Is Avoiding Stupidity Better Than Seeking Brilliance?

6 min read

To begin, I beg you to remember that “easier” does not mean “better.”

“Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance” is an interesting quote attributed to businessman Charlie Munger. There’s definitely a certain truth to it—avoiding stupidity is indeed easier than the latter—especially if you know what to be aware of and the implications and outcomes of such associated thinking. On the other hand, brilliance requires hard work.

In the past, the quote has been conceptualised as a kind of game that we engage in where “avoiding stupidity” is akin to waiting for others to “lose points,” as opposed to actively seeking to “win” them (i.e. the latter being “seeking brilliance”). Even though we might be novices in such a “game,” we can still win by using this strategy of “avoiding stupidity” as other novices will likely strive for brilliance and open themselves to losing points because they don’t have the expertise to adequately tackle the problem (i.e., “engaging stupidity”). Accordingly, the point is that “We shouldn’t be trying to win; we should be trying not to lose.” I can get on board with this conceptualisation, in many contexts, much better than the quote about “avoiding stupidity.” Indeed, it teaches us something about how we engage problem-solving and caution in our thinking (e.g., akin to playing devil’s advocate, reverse engineering in problem-solving, or engaging inversion/inversive thinking).

Educational Contexts

Again, I can see the usefulness of this perspective in many different contexts. However, in educational contexts—where notions like “stupidity” and “brilliance” often reside—there’s just something that doesn’t sit right with me about it. Is this recommendation akin to laziness or complacency? Moreover, getting things wrong—being “stupid”—every once in a while is a good thing. We can learn from our mistakes. Of course, I understand that business and educational settings are distinct: A stupid mistake in business might cost millions of dollars or more. However, we need to be careful of how we throw out such pieces of advice, because in the wrong context (e.g., education or even genuinely attempting to improve your thinking), they might have adverse effects.

It breaks my heart when students don’t raise their hand in the lecture hall—be it to answer one of my questions or to ask one of their own—especially when I know people have questions. It seems that everyone is too afraid to ask questions. Then, I get back to my office and I see an array of emails asking me questions about the class. To me, this is “stupid”—because not only are students wasting their time outside of class, they’re wasting mine as well. Use the class time for this. But, no—no one does this, because no one wants to look stupid.

One might look at such classrooms and argue that there is a complacency amongst students. This may be true in certain cases, but a larger issue is that students are afraid; there are interpersonal ramifications associated with getting involved in class. No one wants to look stupid. This mindset is alive and well. Indeed, we see this in research over the years: People love to win and to be right, but they hate losing and being wrong even more (e.g., see Kahneman, 2011). Again, a quote like Munger’s has some truth. However, I worry that such a quote might be taken as advice in the wrong situations.

Seeking Brilliance

Let’s be clear: Avoiding stupidity is a great idea. I highly recommend it. I do it most of the time myself. It’s kept me alive for many years. However, I also seek brilliance. I’m motivated by success and I want to be the best I can be. What’s the point of doing all that you do if it’s not to excel at it and one day reap whatever peripheral benefits of said excellence? I’ve never heard of anyone’s hopes and dreams centering around just being “not stupid” or “good enough.” Mediocrity should not be one’s goal.

With that, I know it’s the case that it’s often more practical to just “scrape by” or do “good enough” in certain situations. It might be strategic. That’s fine. However, those situations should not arise often—particularly if success is desired. If we engage such “good enough” thinking too frequently, we risk becoming complacent—which is ironic given that “avoiding stupidity” is essentially a method of risk aversion. Yes, it’s easier to avoid stupidity. Keep your head down and don’t extend yourself in situations where you might be wrong. But, then, the “good enough” you put in will likely be commensurately “sufficient” with what you get out of it.

People’s perceptions of what “stupid” may look like aren’t actually too swift, either. I’d love to see a student get things wrong in class and then be the only person to ace the final because they methodically made a point of engaging and learning from their mistakes—identifying where they needed more thorough understanding and doing the relevant work necessary to build their knowledge and ability. That’s not stupid; that’s brilliant. Thus, perhaps an important question to ask ourselves about Munger’s quote is, how are we conceptualising stupidity, and how are we conceptualising brilliance?

With that, this may all make me sound like a hypocrite in ways. On this page, I generally advocate for being cautious in one’s thinking. I know I can’t be right all the time, so damage control is key. Avoiding poor thinking is important. However, this epistemological concept is complex—indeed, books are required to adequately address it—and some of those don’t even suffice! So, the notion of a single quote, such as the one in question, that gets to the core of this idea is troublesome because it seeks to simplify a concept that is anything but simple. As we’ve discussed, misinterpretation of this quote may lead to negative outcomes—hence, the complacency I warn against.

That said, I return to educational contexts. Young students are developing—educationally, physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. Parents and teachers: Facilitate these students in becoming actively seeking of brilliance; promote engagement; don’t let them become complacent. Help them develop a positive disposition toward learning from their mistakes. Mistakes and wrong answers are not a sign of stupidity; they are a sign of a person who is willing to progress their understanding in pursuit of brilliance. I beg you to remember that “easier” does not mean “better.”

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