As you know, when other people make stupid mistakes, it’s because they’re fundamentally incompetent. When you make a stupid mistake, it’s because of specific circumstances, and/or because someone else is fundamentally incompetent. Adam Robinson, chess master and Princeton Review founder, has identified seven factors that make smart people act stupidly. You’ll recognise some of them — being in a rush, for example—and learning about the others will help you avoid more stupid mistakes.
The seven factors, Robinson says in an interview on The Knowledge Project, are as follows:
Being outside of your circle of competence
Rushing or urgency
Fixation on an outcome
Groupthink or concern for social cohesion
Being in the presence of an “authority” (including yourself)
In the interview, Robinson discusses some great examples, such as four different celebrity musicians leaving their million-dollar instruments in a cab or on a train. When you put your sweater on inside-out or delete the department’s most important spreadsheet, you are exactly like Yo-Yo Ma leaving his cello in a cab.
If you catch yourself making the same mistake multiple times, it’s not because you’re stupid. It’s probably because you have a recurring case of one or more of these seven factors. To prevent the mistake, you need to address the root cause.
For example, the factor that most affects my post quality is time management. When I build a buffer of blog posts so I’m not working on them right up to the deadline, those posts go from very good to extremely very good.
Maybe you’re getting into fender benders because you talk on the phone when you drive (information overload), and because you leave home too late (urgency); maybe you’re only behind on deadlines because you’re taking on too much work, because you don’t want to say no in meetings (social cohesion) because you’re worried about getting fired (stress). So the secret to better driving might be waking up earlier, and the secret to meeting deadlines might be shoring up your feeling of job security, by talking with your boss about expectations (or maybe by kidnapping and blackmailing them, 9 to 5 style, but probably not).
This is why Lifehacker is so obsessed with establishing good habits. Time management doesn’t just affect what gets done, but how well it gets done. Meditation lowers stress directly, but it also reduces the mistake-making that produces stress. Monotasking doesn’t just speed up a task, it increases your accuracy.
Addressing all seven causes isn’t a quick fix. But if you’ve tried quick fixes and they aren’t sticking, check for these seven causes. You might find more than one. Work on those causes, so no one mistakes you for one of those actually dumb people.
How Not to Be Stupid | Farnam Street