Public examples of this personality type?
May 14, 2020 5:04 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for public (past or present) examples of a particular personality type. Let me explain. They are the type of person who even in a fog of distractions and red herrings see the core of an issue very quickly.

Or, even during the most highfalutin and intellectual conversation, they can bring it down to the earth with a grounded insight which can change people’s perspectives on an issue within seconds. They have no hesitation going into a meeting with a group of their “superiors” and will broach an issue which nobody even thought of. They ask the most innocuous and earthly questions which can end up exposing the weaknesses of even the most elaborate of arguments. Groupthink is anathema to them.

Here is the most interesting thing about these people. They are motivated not to get noticed or to prove anything. Thus, they never come across as playing one-upmanship or are seen as trying to be smart. If anything, they are highly agreeable and humble. They are a rare breed. In my working life, I’ve come across maybe two or three other people with these characteristics. But, who are the present or historical public figures which best represents this personality profile?
posted by jacobean to Society & Culture (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Trevor Noah
Stephen Colbert
(They're both very,very, smart; able to see core issues quickly; not into one-upmanship.)

Obama, maybe?
posted by bearette at 5:16 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

George Carlin was one. A close second, nearly as perceptive and quick, is Ricky Gervais.
posted by yclipse at 5:23 AM on May 14, 2020

That was said to be true of Oppenheimer and Keynes. And in a different way, Nancy Mitford.
posted by tmdonahue at 5:27 AM on May 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

If you’re including “motivated not to get noticed,” I don’t see how a professional entertainer could fit. That criterion really complicates this, since we’re mostly going to know about people who have actively sought renown.

This might be Jonas Salk.
posted by FencingGal at 5:35 AM on May 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

Richard Feynman. I'm remembering his explaining the cause of the Challenger disaster with a glass of ice water.

What you are talking about is not just personality, of course. It requires high intelligence.
posted by SemiSalt at 5:45 AM on May 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

posted by Morpeth at 5:46 AM on May 14, 2020 [6 favorites]

It's a personality type you get quite a bit in academia. (You also get the opposite: the people trying to seem smart and playing one-up-man-ship games, and those people are louder, so it's sometimes easy to miss the others). But I'd say in every academic department or meeting I've been in, there's at least one person like this.
posted by lollusc at 6:00 AM on May 14, 2020 [8 favorites]

I would say that Oppenheimer and Feynman definitely do *not* fit into this category. They were both very aware of their image and both very much into one-upsmanship. In the physicist category, Hans Bethe seems more like a match.
posted by cgs06 at 6:26 AM on May 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Abraham Lincoln? Mr. Rogers? The Roman Emperors Augustus and Claudius? US Senator Frank Church? Dwight D. Eisenhower?
posted by Black Cordelia at 6:46 AM on May 14, 2020

Jim Lehrer from the original PBS Newshour was like this.
posted by Tim Bucktooth at 6:47 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Someone gave my partner a biography of Warren Buffet years ago, and he seems to be this way.
posted by amtho at 6:53 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Plato's idea of a "philosopher king" might be the archetype.
posted by BungaDunga at 6:54 AM on May 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

A historical example might be Thomas Paine.
posted by vivzan at 7:05 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I can think of lots of living scientists who I think are famous that fit this category. None are likely to be household names in general. (Rashid Sunyaev, Eugene Commins, Teun Klapwijk, Carl Heiles, and many even less less famous examples.) Bethe seems like a pretty good and reasonably famous choice in this category. Possibly Chandrasekhar, with significant caveats regarding "agreeable and humble."
posted by eotvos at 7:12 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

I think Mahatma Gandhi is the epitome of the type of person you're looking for. And, like, Jesus. And Gautama Buddha. Mother Teresa. Mr. Rogers. Akka Mahadevi. MLK. Vandana Shiva. Malala Yousafzai. Christine Blasey-Ford. You are looking for the SAINT archetype, not the SMART PERSON archetype.

"Agreeable and humble" are a huge part of their deal, I totally know what you are talking about. In real life this type of person is almost always a woman.

This is the person who will state a core truth in a manner that enables entrenched warring sides to set down their weapons (and their egos) and focus on the stuff that matters. And they do so in a way that does not call attention to themselves or valorize themselves. Almost like their superpower is to trick you into believing that changing your mind and your behavior was your own idea.

People who do this professionally in present times are psychologists (well, therapists). Study the field of psychology for clues on how to communicate with people in the most effective way possible (i.e. "trick" them into thinking change is their own idea). And for the other half of it - finding clarity for yourself - check out Dr. Harriet Lerner's work. Her "Dance Of..." books are phenomenal at teaching you how to hone in on your truth and articulate it to yourself. Brene Brown is another great guide in this area.

If you set aside the "agreeableness and humility" criterion, then you get the ACTIVIST archetype: James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Adrienne Rich, Andrea Dworkin, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Audre Lord, Edward Snowden, Arundhati Roy, Ronan Farrow, Babasaheb Ambedkar, Nelson Mandela.

To be quite honest, my heart belongs to these hyper-articulate visionaries and truth tellers, whose conscience-driven yet outrageous/showy/un-ignorable actions create some new zeitgeist ... who willingly become the lightning rod for some festering social issue which they force society to face up to... who absorb all our toxic anger into their own bodies and metabolize it into their own personal drive for justice ... who shed their blood just to lubricate the slide of the Overton Window. They often have a huge ego and they're neither agreeable nor humble, but to me they are all the more compelling for it.
posted by MiraK at 7:28 AM on May 14, 2020 [14 favorites]

Seconding definitely not Feynman. Murray Gell-Mann quit working with him: “Feynman was pretty good, although not as good as he thought he was. He was too self-absorbed and spent a huge amount of energy generating anecdotes about himself.”
posted by scruss at 7:29 AM on May 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

Toni Morrison
Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ijeoma Oluo
Ericka Hart and Ebony Donley
Luvvie Ajayi
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:39 AM on May 14, 2020 [5 favorites]

Bernie Sanders is the only current US politician I can think of like that.
posted by RajahKing at 8:13 AM on May 14, 2020 [4 favorites]

I would suggest Christopher Lasch, a historian. He defies categorization but wrote on populism and the growth of narcissistic culture before his death in 1994.
posted by readery at 8:46 AM on May 14, 2020

I think David Letterman was extremely adept at this once you saw through his goofy TV persona. His Netflix interviews might be worth reviewing.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:32 AM on May 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seconding eotvos. Some other living (or recently deceased) scientists in this category, but less well known: Vera Rubin, PJE Peebles, Martin Rees, Dennis Sciama. John Archibald Wheeler had a bit of an ego, and some interesting political issues, but I think he qualifies, too. Paul Erdos also possibly qualifies, but comes from an entirely different personality class.
posted by cgs06 at 9:45 AM on May 14, 2020

Molly Ivins
posted by liminal_shadows at 10:37 AM on May 14, 2020 [1 favorite]

Rachel maddow
Kai ryssdal
Alexandra petri
Elizabeth Warren
posted by Dashy at 11:01 AM on May 14, 2020 [2 favorites]

I also came to say Jonas Salk. I recently finished reading David Oshinksky's Pulitzer-winning book, Polio: An American Story and recommend it to anyone who would like to read further about the Salk/Sabin rivalry and its effect on the race for the polio vaccine.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 12:34 PM on May 14, 2020

This may sound crazy, but Cher. She has always spoken her mind without hesitation, and is very down to earth. She calls it as she sees it, and she’s generally right.
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:41 PM on May 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

Mary Beard maybe js this. I also wonder whether Lise Meitner fits but I don't know enough about her. Greta Thunberg is a bit like this on her topics. In UK politics, former PM John Major does this sort of thing nowadays.

It strikes me that the requirement not to seek fame, makes this more of a fictional character, or someone you could know in real life rather than a public figure (which is almost inherently fame-seeking).
posted by plonkee at 3:23 PM on May 14, 2020

Ok, thanks everyone for the great responses.

The reason I stated that mentioned that “motivated not to get noticed” is that I truly believe that some people such as journalists “fell into” their careers. They might have started off championing a particular issue, were successful in their goals and just transitioned into a job in the public spotlight.

Some very interesting answers. I do not know all the people mentioned, but I see Fauci is picked. The guy has obviously has had an extraordinary career and I have seen him in heated conferences say basic truths, not letting any tangential questions distract him. Even with his boss alongside him, he still speaks the truth no matter how unpalatable. Great guy.

Buffet is another great example. The guy never seems to get distracted by new fads or crazes.

Great contribution from Mirak:

"Agreeable and humble" are a huge part of their deal, I totally know what you are talking about. In real life this type of person is almost always a woman”

I would love to hear more about this, because I totally agree…

Now going to study what Plato had to say about being a “Philospher King” while listening to Dave Letterman on Netflix…
posted by jacobean at 4:58 PM on May 14, 2020

"Agreeable and humble" are a huge part of their deal, I totally know what you are talking about. In real life this type of person is almost always a woman”

I would love to hear more about this, because I totally agree…

I would certainly say "almost certainly not a white straight cis man". And I think the reason for that is that if you are extremely insightful and say smart things at the right time, and you are a white straight cis man, you often get lauded for it so much that most people can't help but let it go to their head. And the Peter Principle means those people then eventually end up in situations where they are out of their depth, and they either become an egomaniac, a blustering idiot, or both.

Having one or more marginalised identities means that people ignore your smart ideas, talk over you, take credit for what you said, and you end up not realising how awesome you actually are, or at least not pushing yourself forward loudly, because that gets you labelled a troublemaker or a bitch.
posted by lollusc at 10:19 PM on May 14, 2020 [3 favorites]

All I know of her is what I saw in the impeachment hearings, but your description made me think of Fiona Hill.
posted by bluebird at 5:10 AM on May 15, 2020 [1 favorite]

I was referring to how it's usually considered feminine to be self-effacing and diplomatic, and how masculinity generally includes some level/form of braggadocio and an attitude of challenge.

Women are socialized to do our work invisibly, ducks who float serenely while paddling furiously underwater. Women's work is not considered to be real work at all, usually, so we're punished if we show any evidence of effort for doing it. "What do you mean you're tired, you just sit at home all day eating bon bons and watching soaps!" But we not only recognize men's work as real work but we also reward men's work materially, so men are incentivized to talk about how hard they worked on this project and how creatively they solved a work problem and how skilled they are at their job, etc. So you see the contrast here. Women are less likely to claim ownership over their own ideas and efforts. Hesitant to take credit. That's the essence of humility.

And in addition, women are also socialized to be extremely sensitive to other people's (especially men's) egos, feelings, etc. We are taught to understand people from the inside. This gives us enormous skill in diplomatic methods of persuasion: meeting people where they are, and non-confrontationally guiding them towards whatever bit of knowledge we want them to wake up to. Masculine methods of persuasion are much more about "Present people with your irrefutable chains of logic and if they are honorable enough and smart enough, they will agree with you." Masculine ways of persuasion involve challenge and judgement. Feminine ways are more agreeable.

But this is also not inherent to gender relations alone. It's just dominance and submission in action - a dynamic that exists between every demographic with a power differential. lollusc has a good point about this "agreeable and humble" thing intersecting with privilege/disprivilege of all kinds.
posted by MiraK at 9:08 AM on May 15, 2020 [2 favorites]

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