Because we all have one. I promise.
But the decades I’ve spent on this planet have convinced me of this: the search for your native brilliance is likely to veer into a cul-de-sac if you fail to do one thing:
Acknowledge your stupidity.
I know, “stupidity” is a harsh word. And I am not for one moment suggesting you use it to denigrate yourself. The point here is not to rain on your parade, but to cut through the fog that may otherwise be dampening it.
Because we are all stupid in one way or another. It goes with being human. Think of the smartest person you know personally. I say “personally” because you need to be familiar enough with them beyond what I call their presentation self, the polished-to-a-shine version of themselves that gives the Ted Talk or leads the staff meeting or sits across from you in your therapy sessions exuding wisdom and inner calm.
If you’ve thought about your brainy friend or coworker for more than five seconds, I’ll bet the rent that you can come up with an area in which they are clueless. Maybe they’re hopeless at directions, or suck at small talk, or never manage to get to the airport soon enough to avoid a stress-fest in the security line. For all their smarts, sometimes they are breathtakingly dumb.
There is research that suggests that smart and stupid go hand-in-hand. In other words, the brainier you are, the more likely you are to also be, well, an idiot. A 2012 article in the New Yorkerby Jonah Lehrer, “Why Smart People Are Stupid” references a study published the same year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
The study showsthat subjects with higher “cognitive sophistication” were even more apt to make common thinking errors than your average bear of little brain. Not only that, but higher levels of education, self-awareness, and introspection are no help here.
The reality is, we all have biases, whether we know it or not, and whether we want them or not. And biases not only run deep but are formed unconsciously, which means we are unlikely to know they exist at all, and all the ruminating we do only leads us to spin stories about ourselves that get us no closer to seeing what we’re not looking at.
All of which sounds rather hopeless at first blush: I mean, since you don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t see what you can’t see, how are you supposed to avoid the duhs?
Here’s the thing: You can’t. Not entirely. But honestly, it’s okay.
There are certainly parts of you that can be counted on to perform at a high level when called on, due to training and aptitude and practice. If you’re a brain surgeon, for example, you are unlikely to forget what instrument to use or whether it’s the hippocampus or the cattywampus you’re supposed to be whittling on. The operating theater is where you do you, at your best.
But outside your area of expertise? Let’s say you’re at a family gathering. Because you’re a smart person — a freakin’ brain surgeon, for Pete’s sake — you think rather highly of your own opinions about all manner of things. So you get into a political discussion with your brother-in-law, who is solidly on the other side of the divide. It doesn’t take long before your spouse is gently, and then not so gently, elbowing you in the ribs.
Because, brain surgeon, that side of you that waded into a political discussion with the relative you already know you disagree with?
That’s your stupid side.
Lighten up. It, or some equivalent of it, happens to all of us. It’s what you do next with your brain that makes the difference.
You will be tempted to defend your stupidity by making it the other person’s fault. After all, they’re the one with the wrong viewpoint, the one who fails to come around to your way of thinking no matter how many times, or how loudly, you explain it.
It takes a truly smart person, one bright enough to know what a dullard they can be, to resist that urge. You can be that person.
“That was stupid of me,” you will say, once you’ve caught on to yourself. And then you will shake it off and resolve that the next time you’re at dinner with Cousin Pat, you’ll steer the conversation to a safer topic.
Admitting you have a stupid side requires a characteristic that doesn’t get nearly enough press these days: humility. But if you can be humble and honest enough to really get your head around the truth that your brain isn’t always All That, you’re more likely to avoid aiming from your blind spot.
Better than that, you can accept that stupidity is part of the human condition, something that unites us all. Knowing this allows you to forgive yourself, and to have compassion for your fellow dunderheads. We’re all doing the best we can, with the limited information we’re given, in a complex and often bewildering world.
That’s what I think, anyway. And I’m really smart.