07/18/2012 03:00 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

Why Do Smart People Get Played?

Most people do what is widely recommended, while a minority conducts their own fact-finding. We are usually happy to relax and let others do the legwork for us. We relinquish control to entities such as the government, universities, corporations, parents, and spouses, expecting with a sense of entitlement a spectacular result. I did this recently when I let an acquaintance coerce me into going on a blind date with her divorced coworker. Knowing she was also looking for a good man, I asked her why she didn't want to date him. She said he was too old for her. My gut instinct told me something was wrong, but it felt liberating to surrender control and have this imagined near-perfect man delivered right into my hands. However, what I didn't realize is that my acquaintance did not like doing her own legwork. She arranged for the blind date and I to go out a couple of times. After the first date, we had an all-day outing where we made some progress in getting to know each other. When I raved about how thoughtful he was, how cute he was, she swooped in and took him for herself.

Embarrassed and hurt, I wondered how this could happen to me. I am over 40, am usually good at reading people, and have two engineering degrees. How could I have been used as a guinea pig? In my pissed-off state, I started watching reruns of the TV series Dexter, whose main character is a likeable but focused serial killer. Though Dexter does abhorrent things in the name of vigilante justice, the show has a strong following due to the intelligence and charisma of Michael C. Hall's character. After watching a succession of episodes in an attempt to assuage my bruised ego, I realized that despite Dexter's brilliant ability to analyze personalities, even he was duped by people he trusted, sometimes with deadly consequences. That made me feel better about my own foolish situation, but it also formed a bigger question in my mind: How do smart people get played?

Then I started thinking about other intelligent people who had miscalculated and ended up with a disappointing setback. I spoke with an old friend recently who is bored with his job as an engineer, a profession that was touted as the field du jour of the '80s. I took some scary risks earlier in my career and got out of that line of work, but he stayed, graduating from one of the top engineering schools in the country. Now, 15 years later, instead of pursuing his dream of traveling the world to attend salsa conferences, he feels stuck and lethargic about acquiring patents. He spends eight hours a day staring at a computer screen, watching his life pass by as he observes the results of his test-circuit simulations. He has no idea how to extricate himself from the quicksand of a career that is boring him to death.

Betrayal comes in many guises, and a devastating form many smart people don't see coming is corporate betrayal. One vivid memory I have is from the first day of work at a new job. I got into the elevator next to a 50-something man hugging a cardboard box. I perkily asked him if he was moving offices, to which he angrily replied, "No, I've been laid off after giving 30 years of my life to these assholes."

Feeling stupid, I said, "I'm sorry. I didn't realize."

He turned his sad eyes toward me and said, "I can't believe I neglected my family for this place."

Before I could say another word, the elevator door opened and he walked out. Like many middle-aged males who have been victims of retrenchment or other forms of summary eviction from the workplace, he probably thought the company, like a loving parent, was looking out for his interest. Instead, he's out of a job, trying to piece his and his family's life together while they transfer his work to younger, cheaper employees like me. How long would it be before I was walking out of the elevator holding my own box, cursing the evils of corporate betrayal?

Today, many college graduates are not able to meet people in the elevator on the first day of work, since many are not getting jobs in the first place. Due to the global financial crisis and subsequent economic turmoil, renting their first apartment or buying that first car has become for many a dream instead of a guarantee. Some feel society has betrayed them, by not living up to the promise that a great education would ensure a well-paid job. Many college students, whom due to their newfound freedom expected to complement their academic lives with an endless round of campus parties and social gigs, never expected while registering for their first semester that, upon graduation, they would end up back home with Mama.

All these people are intelligent, educated, and hard working. How then did they end up being "played"?

In any good relationship, whether it is personal or corporate, there has to be trust. For example, if my relationship with a friend is to work, I have to trust that person will look out for me and care about me. There must be mutual respect, and if I am about to relinquish control to that person, I would have to feel they are qualified to lead me, and that they know what they are doing. Such a person would have to be good and have integrity, someone who wouldn't hurt me. The problem for many smart people, however, is that their judgment and expectations are flawed. The friend you lean on, the corporation you've committed to your whole life, are just not part of the trust equation. The result: You get set up for a hard landing.

Second, the person/organization has to be given access. They have to get access to our time, thoughts, or our money. The person or organization we trust often takes these precious commodities with our consent and uses them to their advantage, sometimes at the expense of our own interests.

Third, honestly due to busyness or laziness on our part we don't take the time to do the sub-tasks required to analyze a decision. We assume since things have worked out in the past, they always will. What makes people particularly vulnerable here is that often things do work out as planned. Many people do keep their word and deliver what they promise a high percentage of the time. The more privileged you are in society, the more things tend to work out. However, the unprivileged who grow up in the projects or in severely-economically-depressed areas, due to the dog-eat-dog environment, may feel that they can't trust just anybody. They may be constantly suspicious because they have seen that people will often take advantage of them without hesitation if they seem weak or uninterested. Most know if they are not mindful, they may wind up dead or robbed. When the underprivileged get "played" it is usually because of lack of money, not because they naively think that it can't happen. This knowing is one of the few advantages they have over the privileged.

Anyone can get played. It comes as a shock when it happens to us because many times things do work as promised. This consistent fulfillment of desires with a minimum amount of work on our part often lulls us into a complacency where we don't ask the right questions or research an organization's track record. When the scam or disappointment occurs on something big, it painfully reminds us that blindly handing over responsibility for our own welfare to anyone is a dangerous and sometimes costly error of judgment. We need to be awake in our lives and not on "autopilot" to ensure we don't get used up and discarded to fulfill someone else's secret agenda.

For more by Lisa Blackwell, click here.

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