Learning is great. When we learn new things our inner world gets richer, we become more proficient in what we do and we can handle more complex tasks. Learning does not necessarily make us healthier, happier or more financially or professionally successful. At least, learning is only a secondary component for each of these venues. Elusive emotional intelligence quite often is more important than intellect. In this post, I will mention some stupid mistakes smart people tend to make. For more info I refer you to reading, here, here, here, here, and here.
Lying to ourselves
All people lie to themselves quite effectively. Stupid people often lie because they do not know better. Smart people have all the tools to discover these lies, yet choose to lie to themselves nonetheless. Typically we lie to ourselves when the truth is inconvenient: we could be trying to hide some bad behavior or unfortunate situation, make a boring story more interesting, present more noble motives for our behavior, manipulate people or situation to our favor, or simply lie recreationally. When we talk to other people we do not want to be caught lying bluntly, so we may use some formulations that allow multiple interpretations or lie by omission.
When we lie to ourselves we lie very bluntly and use very stupid mechanisms. Consider these formulas “we only live once”, “I must have imagined the whole thing”, “if I believe in it strong enough it will happen”, “other people are doing it”, “if the mentor says it, it must be true”. Being intelligent, we can distinguish the true situation from cheerful self-talk, we choose not to. Nowhere it is as evident as in marketing and politics. We will buy something we will never use if we think owning it will make us look/feel better and we will believe our candidate even when we know he is lying.
Occasionally it is OK to lie. A leader cannot succumb to despair even when the stacks are against him. A salesman is required to sell the products of the company he works for. A lawyer must defend his customer, even if he feels the customer is guilty. The problem is not the necessary lies we tell to function in a complex society, but the stupid lies we tell for no good reason. Most of our beliefs are some sort of lies we told ourselves once upon a time, the truth is (typically) “I do not really know”. In our family we use the following formula to treat the lies we tell to ourselves: “Does this belief help you?”. If the answer is negative, it is a good time to tell ourselves the truth.
If you never falsified numbers in your experiment, probably you never passed physics on engineering laboratories in the university. The reality of these laboratories is very simple: students know the formulas and see results that disagree with anything they know for no good reason. There are several ways to describe this sort of mishaps: “statistical outlier”, “bad experimental setup”, “error recording information”. There were some exceptional people who did not lie to themselves and experimented with the results. Some of the biggest breakthroughs in chemistry and medicine were caused by this sort of mistakes, like finding penicillin in a petri dish. The greatness of the people involved: they tried to understand what actually happened and did not call it a statistical fluctuation.
Anyone skilled in social science can find the right experimental setup and statistics to achieve any reasonable results. We still do not fully know if the coffee and chocolate are good for us, whether or not marijuana should be legalized and what exactly is causing the global warming. We have our educated guesses that serve us. And we have lots of numbers and logical arguments to defend the position we choose. The ridiculous thing is our total trust in the ruling scientific theories, even though we know for a fact that scientific conclusions tend to change with time.
My father was a chemical engineer. When he was a student he was asked to check the safety of some new compound. The job including taking measurements every 30 min. He got bored and started measuring every minute. Then he found some strange effect he could not explain. He was fitting the model through his data points, and something did not look right. After knocking on several doors and being ridiculed by several experts he found the leading expert. When the leasing expert saw the numbers he went pale. There was some quantum effect he neglected, that could potentially destroy the whole construction plant in a cool fireball. So my father by mistake saved thousands of people. This sort of mistakes is very rare, it never happened to my father since. If it happens to you, value it.
Sometimes we do not have enough data for statistics, and cannot easily get more data. We hope for the best and assume that our information represents something. With time we understand that a rare event happened, it simply was the first thing that happened to us. Most gambler win at first. If they lose, they do not want to gamble again. The winners are the people who consistently gamble and who quite often loose more than they could afford. When playing roulette we can calculate the chances, but in life, we misrepresent our luck as our genius.
The first startup I worked for got sold. I took my share and invested it in stocks of the company who bought us. I tripled the amount within 3 months. I took the money again two months before the stock crashed and invested the money in apparent, and its price doubled soon after. I felt invincible. So I took some chances. After 2008, my net worth was deeply negative. If was not because I played differently than before, it was simply because I “went out of luck”. There was a sequence of rare events that happened once when I was young and did not quite happen this way again.
It’s not that I was THAT lucky when I was young. Some things I did, failed miserably. And some things I do now are very successful. These are simply smaller things, which I trust to be less important. The selection bias works charms on our beliefs. We take some data we want to use, conveniently exclude everything else, and fit our model.
Our brain is built to see patterns in chaos. We generalize, create categories, provide explanations. The beliefs and stereotypes we make are quite complex, and often offensive. For some reason, people often connect people and events, most recently Arabs and terror. We know that the majority of today’s terror events are caused by Arab. We also know that maybe one out of a thousand of Arabs will actively support terror. When we shake hands with Arab, we may be sure that he is a regular person, just as crossing the road, we may be sure that the other driver will not drive on a red light. Making friends with other people we should feel as happy and safe as crossing a crossroad with the green light shining for us. Yet our brain often distinguishes between these situations. One of the factors is yet again the selection bias. If the news were full of people driving properly and killed by others driving on the red light, we may have had a very different perspective on life.
Why do news people offer us this side of information? Journalists and analysts tend to be smart. Smart people are often as superstitions and controlled by stereotypes as everybody else. Only smart people try to build a smart story to justify their stupid choices. And once they build a story, they share it.
Smart people believe that they are almost always right simply because they are smart. We know that lack of sleep, alcohol and poor information affects our judgment. Yet, as long as we know we are smart, we will tell what we believe to be true in full confidence. Most people in top management instinctively understand their employees are hiding some information. Employees hide negative information not to upset others, to show better performance result, and to appear more motivated. Management also hides negative information, in order to motivate employees, show the company to investors in a better light, and in hope that bad news will be followed by good news. Both management and employees may see that the situation is dire, yet everybody in the company would make cheerful noises. And quite often, the threat will go away.
There are examples of an opposite behavior. Most startups pivot.
The iconic example of an effective pivot is Intel’s move into microprocessors. You may be surprised to find that this company was not always a microprocessor producer. Intel made other things, like dynamic random access memory, but the accounting numbers were showing that their small microprocessor business was taking off. Since Intel’s budgets were set up to follow trends in accounting returns, the company pivoted toward this new market opportunity; explosive growth followed and soon Intel re-defined itself as a microprocessor firm. Like so many firms, Intel became great not by planning, but through a process of discovery.
Typically big changes make things worse before they make them better. Being self-righteous we try to preserve the current situation and focus on the positive sides in it. Even if we cannot see positive sides in the situation itself, we try to make OURSELVES look better. Other people will also try to make themselves look better, and the resulting situation may look bad for all parties involved.
When we comply with others, there is a good chance we do not think for ourselves.
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions.” —Carter Woodson
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”— George S. Patton
“A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.” — William James
What we think and when we choose to think is determined by our background, our trust in others, our social needs. My wife asked me if we would jump from a bridge provided everybody else jumped. The next day we tied ourselves to a rope and committed a bungee jump. Now I am not stupid and I knew that 1 in 10,000 cases something very bad could happen. Yet we jumped and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Quite often we do stupid things in order to belong, or because they are fun, or because we do not want to think about the things that could go wrong. And this is perfectly OK, as long as we get lucky and stay happy.