Smart people have lots of things in common. There have been just shy of 10 million books, stories, articles, and speeches talking about all these smart people characteristics but I think a few key things have been overlooked.
Adam Bosworth was at Microsoft during my tenure. I had the opportunity to work around him while we both worked for Roger Heinen. Adam wouldn't remember me from, well, Adam (sorry, I just couldn't resist blame his parents..) but there were things I remember about him. In reading a number of his posts, I was reminded of a working theory of mine called; "Ya Never Know" (YNK).
Basically, the theory goes something like this. Ya never know who that person is, where they are going to end up and how, someday, your paths might cross. Hence, be nice. Adam was like that at Microsoft. Adam didn't piss on people in meetings and never had this need to puff up his ego at other people's expense. He acted that way, I believe, under the ya never know theory. Hmm, ya never know, that geek just might be able to code it or that guy knows how to sell it or that's a better idea, etc. Not YNK from a sucking up perspective rather just straight, ya never know. Adam answers comments on his blog, even the wacky ones, remains polite and, well acts like, ya never know who that writer is, might be, or could be.
Adam has had an amazing career and is currently doing his thing at Google. I get the sense from his postings that, even today, he still tries hard to maintain YNK in his dealings with people. Smart guy, Google's lucky.
At the risk of getting spamed/flamed with the Anti-Microsoft zealots, I will point out that Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Jeff Raikes, and a host of other smart, successful (and wealthy) people all pretty much subscribe to the YNK theory. During my time at MSFT, they all read and answered their own mail. To get a reply one had to be civil, reasonably coherent, and (more or less) sane. It's probably different now but really smart/successful people operate this way.
Seth Godin is another one who, I think, subscribes to this theory. From my limited interaction via email, clearly a YNK type. Answers his mail, sense of humor, polite, nice. Doesn't know me, yet treats me like I was important, like, well, YNK. I might bring him some business. I might know the CMO of MegaCompany that wants to hire him.
Or, and this is the key, I might, just might be somebody smart that he could pick something up from. Ya never know.
I try to read all business plans, emails, faxes, etc, even if they didn't read what our firm does or they are riddled with spelling errors, bad english, and spreadsheets with divide by zero errors. You never know. I'm happy that megaVC firm can trash stuff that doesn't follow a formula, ignore unsolicited emails, and be picky. Me? I'm a YNK guy and I think that's where the Googles, Amazons and Ebays actually come from.
Being nice is, of course, a good trait for everybody. The key message here, is pay attention as you go up the ladder and watch others on their rise as well. Arrogance and being too good for others is not sustainable. Basically remembering that YNK, will keep you humble, probably get you advice and help when you most need it and, well, you do just never know.