Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Paradox of Being Stupid and Knowing It

I just read an interesting journal entry written by Mike Lewis titled "Hey... YOU'RE DUMB!". He cites Coding By Dogma in the comments section which is how I came across his journal entry.

Boy, that journal entry really got me thinking.

Mike's position is that we make mistakes because we're "dumb". I think that word is a bit strong and think it's better to say "not as smart as we think are" instead of "dumb" because saying dumb implies there's an accurate way to compare one person's intelligence to another's (which I don't think there is, but that's besides the point).

But Mike makes a good point. We DO make mistakes because we aren't as smart as we think we are. At times we are too confident and do more than we should have. At times, we think we're being smart by being cautious when what we should have really done is executed with confidence and gusto.

The Paradox of Being Stupid and Knowing It

But so what? What does it mean to realize you aren't as smart as you think you are?

What does it mean to get up and say - "Hi my name is John, and I make mistakes because I'm dumb"?

What does being stupid and knowing it do for anyone?

Here's your paradox: Being stupid and knowing it makes you smarter.

If you're looking for a quick way to become smarter, more effective and make less mistakes then realizing that you are not as smart as you think you are is the best thing you can do.

When you do realize and admit it, you can learn to de-emphasize the areas where you aren't smart as well as emphasize the areas where you ARE smart. This is essentially, playing to your strengths.

If you're aware and mindful of your limitations then you'll make less mistakes. You won't feel so stupid. And that's because you won't be as stupid!

So Mike, if you're worried that you're dumb, please don't. You ARE stupid. I'M stupid. We're ALL stupid. The difference is, I know it and you know it. The question is, who else knows it?

And the BETTER question is, how can we use it to our advantage?

Thanks for reading.

4 comments:

Apoch said...

I tend to get lost in my own verbosity a lot, but that's really precisely the notion I was fascinated with - not that I'm stupid (which I've known for a long time) but that it's finally stopped bothering me. The ego-barrier between knowing and accepting has finally worn down to a reasonable point (but it's certainly not gone yet) and I'm finally, after many years, at a point where I can start becoming smarter from my own stupidity.

I find it telling and fascinating that so many of the early greats in the programming space talked about how hard software is, and how limited our own minds are. Good code minimizes the amount of stuff you have to juggle in your brain to understand it; good programmers write good code because they know to respect the limitations of what their brain can store.

duncan said...

Quick story (yeah, riiiight...):

A long time ago I worked for the county department of mental health in central Vermont. My job was to provide assistance to 10-14 year old kids who were finding it nearly impossible to stay in school because of severe mental health issues. Over the course of the year that I worked that job, I had three very different kids in my care. One of them was a brilliant 8th grader who had close to zero impulse control and also suffered from one of the worst cases of unipolar depression I've ever seen. He was the kind of kid who tested off the charts, but was literally failing out of middle school. Just being around other kids his age made him so socially anxious that he would do whatever he could to get kicked out of class. Years of severe abuse scarred a kid who was easily smart enough to be accepted to any Ivy League school by the time he was 15. Seriously... he was a prodigy trapped in the body and life of a sad and lonely sociopath. He was all potential and no opportunity. He had all the intelligence you could ever hope for, but most people who met him assumed he was as stupid as the stupid things he did.

The second kid I worked with was as dumb as dirt. Let me correct that, he was *dumber* than dirt. He was 11 years old and had already been caught shoplifting five times. He wasn't even good at being a criminal. He learned most of what he knew about the world by watching wrestling and NASCAR on his greasy couch with his mother's toothless boyfriend. He was easily 40 lbs overweight and rarely showered, which made him a *big* hit with his fellow students. He had never learned the most basic functions we use in our everyday lives. I took him to the Boys and Girls Club and had to help him tie his sneakers and explain which shoe went with which foot. But it wasn't all bad for him. The kid had one very good thing going for him... he had absolutely no idea how dumb and disgusting he was. He was *just* stupid enough to be completely clueless about how the rest of the world saw him.

The third kid I worked with was severely--though functionally--mentally disabled due to fetal alcohol syndrome. His mother apparently not only drank herself silly while pregnant with him, but also had a cocaine habit that her baby inherited. From the day of his birth until he was three months old, the nurses gradually weaned him off his mother's poison. The result of the FAS was a kid who was, for the most part, physically capable but mentally limited. He was adopted as an infant by an amazing family who raised him to challenge his abilities and live as close to a normal life as possible. He was 14 when I worked with him, and unlike the other kids he didn't need support in the classroom or with his schoolwork (his schoolwork was comprised almost entirely of personalized special ed materials). What he needed from me was help working on his social skills. He needed someone to teach him how to appropriately interact with kids his own age. It quickly became clear, though, that his socialization problems had very little to do with him and a lot more to do with the cruelty of adolescent boys and girls. And sadly, this is the terrible point of my very long post:

Kid #1 was a genius who will likely never be recognized as such, and will never have the opportunity to share his gift with the world.

Kid #2 was really, really, really stupid, but didn't know it. As such, he was able to blissfully live his dirty little stupid life without the slightest care about what others thought of him.

Kid #3 was born with a severe disability that was completely out of his control, and he was mentally limited because of it. BUT, he also had a loving and supportive family who helped him achieve more than he ever would have without them. But, as the Bard would say, "there lies the rub." You see Kid #3 was *just* cognitively aware enough to know that people were making fun of him. His classmates thought they were being ever-so-clever when they mocked the slightly off-kilter way he walked or mimicked his garbled speech. But unlike the second kid, this one knew how others saw him. He was 100% effort, making the best of the curse his mother had placed upon him. But if he had only been a little less perceptive--a little more "stupid," if we must say it that way--he could have been sheltered from knowing that others made fun of him simply because of the way he was born.

So... that was another crazy-ass-long post from me that was only tangentially related to your original point. As always, though, what I'm trying to get across here is that the issues we face in the coding world are no different from those in the rest of society. You have developers who are brilliant but waste their time writing viruses or learning new ways to alter their Linux boxes. You have really stupid, amazingly bad code-monkeys who spend their days writing five times the amount of code they need in order to accomplish very simple tasks, but they have absolutely no idea that they're terrible programmers. Finally, like Kid #3, there are developers who want for nothing more than to get better at writing good code, and they spend hours and hours trying to understand the syntax of languages that are simply outside of their ability to comprehend. Then, of course, some asshole finds the chicken-wire and duct-tape code these sad sacks have written and they tear it to pieces in a public forum like the DailyWTF. They become the whipping boys for the entire community, and everyone takes a swing at them. Unlike the bad developer who has no idea his or her code is f-ugly, the poor guy who gets the public flogging faces shame and ridicule for the sole purpose of sadistic enjoyment.

If that's not a paradox of being stupid, then I don't know what is...

John said...

Thank you sir for another fine comment!

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