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What Makes You So Smart, Lord Browne?

Noah Davis talks to the former chief executive of British Petroleum about, among other things, how it's not really that important to be really smart.
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The windows in the office of Lord Browne overlook the roof of the Royal Academy of Arts. "Whenever I need inspiration I look outside the window and I can see statues of Cicero, Archimedes, Plato, and others," he says as we talk over Skype. "It's tough to compete with my view." Browne, the immediate past president of the Royal Academy of Engineering (and now the Chairman of the Trustees of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, which is run through the Academy), made his name and his millions as group chief executive of BP, a position he resigned from in 2007. He is a man of many talents and varied interests, and "a physicist who went into business, a CEO who prefers collecting ceramics and 18th-century Italian prints, an art connoisseur who understands profit margins, and a political guru who knows the difference between fusion and fission" as the Times of Londononce wrote. Browne spoke with Pacific Standard about the value of ideas versus execution, old master engravings, and why politicians should listen to artists.

When you were growing up in school, did you feel like you were smarter than most people?
I think my mother always thought I was really smart. That's what mothers are for. My mother, having lost everything during the war when she went into Auschwitz, was convinced—as were most parents who went through that—that the only thing you had was education. That's the only think that couldn't be taken away. My mother made sure I got a great start educationally. The first time I realized it was working was when I won a prize at primary school in Singapore. Amazingly, considering where I have gone to now, the prize was for religious studies.

Did you have a peer group that you would study with to stay intellectually stimulated?
I spent most of my time at a very traditional U.K. boarding school. It was fiercely competitive. You were always looking into yourself and comparing yourself with others. When I was very junior, I had to go home. My parents were overseas when I went home, and my father, who was very wise, taught me to moderate it and get real. He told me that I wasn't going to do well in everything, but the key was that I learn from smart people as well as from your teachers. I was always hanging around smart people.

When I went to Cambridge, I was a scientist. I did natural science and physics, but a lot of my friends were from outside those subjects. I found it really interesting to talk to them about history, law, and economics compared with physics and chemistry. I found that stretching and exciting, and it's why I loved Cambridge.

That's interesting that you consciously sought out people outside your field. I have this theory that people equate math and science with genius because it's much harder to understand than a sentence.
When I was on the board of Intel, I asked Andy Grove why he became an engineer. He said something I completely subscribe to: In the end, of course, there's no judgment in the grading for physical and mathematical sciences. It's a sign that you may not trust everybody. Equally, you should be able to communicate physical sciences and mathematics to everybody. It's just tougher to get the standard set of concepts on the table.

I hope I have done that. I've just written a book, Seven Elements That Have Changed the World, and I do try and tangle big problems like "Why is uranium unstable and prone to blowing up?" and "How does a microchip work?" without actually talking down to people. I think you can use simple analogies and simple descriptions to invoke someone's mind as much as you could with language like Shakespeare's.

You're obviously very smart and that can be intimidating sometimes. Have you ever been in a situation where you had to intentionally dumb yourself down?
It's an impossible question to ask. In my business, people aren't valued just for being smart. They are more valued, actually, for being able to work with people. That's really important. The second most important thing is delivery, being able to get something done. Since I'm in business, you could say that ideas are 10 a penny. The only ones that really matter are the ones that can hit the ground and make a difference to people. And make a good difference to people. To get that done, you have to marshal not just ideas, but resources and people, and bring them along in a way that makes it their idea and their solution rather than your idea and your solution. There's nothing worse than working for somebody who thinks they have all the answers. Nobody can have all the answers and thinking you do is very unattractive.

There are a lot of really smart people around, and I speak to a lot of them. I'm very privileged to do that because I lead these different lives, so I get to meet people who come from extraordinary backgrounds whether that's science, history, engineering, or the arts. I meet artists who see life in a way that I couldn't see it until they explain it to me. They look at political problems in a way a politician never would. And then I meet lots of politicians who have an entirely different view. It's a very privileged life that I lead and I'm very grateful for it. Whatever I've learned, I've learned from great professors to start with at Cambridge and Stanford, and then mostly through the people I've met traveling the world doing business and doing things that excite me.

"There's nothing worse than working for somebody who thinks they have all the answers."

What do you read?
I won't just say books. [Laughs] I read in different topics. While I'm writing a book, I don't read any books except those related to the topic I'm writing. I've just finished a book, so I read about Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller in ways I hadn't before. I read about the Manhattan Project through different eyes. I read a lot of mystery and detective stories because I find the genre very interesting. It's about making people wait. In the really good ones, you can get the point but only when you know the point, as it were. I'm writing another book now, so I'm mixing. I just bought about a dozen books, but I can't remember what they are. I took the most important bestsellers from The Financial Times list. I'm going away tomorrow. I'm going to read all of them and see if I agree.

Do you do any formal education anymore?
Some, mostly in the areas where I collect. I try to go to lectures to understand. I collect something that's very defined: 16th- to 18th=-century old-master engraving prints with reference to Venice. I read a lot about those and go to lectures. I've only been doing it since 1982, which is 31 years. I decided that if I get another 31 years, I might know what I'm doing. [Laughs]

One of the things I found most attractive about mathematics is that you can do it from first principle. You don't have to go in with a huge amount of understanding. That's why I'm not so good at history. I can't remember things. I never could as a kid. It was strange how chemistry was taught to me; it was all memory. It's the same thing with history and art. Great connoisseurs of history remember a tremendous amount of things. I try to do it in a slightly different way. I try to focus on basic themes and basic ideas. That means I understand it a bit better, but I'm not very good at reading a book and remembering it photographically.

How did you decide to start collecting those engravings?
Like every collection I've started, someone gave me a small gift. In this case, it was a print taken out of a book, and I found it so interesting that they told me I should go to an exhibition. That was 1982. I went, bought a catalog, and started buying reference books. I read about it, and I said, “Right, when I can afford this, I'll start collecting.” There was no point in collecting to compete with the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, or the British Museum, but I wanted to collect in a different way: unusual pieces, pieces which someone else—like a great artist—had owned. Things that had great romance.

How many piece do you have in your collection?
Too many. Quite a few. [Laughs]

Do you turn to the same few people for advice or to a wider swath?
I tend to turn to a lot of people. It depends on what it's about. For example, I'll turn to Stan Greenberg to listen to him talk about the state of affairs of politics in the U.S. And I'll go to someone else for a different view on the same topic. I attempt to go to different people. They tend to change over time, although there are a few people in management who I go to again and again, like the senior partner of McKinsey. He has good judgment.

Who's the smartest person you know?
Sir Paul Nurse, the president of the Royal Society.

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