Being Smart vs Not Being Stupid

by Ron Potter

It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten

by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.

– Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway.

Most of us would consider Charlie and his partner, Warren Buffet, as being really intelligent.  And yet, here he is saying it’s more advantageous to be consistently not stupid.

Let’s examine those two words—intelligent and stupid.

Intelligent

One definition is “having or showing intelligence, especially of a high level.” (Italics is mine.)

I believe it’s one thing to be intelligent but a very different thing to show intelligence.  We’ve all seen or even commented on the person who is highly intelligent but seems to have no “common sense”.  It’s one thing to be very intelligent about a specific issue but in general, not understanding how the world works as a whole (common sense).

It took me too long to figure this one out.  As a youngster in high school, I was often reminded how intelligent I was.  I just seemed to “get things” like math and physics (not so much chemistry though…) and I had a great curiosity for geography and history.  These were subjects that just came to me.

I wasn’t trying to be the top student but I found I could get acceptable grades just by being smart.

Upon entering Engineering School things were a bit more difficult but once again, I just seemed to get most of the topics without a great deal of effort.  I found I could be one of the fastest at calculations.  I could often just see things and come up with the right answer in my head.  Once again, being highly intelligent seemed to be all I needed.

It wasn’t until I began my career as a leadership and team consultant and coach that I began to realize that being right wasn’t the best approach.  If I acted too smart, there was always someone there to shoot me down at the first opportunity.  My intelligence was not going to help me be a good coach and consultant.

I remember working with one team of a very large corporation that seemed to be stuck.  One of the youngest members of the team asked for some personal time with me.  His first question was “You see what’s going on don’t you?”  My answer was yes.  With that, he then asked, “Are you going to get in there and tell them what they’re doing wrong?”  My answer was no.  He seemed astonished.  Why would I not tell them exactly what I was seeing in order to correct it?  I explained to him that I can’t teach anyone anything, the only thing I can do was to help them learn.

I had learned that being right carried no weight at all.  Helping them learn at their own pace was the only thing that worked regardless of what I was seeing.

Stupid

Stupid is as stupid does.

– Forest Gump.

Don’t confuse stupid with ignorance.  Ignorance means “lack of knowledge or information.”  Ignorance is simply a lack of knowledge.  Stupid has full knowledge—you just ‘know better’.

Maybe one of the best ways to look at the word stupid is by examining its antonyms.  These antonyms include brainy, bright, clever, fast, nimble, quick, quick-witted.  Remember that these are antonyms.

That means stupid is not:

  • brainy
  • bright
  • clever
  • fast
  • nimble
  • quick
  • quick-witted

Remember that Charlie says the advantage comes by not being stupid.

Don’t be brainy, bright, or clever.  All of these signal that you’re smarter than everyone else.

Don’t be fast or nimble.  The means you reach your conclusions quickly.  You’re not listening well and trying to absorb what’s being explained.

Don’t be quick or quick-witted.  Quick-witted means coming to quick, humorous conclusions.  This can often mean that you’re covering up your own stupidity by offering a humous statement— that covers up your lack of understanding.

Consistently not Stupid

Charlie says they try to be consistently not stupid.  This means it takes a great deal of effort to continually act in a non-stupid way. 

I believe the key to being consistently ‘not stupid’ is to be consistently humble.

It takes a great deal of effort to overcome our natural desire to be the best.  But being the best doesn’t mean having the answer first and always being right.  Being the best means sharing your opinions when it makes sense and always realizing that they are only your opinions.

Fully respecting others and their opinions makes you the best and goes a long ways toward not being stupid.

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