I spend a lot of my life trying to avoid stupidities.
There are some projects you can dedicate years of blood, sweat and tears to and, after they have failed, you do a post-mortem on them and conclude that you had basically the right approach but a confluence of lack of ability and bad luck prevented you from succeeding. There are other project that you can similarly dedicate years of blood, sweat and tears to and, with the benefit of hindsight, you think “well, that was stupid”. Trying to build a perpetual motion machine, communism and treating women like they were men with more bumps are all examples of the latter.
The way I see it, being smart can get you a lot of places but it’s pretty hard. Avoiding stupidities, on the other hand, confers a lot of the benefits of smartness without having to do all that hard work.
However, interesting stupidities are, by their nature, invisible from the surface. Everyone knows that eating glue is a stupid thing to do but to be a person that does not eat glue doesn’t make you smart, it just makes you not-retarded. The interesting stupidities are the ones that seem superficially smart on the surface but contain some subtle stupidity that is not apparent upon first glance.
The problem is, smartness produces monuments whereas stupidities produce corpses. Every instance of a successful idea or product is the result of some underlying smartness and you can use that monument to learn what that smartness was. Stupidities only produce failures which get buried under the sands of time. What this means is that there are people right now, stumbling along paths strewn with buried corpses, conducting a random walk until the land mine of stupidities blows them up.
Paradoxically, this means that if you want to avoid stupidities, the way to do so is to become even more stupid. It’s only by repeatedly trying stupid things that you can learn where stupidities lie and how to spot them. Being stupid as a reflex is the best way to hone your “wait, this is stupid” detector and gives you a sixth sense about how to spot those buried landmines of stupidities.
The average person has a hard time being anti-stupid because they cannot get past their fear of appearing stupid in front of their friends and peers. To be willingly stupid is an embarrassing thing and it gets you ostracized from polite society.
I’ve found it helps a lot to have a supportive group of friends who are used to my off-the-wall stupidities and take it all in stride as a minor eccentricity of mine. I’ve pretty much wired myself now so that when my brain says “That’s a stupid idea”, my mouth says “Yes” before my brain can say “Wait, what?”. This has lead to me being embroiled in countless deeply embarrassing situations.
I’ve learned that going up to a woman and telling her you have a condom that’s expiring that night so it would be best that it be used is not an effective pickup line. I’ve learned that the campus College Republicans are a drastically crazy group and that it’s really uncomfortable to be the only foreigner & person of color sitting in on a discussion on how immigration is ruining America. I’ve learned that not nearly enough people, when randomly accosted on the street, are familiar with the Battle of Agincourt. I’ve also learned that, if it’s your birthday, you can ask a very nice Ethiopian man very nicely and he will drive you and 9 of your friends 300 miles from Seattle to Portland and then back to Seattle in a H3 stretch limousine for the cost of gas, a lap dance and a steak. These are experiences that I never would have experienced if I wasn’t willing to be so reflexively stupid.
I’ve been meeting a lot of people this week and it’s a tragic thing for me to see many smart people waste their talent going down paths which I’m scared may be stupid. So this is an appeal to all of the smart people in the world: Be more anti-stupid.
PS: As an aside, my impression is that this essay may be somewhat novel within the professional community but old hat within the creative community. This, perhaps, explains the penchant for artists to dress in odd clothes and adopt pet eccentricities; they are a disguise that allows them to move through conventional society without living in it. To have a homeless bum rant to you about crazy, stupid ideas is annoying but not unexpected, to have the same from a celebrated artist who only eats foods beginning with a vowel is charming and exotic, to hear it repeated by a man in a business suit is disturbing and subversive.