Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Virtue of Being Underestimated

Peter Falk as the canny Lt. Colombo

People generally want to be recognized for their talents, and therefore often don’t consider the advantages of having at least some of those talents go unrecognized.
The railroad robber baron Jay Gould discovered that early on. “It was as easy to like Jay as it was to underestimate him,” wrote biographer Maury Klein in his book The Life and Legend of Jay Gould. “The undersized body with its small hands and feet that moved with feline grace; the boyish looks with their eager, earnest expression; the shy, friendly smile; the huge, dark liquid eyes, piercing in their intensity, ceaselessly probing without revealing; the soft, musical voice that seldom rose above piano; the reserved, diffident manner, ever respectful, unfailingly courteous, never shouting for attention or challenging others for the spotlight. All these qualities impressed people who met Jay. Those who came to know him soon learned to appreciate the less obvious elements of his character: his demonic energy, fierce determination and intense concentration. There was in him a tensile strength, a resiliency that seemed incongruous in so frail a vessel. Until they knew better, men tended to dismiss Jay as a boy attempting a man’s work. Jay understood the attitude and turned it to his own advantage. He grasped early the value of possessing a reservoir of capabilities known only to himself.”
Call it the Colombo Effect, a reference the 1970s TV detective character played by Peter Falk.
This LA homicide lieutenant, with his old raincoat and old car, appeared rumpled, diffident and distracted, certainly no threat to the high-powered, high-income, highly intelligent egotists who thought they’d committed the perfect crime. They began by condescending to the poor sap. But they became irritated as they started to feel the pressure when Colombo needled them about his suspicions. It was only when they felt his trap snapping shut on them that Colombo’s camouflage dropped and the murderers realized that Colombo had been the smarter man all along — just smart enough not to let his adversaries know how smart he was.

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