Being less stupid is harder than being smarter

With all due respect to @adamclyde, who tweeted being smarter is a lot harder than just being a little less stupid… and to Dennis Howlett, who blogged about how to be less stupid in 2009, I suspect that being less stupid is a lot harder than being smarter.

Software developers will recognize the truth in that assertion. It is a lot easier to tack on new features than it is to chase down all those defects. It is also true as the number of new features increases, the number of potential defects increases at a much faster rate. This is because each new piece you add can interact with existing pieces in any number of ways.

Sigh.

And so it is in life. It’s easier to make a resolution or try something out than it is to get rid of a habit or figure out how to deal with one of your weaknesses. Being smarter is fun. It’s motivating. It’s great. Sure, it takes imagination to see how you can be smarter in the first place, but if you keep your eyes open and learn from people around you, you’ll find all sorts of ways to improve.

On the other hand, being less stupid requires that you not only recognize and deal with the fact that you can be stupid, but push yourself out of that rut of stupidity and into a slightly-less-worn rut of slightly-less-stupidity. And then you do it again, and again, until you can get used to being a little less stupid. Then you do it again, and again. This is difficult, demoralizing, and not at all fun. Oh, and you’ll start off doing badly, too, because if it were easy to get rid of your bad habits or your weaknesses, you probably wouldn’t have picked them up in the first place.

This is not to say that focusing on being less stupid is the way to go. That well-intentioned path leads to being well-rounded but not exceptional. (See books like First, Break All the Rules for more thoughts on that.) If you want to be exceptional, focus on becoming smarter and smarter, and neutralize or work around the weaknesses you do have.

There are easy ways to become a little less stupid. There are easy ways to become a little smarter. To become a lot less stupid or to become a lot smarter requires deliberate practice. Our brains are wired to enjoy doing things well – to be in the flow – so the deliberate practice needed to become smarter is easier to do, and the feeling of achievement is sweeter. Our brains are wired to notice presence more than absence, so even if you’ve managed to work around your weaknesses for five straight days, the one you remember is the time that you tripped up badly. (This is also why you may think the phone only rings when you’re in the shower; you don’t notice when it doesn’t.) We also tend to pay attention when we’re trying something new or learning something interesting. On the other hand, it’s hard to catch yourself being distracted (almost by definition)…

So you tend to get good feelings about working on becoming smarter, and bad feelings about working on becoming less stupid. It tends to be easier to pay attention to becoming smarter, and it’s harder to drag your attention back when you’re being stupid. Which one will take more energy and will to do?


There are a lot of things I want to get smarter about: organizing and hosting events, illustrating abstract concepts, helping people connect and collaborate. I want to be a little less stupid about calendars. Maybe if I phrase that as a glass-half-full kind of thing, everything will flip around. Maybe if I focus on being smarter about calendars, take my current status as okay (so I stop making myself feel worse about it ;) ), and work on making things a little bit better each time (look! I actually did the morning reviews all this week!)… Hmm. I’ll keep you posted. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you – being less stupid is _hard!_ =)

3 responses to “Being less stupid is harder than being smarter”

  1. Nuno says:

    I do get your point. But smart is really not an adequate word. Maybe intelligent, creative?

    Geeks tend to be very eager learners and have most of their weaknesses on the social aspect ( unlike you I must say :P). So getting more out of our brain is something we do we no effort. We are simply driven to learn that new thing, that new language that makes you re-think the way you solve the problem, the new framework that teaches you how webdevel should be done, etc. On the other side dealing with other stupidity is rather hard and has to be deliberate. But a company like IBM is really the best place to learn how to do that.

  2. randell says:

    “It is a lot easier to tack on new features than it is to chase down all those defects.” – Oh, yes.

  3. @nuno – I know a lot of intelligent idiots. I also know a lot of creative fools. I’d argue that IBM teaches you how to be a drone. Remember the black suit, Oxford shirt and blue tie thing?

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