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Jul 17, 2008

On stupidity

Two nights ago, I was building a headboard for our bed; something I promised Svetlana to do for a very long time. Like most men, I have to look at the materials (nice pine boards) for some time, and make a mental plan, step by step, of how things should work. Then I started to work, and one thing was annoying. Because I have only one drill, I had to constantly pull out the drill bit, and put in the Phillips bit for screws, and then back. It's not essential to know the details; basically, in this particular project, you could not pre-drill all holes and then screw in all screws, not without spending another hour calculating fractions, and measuring everything very precisely.

Anyway, about half-way through, I realized just how stupid my plan was, and that there was a much easier solution: nail all the boards lightly just to keep them in place; then drill all the holes, every time putting the nail back into the hole to hold the construction, and then screw all in. I think everyone had that experience, the sudden acknowledgement of one's own stupidity. It does not have to be carpentry, of course. Sometimes you ask a question, and before you finish, you just realize well, this is a really stupid question, because the answer is quite obvious. The headboard project made me think about the nature of stupidity.

It is not mental retardation or low intellect; that is not what I have in mind at all. Rather, it is when regular, reasonably intelligent people do something stupid, as if the brain just checks out for a moment (sometimes for longer periods of time). It is obvious that everyone has those moments; some of us are better at hiding those, while others are great at denials, and will always find someone else to blame for their brain malfunctions. Teachers, for example, tend to attribute kids' stupid actions to immaturity; they routinely deny or ignore their own blunders. Stupidity is embarrassing, and it takes a great amount of trust to acknowledge and own up to it, especially when other people are involved. Notice, my example was extremely safe: it only cost me an extra hour or so of work, and did not hurt anyone. I could probably come up with a more relevant and recognizable one from work, but then it's too embarrassing, and involves others.

What bothers me is not the stupid things we all do on occasion, but the denial that we do them. For example, one can do the same dumb thing for years, simply because one denies that it is excessively stupid. Instead of acknowledging (even to oneself), and fixing the problem, one just continues doing it. This is not inertia, or lack of imagination, not that. A more subtle mechanism is in place: if you try to change certain process, you implicitly acknowledge that what you did before was, well, not that smart. The question that inevitably arises is, why did you put up with that all that time? Paradoxically, greater tolerance to stupidity is the main way of reducing its sway.

Embrace your inner idiot.

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