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What Makes You So Smart, Kathryn Minshew?

Noah Davis talks to the co-founder of The Muse about those times when it's not smart to seem really smart.
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After graduating from Duke University, Kathryn Minshew worked as a management consultant and at the Clinton Health Access Initiative before embarking on the entrepreneurial life. She founded Pretty Young Professionals, a networking site for women, before launching The Muse with two co-founders. In Minshew's company's Flatiron office, we talked being smart, playing dumb, and the time and place for Russian literature.

Was there a moment when you realized how smart you were?
I think if you're lucky, you get to have that realization about different types of skills at different points in your life. There was a time in the third or fourth grade when we were reading a book as a class about a mouse that got stranded on an island and had to build a little raft to get off. I read the book cover to cover something like 27 times while we read it collectively in class. I think I was a relatively nice, sweet kid but I was an oldest child so I was a little bit stubborn and bossy. I remember thinking "How is it possible that I read this book so much faster than everyone else?" I was pretty deferential to authority but I occasionally had a problem not paying attention because I would get an assignment and I would want to move on immediately. I had some gifted classes that were really great, and I had some that were kind of a joke. In the sixth grade, the first assignment I turned in was on the play Macbeth and the teacher didn't believe I had written it until I wrote two more assignments in front of her about other themes in the play. Being accused of lying about your work was a really weird feeling.

What were you doing outside of school?
Nothing formal. My parents were really awesome about making math and other subjects really fun for my brother and I. One of my childhood memories is being 10 years old on vacation in Los Angeles with my family. We're in the hot tub, and my dad was asking us algebra problems. That was just normal. I loved to read. My mom would tell me to put down the book and go outside. I read all of the Nancy Drew books in the third grade and then decided I would upgrade to Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was not a good idea. I'm sure I didn't understand it, but I did feel like I was pushing myself. I was extremely curious, so I was into anything that could be related to learning about the world. Science museums were the best.

"Yeah, I think I have to play dumb occasionally, more often than I would like. It's partially because there's even more of a stigma against a woman seeming to be arrogant than a guy."

Did you get to a point where school got harder?
I started to realize that there were subjects that were fascinating to me and, therefore, tended to be easier, and other subjects where I just couldn't think as quickly as other people. For example, I absolutely love literature, but I am not great at analyzing it. One of my favorite teachers in high school was the AP Lit teacher. We would read Faulkner, Euripides, Shakespeare, and other famous authors. He would pull out these fantastic themes. I loved listening to them, and I could generally say interesting things about them, but I was unable to pull themes of out novels unless they were so obvious they hit you in the face. I ended up loving computer science, which was shocking because I had this idea that I didn't like math. In retrospect, I think it was that I didn't like how a lot of math was taught.

In a way, working at McKinsey was like that for me. Even though parts of school were hard, I was always able to do pretty well. McKinsey was the first time that I would go into these massive projects and come up against a way of doing things and a style of work that was much harder for me to execute than it was for other people.

The three people I previously talked to for this series mentioned how they thought the smartest collection of people ended up at McKinsey.
I do think McKinsey is really good at taking people who are really smart and helping them articulate their thoughts and helping them improve in a lot of ways. That said, there is a "best way" to be smart at McKinsey. I sometimes excelled at that way and other times found it very challenging. One of the things that's really interesting about what I do now is that I have a really, really good gut sense of certain things. There was a gratifying moment where one of my co-founders asked if I had done something and I told her I didn't think it was the right time. I started trying to justify it and she just said, "You always know. I trust you." Over the last few years as I've built this business, it has been an incredible asset to know when is the right time to ask someone something, how they are going to respond, and what's going to make them respond more effectively. For whatever reason, that was something that did not translate at all in the environment at McKinsey.

Do you feel like you ever have to dumb yourself down?
Yeah, I think I have to play dumb occasionally, more often than I would like. It's partially because there's even more of a stigma against a woman seeming to be arrogant than a guy. There are definitely situations in which it's helpful to pretend not to notice things. It can also sometimes be advantageous in a negotiation when people assume you are not as bright as you are because you can later surprise them. I do find that moment when someone who has been somewhat patronizing figures out that I'm actually not the featherweight they had been anticipating somewhat satisfying.

It sounds like you've figured out how to use that to your advantage.
It can. It can also be a disadvantage in groups. I'll get boxed out of conversations because people just assume I don't have anything to add. If you can successfully insert yourself in, people will take notice and recognize that they made an incorrect assumption. But with group dynamics it's not always possible or worth your time.

What do you read?
I love reading, but I don't do as much of it as I would like. It comes in phases. Sometimes I keep myself away from really good books because once I start them it's really hard for me to stop. My reading comes in two forms. I read a ton of short-form content on my phone. I'm straight-up addicted to Pocket. I read everything from foreign policy to tech and quirky news. I really like knowing what's going on in the world. I think it's also advantageous for what I do to be well-read and up on current events. In terms of books, I generally read fiction. I read enough non-fiction in short form. I just finished an amazing book called A Prisoner of Birth, which is basically a modern day Count of Monte Cristo retelling. [laughs] It's not particularly high-brow literature, but it's really interesting. I'm partway through Anna Karenina. I really like it but because of the pace of my life, I often look to literature to be escapism. I have a bias, especially right now, toward stories that make you feel really good. Russian literature is maybe not the best choice there.

Have you gotten to a place where you couldn't do something?
Oh definitely. I'm a big believer in multiple types of smart. I think that there are things that I can do much more easily, quickly, and better than other people and areas where a lot of other people just beat the pants off me. I think that's awesome. I think that's exciting. One of the great things about being at a start-up is that you can find the things you are good at and do more of them and you find the things you are not good at and you hire people who are fantastic at those things.

I took BC Calculus in high school, and we did a little bit of multivariable and linear algebra at the end. That wasn't something I was really jazzed about spending a lot of hours on. Similarly, I only took a couple of math classes in college. I took one on financial accounting that was actually pretty fascinating because it correlated with something that I was really interested in, whereas I took one in statistics that wasn't really my jam. With later stage biology and physics, I found I could appreciate why other people could love it but it wasn't as much what I'm into. A lot of the things that have really attracted me at some form or other are about what makes people do different things. In school, that was a lot of history, English, theater. In life, it's been entrepreneurship and what makes someone buy your product or recommend you to a friend. I think that has always attracted me more than numbers for the sake of numbers.

Who should I talk to next?
Jeremy Johnson, who is a co-founder of 2U.

What Makes You So Smart? is an ongoing Q&A series.