Atul Gawande, author of The Checklist Manifesto, makes an interesting distinction between *ignorance* and *incompetence*.
Being ignorant simply means you’re in the dark. Ignorance can be charming; it’s what makes children and dogs cute.
It can also be seductive; we *feel* with Cypher—even though he’s a total creep—when in the original Matrix film he opts to have his memory swiped, saying about a piece of juicy steak which really doesn’t exist, that: “Ignorance is bliss” (a line that Lilly and Lana Wachowski lifted from 18th century poet Thomas Gray)
In stark contrast, there’s nothing charming at all about incompetence. Incompetence means you really aught to have known better. To quote Gawande:
Failure of ignorance we can forgive. If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort. But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.
What about stupidity though, how does it distinguish itself? I’ve been pondering that ever since I read Maria Gunther’s book SMART, wherein she describes her amazement when joining Mensa, only to find that this congregation of elite minds is full of idiots.
I find that to be fascinating, and also utterly perplexing.
Then I had an aha moment as I stumbled over an old piece by American writer Garret Keizer, where he’s exploring the link between stupidity and transcendence. In it, he’s quoting the political philosopher Eric Voegelin, who defined stupidity as a “loss of reality”.
That is to say: stupidity has nothing to do with intelligence, it’s simply a measure of one’s willingness to deny the fundamental facts of life, sometimes even at the cost of one’s own life.
As in: deep down I might know that it makes sense to wear a mask during a pandemic, but I’m still hell-bent on proving that it doesn’t.
As in: I know it doesn’t make sense to drive a gas guzzling SUV, but I’m going to stand up for my right to do so anyway.
Seen this way, stupidity seems to have some important common denominator with religious faith; which is all about willing oneself to believe. Keizer doesn’t buy that though. To him, faith is only worth its salt if it leads to action in the face of uncertainty.
This got me thinking about the fact that successful entrepreneurs are often described as being ‘functionally dumb’, a trait that I’ve also observed many times firsthand.
Now ‘functional stupidity’ might not be an established term, but I think it’s a useful label for the kind of stubborn persistence in the face of overwhelming odds, that is pretty much a requirement when it comes to entrepreneurship.
Just like its first cousin stupidity, functional dumbness is quite compatible with intelligence. In fact Google founder Larry Page—who has an estimated IQ of 160—has a pithy definition of what I’d describe as functional stupidity. Here he is, as quoted in Walter Isaacson’s book The Innovators:
You have to be a little silly about the goals you are going to set. There’s a phrase I learned in college called, ‘Having a healthy disregard for the impossible.’ That is a really good phrase, you should try to do things that most people would not.