs at least one friend who can reel in the worst of that foolish behavior.
■ It's a mistake for anyone -- even the certifiable genius -- to go without just such a trustworthy friend. The temptation is surely there; lauded often for their genius, lots of creative, innovative, groundbreaking individuals are capable of coming to believe that they are without peers.
■ But enormous raw intelligence (and even a highly refined genius for something particular) cannot find itself beyond the reach of a well-considered second opinion. In aviation, the entire philosophy of crew resource management is built around the principle that someone (the captain) may be the most experienced expert "in the room", but that even that authority is only safely used if others are willing and able to challenge it if they believe something vital has been overlooked.
■ So, too, should certain outspoken or even "disruptive" public figures be willing to have their genius checked by a second opinion. The really smart ones learn it: Warren Buffett (investing's "Oracle of Omaha") has for decades depended upon Charlie Munger to validate or dismiss his ideas. Bill Gates first had Paul Allen, then Steve Ballmer, to keep him in check as he put his enormous drive to work behind his strategic programming genius. Soichiro Honda had engineering genius, but needed Takeo Fujisawa to make it a business.
■ Without a second opinion, it's too easy for untethered genius to give way to madness. Elon Musk has loud and emphatic ideas about nuclear warfare, and he's picking fights on Twitter with anyone who disagrees (it is, for instance, a preposterous choice to accuse Garry Kasparov for not doing enough to speak out against Russia's regime). Meanwhile, Kanye West is going about amplifying messages associated with racists and posting excruciating antisemitism on his social media accounts.
■ Musk and West are each certifiable geniuses in certain ways -- Musk can shepherd wild ideas into reality like almost nobody in our time, and West is a profoundly gifted musician. That much shouldn't be denied. But they're both in desperate need of a second opinion. Someone trustworthy needs to be able to say to each of them, "Hold on. You've gone too far." And that message needs to get through.
■ It's easy to dig in for the sake of pride and to double down on the conviction that the crowd just doesn't "get it". The louder and broader the reaction, quite often the stiffer the resistance. But when a friend tells you, "Look, this is a bad idea, and it's hurting what I know you value", that is the sort of message everyone should know how to take in and give fair consideration. Nobody should allow themselves to get beyond the reach of that kind of check, purely as a matter of self-interest.
■ No one has perfect knowledge of self; it is a process to come to a deep understanding, and no one really arrives at it like some kind of destination on a map. Friends help us, though, because they can see us from the outside. Just as you'll never see your own forehead without the assistance of a mirror or a camera, you'll never see the entirety of your own self without the help of others, in no small part because we are relational beings, formed in part by the social interactions around us. No one, no matter how objectively smart, is complete without the help of a friend who can help to silence us when we act like fools.