The Willingness to Look Stupid
One of the best life hacks I’ve discovered is the willingness to look stupid. It works something like this:
When you’re willing to look stupid, you take risks that you would otherwise be afraid of taking.
As a result of taking those risks, you get rapid feedback on your actions, which helps you to learn much faster than you otherwise would.
When you learn faster, you get smarter (and are paradoxically less likely to look stupid in the future!)
In short, when you’re willing to look stupid, you learn faster and get smarter.
If you’re reading this, you instinctively understand how this works and have seen others use this technique to great advantage. If you’re looking for salient examples, I will encourage you to look at how some brilliant people behave on Twitter. They will ask a seemingly stupid question or make a baseless assertion. As a result, they will get noisy feedback, which they will then use to alter their worldview. This pattern is prevalent, especially in circles I follow, primarily investors and other entrepreneurs.
What I would like to talk about is not whether this works. Instead, I want to discuss why many of us aren’t willing to look stupid even though we intellectually understand that doing so might be helpful to us. To me, the answer to that comes down to shame.
For humans, the desire to be accepted by others is core to our nature, and being rejected by others is painful for us. If you’re a high performer, you particularly feel this pain because you’ve developed a very vocal inner critic around everything you do.
I haven’t figured out if there’s a way to make that inner critic disappear. I made a mistake recently that felt so embarrassing I went and took myself on a walk and listened to feel-good music to cheer myself up. In the past, I once felt so crushed that I laid down on the floor staring at the ceiling for an hour. Others I know will give themselves a hug or take themselves out for ice cream. Mistakes do hurt (even if that hurt is inside your head).
I have, however, decided that what’s most important is to get back up again. As Proverbs 24:16 at the bottom of the In-and-Out Fries says:
For though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again, but the wicked stumble when calamity strikes.
I like that phrasing because it illustrates the difference between being willing to look stupid and compromising on your morals. I believe that the former is a life skill, but the latter is something else entirely. Taking a risk should never be used as an excuse to harm others.
I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from Teddy Roosevelt (and Brene Brown, apparently):
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”