I am sure the word “clever” is insulting and derogatory to some people — they would “rather be good” than be clever.  I was one of them until I read this, mostly because “being good” sounded more pleasant than “being clever” and there is no one on this earth who would like to be known as “nice” than “shrewd. It’s not even possible to use the word “clever” as simple praise without being sarcastic or down right abusive.

We are usually skeptical about “clever” people, as we have a tendency to connect it with the word “shrewd,” which in turn, is interpreted as ‘manipulative.”  It’s easy to label a certain human characteristic as questionable but it might just be a pro-active way of self preservation on the part of a clever person and the implementation of sheer disliking of being controlled by others.

According to the “Chambers Reference Online” “clever” means —

1. Good or quick at learning and understanding.

2. Skillful, dexterous, nimble or adroit.

3. Well thought out; ingenious.

Its root sense of being skillful and understanding is not lost but has gradually become metaphorical, the word now implies a kind of intellectual deception, mere mental tricks and technique designed to confuse an honest fellow.

We do have a moral obligation to be intelligent, but do we have an obligation to be clever as well, as it means now? I didn’t want to be known as one of the “clever” people till I read this, but interestingly enough – I didn’t want to be known as “stupid” either. Being “clever” needs more mental agility, which I certainly do not possess; at the same time I think I am happy to be a silent observer outside the ring.

We might not like a “clever” person, but we certainly can’t deny their existence in the professional world. What does it take to be clever? Definitely staying ahead of the curve, anticipating change and acting according to it are the clear signals of being one – more so, they have a mission in life and they know how to accomplish it.

Does that indicate “clever people need stupids” around them to be successful in life? One thing is for sure – if everyone tries to lead then it definitely ends up being a chaos. It seems “intelligence is inherited,” but “cleverness” is “earned.”I don’t think it’s wrong to be clever but the word carries a “negative” connotation with it because “clever” people are capable of being unpredictable and their unpredictability can lead to both good and bad — depending on their judgment.

My friend showed me a very interesting article in Harvard Business Review which spoke about “leading clever people” in the work place which intrigued me enormously. “Clever people” in the work place can be both be assets and liability as they are quite sure of their competency and are very hard to be led.

The “clevers” in the workplace surely know what they want from the organization and how they want it. In fact, they even know how to achieve it and the “knowing” at times blurs the line between mere black and white and so called morality.

The meaning of “clever” is transformed from “skillful” to “shrewd” and we have a natural disliking for the latter as it prevents us to draw any simple conclusion about that characteristic of the person as he/she has an innate capacity to hide their true self. They can’t be read, judged or mapped.

But, we can’t do without them. The world needs them for their ingenuity to move forward. The world also needs “us” as an observer. It’s certainly pays off to be clever-savvy than to be naive in the professional world — you never know who is working in your next cubicle.


  1. Hi Katha!

    Growing up in Nebraska — it was a good thing to be “clever” — but as soon as I moved to the East Coast, “cleverness” changed into meaning “devious.” This confused me because when people would talk about others being “clever,” they were not being complimentary! SMILE!

  2. I am thinking this is more of an American – and possibly East Coast American concept. In England clever still has good connotations with one exception – one “can be too clever for ones own good” – which means a person is over confident, “cocky” and that gets them into trouble.

    Really liked the links to managing clever people – everyone needs “enablers” to create the right conditions for others to shine.

    1. Hi Nicola,

      I have seen many so called “clever” people in my working life…. they managed to survive/ grow but rarely did something meaningful. Genuinely clever people see the big picture and bring change…. 🙂

  3. I honestly still thought clever was a good thing! I didn’t realize that it meant anything else. Thanks for the insightful article!

  4. I remember called clever a lot when I was younger and my grandmother still calls me clever from time time too. People usually only called me clever after I said something that helped solve a situation or I figured out a way to fix something or put something together that no one thought of originally. I honestly don’t ever remember anyone using clever in a negative way, not that I’ve noticed anyway.

    1. Hi Brielle,

      You are smart! Clever is someone who is super selfish, cunning and opportunist. In the professional world, you might come across people who grow along with others, and then there will be people who grow alone. You will know who is who! 🙂

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