How not to be Stupid

Some years ago, I was working in the Netherlands for a client who shall remain nameless. I was in conversation with one of my team. How the conversation started or the detail of what it was about are lost to me. However, the topic was probably another act of incompetence by the client, or more likely, a partner on the project. We came up with the phrase “defining the cock-up blocker”. I was sufficiently taken with this that I jotted the words down in the “Whenever” category of my reminders app. There, the entry languished waiting for time and, more importantly, the inspiration to bring something to fruition.

Fast forward to a few days ago: an email appeared in my inbox from Farnam Street, How Not to Be Stupid. This was the title of a presentation by Adam Robinson to an investment conference.

I did a web search to find out more, but other than a presentation collection site that required a paid subscription for access to their archives, the only thing I could find was another brief interview on Something You Should Know.

Robinson’s premise is not that stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence. Stupidity, he defines as “overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information”. This he apparently illustrated using a Gary Larson cartoon, but there are real-life examples.

Robinson identified seven factors that may cause us to make more stupid decisions than we might otherwise do.

1. Being outside one’s normal environment

2. Rushing—“the biggest trigger of all”

3. Being tired, physically or emotionally stressed

4. Being preoccupied or focusing on something intently

5. Suffering from information overload: talking while driving 

6. Being in the presence of a group of homogeneous individuals

7. Being in the presence of an authority: the junior pilot who doesn’t stand up to the senior pilot causing a collision on the runway. 

In any given situation not all factors need to be present, but they are additive: you’re in a new city, tired from the flight and rushing to make an appointment with your most important client.

So what can we do to reduce the chances of a cock-up?

“Mindfulness is the process of waking up to see what’s right in front of us.” (1)

1. Be aware that you are in a situation where one more of the seven factors might be operating.

2. Minimise the factors as much as you can.

3. Surround yourself by people who can give you honest feedback.

4. Once you are aware of the factors, don’t do anything that could have significant consequences.

(1) Ryder Carroll, The Bullet Journal Method