Stupidity in Business: A Fine-line Between “You’re Fired!” and “You’re Genius!”

 “The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits”~ Albert Einstein

Stupidity is a quality or state of being stupid, or an act or idea that exhibits properties of being stupid. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary, the words “stupid” and “stupidity” entered the English language in 1541. Since then, stupidity has taken place along with “fool,” “idiot,” “dumb,” “moron,” and related concepts as a pejorative appellation for human misdeeds, whether purposeful or accidental, due to absence of mental capacity.

“Laws of Stupidity”: The economic historian Carlo Maria Cipolla is famous for his essays about human stupidity. The essay, “The Fundamental Laws of Human Stupidity”, explores the controversial subject of stupidity. Stupid people are seen as a group more powerful by far than major organizations or the industrial complex, which without regulations, leaders, or manifesto nonetheless manages to operate to great effect and with incredible coordination. These are Cipolla’s five fundamental laws of stupidity:

  1. Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
  3. A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.

The fool or buffoon has been a central character in much comedy. Alford and Alford found that humor based on stupidity was prevalent in “more complex” societies as compared to some other forms of humor. Some analysis of Shakespeare’s comedy has found that his characters tend to hold mutually contradictory positions; because this implies a lack of careful analysis it indicates stupidity on their part. Today there is a wide array of television shows that showcase stupidity…

In an article “Why Do People Do Bad Things?” by Chris MacDonald, Ph.D. writes: It’s an ancient question. Certainly, some people do bad things simply because they are bad people. Psychopaths and sociopaths exist, though thankfully they are very few. Whether those few should be classified as “evil,” or as “mentally ill,” or both, is not clear to me. Either way, they certainly have the capacity to do evil. But sometimes, surely — maybe quite often — people do bad things stupidly, rather than out of evil intent. “Hanlon’s Razor” is the name for an adage attributed to one Robert J. Hanlon. It says the following:

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”.

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is capable of doing something immensely stupid. But everyone is also capable of learning from their blunders and making a fresh start. Yes, even the most thick-headed person has hope. Have you ever bungled something so bad that you actually felt ashamed? You might still wish that you could have that moment back to do things differently.

We all have those moments. And even the smallest mistakes can be upsetting. There is a way to recover. It takes learning and it takes smarts. If you use that error to make your future better, you just got a little smarter. So you might say that part of your intelligence and success comes from stupidity. Just don’t be stupid in the same way twice….

In the article “Should Your Best Customers Be Stupid” by Amy Edmondson writes: Take a hard look at your most profitable customers. Not the biggest, not the best, not the most satisfied: the most profitable. Then ask your colleagues: Do we make most of our profit margins from our “smartest” customers or from our “stupidest” ones? That is, does your firm capture the bulk of its profitability because your customers appreciate the value of what you do? Or because they’re (effectively) ignorant or ill-informed and your product and price positioning successfully exploit that?

The smartest/stupidest dichotomy is deliberately provocative. Because, really, how sustainable can a business dependent on customer stupidity really be? A popular advertising campaign once declared, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” But for many firms, the smarter customers become, the more discriminating and less profitable they might be. Conversely, there are professions, such as, neurosurgeon, criminal attorney, etc. where the smarter the customer is, the more likely they are willing to pay a premium for excellence…

But as insulting as it may be, the smartest/stupidest customer framing may be far more helpful to innovators and entrepreneurs than exhausted clichés about “good” versus “bad” customers or “early adopters” versus the “mainstream”. Profitability matters. How you and your colleagues perceive the source of those profits in the context of your customers’ “smarts” — or “stupids” — is enormously revealing. It’s an argument your organization probably needs to have.  Or am I just being stupid?

Tom Monaghan, Dominos Pizza, founder, is fond of saying, “I owe all my success to stupidity.” In reality, the emergence of Domino’s as a global pizza empire owes itself less to the fact that Monaghan didn’t know what he was doing, as to the fact that he was willing to take risks and gamble on ideas he couldn’t predict the odds or the outcome…

In the article “Creative Brilliance + Business Stupidity = The Nissan Barbie Ad” writes: One of the all time great commercials is the “Nissan Barbie” spot. It’s also one of the stupidest.  When discussing the spot, the ad agency’s creative director remarked, “I was just looking for something that could be dynamic. I couldn’t believe it when Nissan bought it.”

It’s no wonder he got excited. The spot generated awards for agency and earned the creative director a guest spot on Oprah. There was even talk about an animated television series based on the commercial. According to the creative director, Nissan executives instructed him, “Let’s do something different, let’s break the rules”. To a creative person, that’s as close to nirvana as it gets.

Nissan hired a marketing research company to test the spot, but the research firm asked the wrong questions. The research firm asked if people liked the spot. Of course they liked the spot. It’s great. It’s highly entertaining. “It’s also hugely ineffective”; a Nissan dealer commented at the time, “Yeah, it’s cute, and everyone’s talking about it. The ad, featuring Nissan’s 300Z car, started running in August 1996. However, Nissan ceased production of the Z in 1996 and didn’t resume production until the launch of the 350Z in 2002!

“Can you freaking believe an ad agency would spend $1 million producing an ad that’s the centerpiece of a $200 million campaign that features an obsolete product (300Z car)?”

In the blog “Grand Stupidity and Absurd Bravery in High Performance” by Joe Calloway writes: This may seem incredibly counterintuitive, but top performers are the ones who seem to act with grand stupidity and absurd bravery. They make choices that others don’t make. They try things without knowing whether or not they’ll work. They often refuse to play it safe and they sometimes seem ridiculous and audacious. What I’ve just described is the behavior of an innovator.

Innovation means you go first. Innovation means you have to try things without knowing whether you’ll succeed or not. Innovation takes courage, sometimes even absurd bravery. It also takes a willingness to let go of what used to work; what has always worked; and everything that made you successful up to this point. It means acting with an attitude of grand stupidity that says “I don’t know what works. So let’s find out.”

The big question in business used to be “What have you done for me lately?” Today we’re not so interested in what happened “lately” anymore. Today we’re interested in what happens next. We have truly become an “I want it yesterday” society and we have no patience for what we judge to be unnecessary waiting. “If you make me wait, you lose”…

In the article “How Can Someone So Smart Be So Stupid?” by Kurt Kleiner writes: We do stupid things and we should know better, for example… People buy high and sell low: They believe their horoscope: They bet it all on black because black is due: They super-size their fries and order the diet Coke: They talk on a cell-phone while driving: They bet that a financial bubble will never burst…. Even smart people are not perfect…

Sometimes mistakes do happen…If the person is humble, he/she will accept responsibility and apologize. Then, you really know the person is smart! Intelligence by itself doesn’t make you rational. Thinking rationally demands mental skills that some of us don’t have and many of us don’t use.

“There is a narrow set of cognitive skills that we track that are called intelligence. But that’s not the same as intelligent behavior in the real world”. How we define and measure intelligence has been controversial since at least 1904, when Charles Spearman proposed that a “general intelligence factor” underlies all cognitive function. Others argue that intelligence is made up of many different cognitive abilities…

In the  book “What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought” by Keith E. Stanovich, he proposes a whole range of cognitive abilities and dispositions independent of intelligence that have at least as much to do with whether we think and behave rationally. In other words, you can be intelligent without being rational. And you can be a rational thinker without being especially intelligent (or stupid)…

In the book “The Encyclopedia of Stupidity by Matthijs Van Boxsel writes: Stupidity is motivating. Without it, we would have little in the way of progress, success or civilization, which in his contrarian view is nothing more than ”a series of more or less abortive attempts to come to grips with the self-destructive folly found in all countries and at all times.” Stupidity is not the same as a lack of intelligence — though precisely what it is is not always clear. ”It’s a quality all its own”.

Our culture is the result of a series of failed attempts to understand our own stupidity. Stupidity is the foundation of our civilization.  ”On the one hand, stupidity poses a daily threat to civilization,” he writes. ”On the other hand, it constitutes the mystical foundation of our existence. For if man was not to fall victim to his own stupidity, he had to develop his intelligence.” ”Stupidity is the engine that drives our society.”

In the blog “Smart People Should Do Stupid Stuff” by David Wurtz writes:  I once met a man that made over $1,000,000 per year selling bowling balls on the Internet.  I asked him how he had built such a fantastic business. I was looking for this guy’s secret sauce. Was he a marketing guru, a tenacious entrepreneur that didn’t give up, saw an opportunity earlier than most? None of the above. He was an average guy, with below average technical skills.

He hired 2 kids to work out of his garage to build his website… So,“If he can do it, so can I“. It’s two years later, and I now make a decent sum of money selling “TV wall mounts” on the Internet. This is an area I can proudly say all of my fellow over-achievers have overlooked. But don’t fret. The world is full of more stupid things to do.

The truth is, any endeavor, no matter how seemingly trivial, can benefit from an incisive mind taking a good, hard look. And almost any endeavor can be intellectually gratifying. You may be surprised to know that most people don’t apply scientific method to their efforts, or even possess the reasoning skills or patience to achieve greatness.

This puts you and your well-honed cerebral apparatus, at an incredible advantage. In the real world, you’re no longer competing with your fellow geniuses at the school science fair…you’re competing with your typical neighbor…

Success isn’t only found in the complex, intellectual achievements.  Sometimes it’s found in more obvious, less sexy places. If people call you stupid, you could be on to something big!  Whether it’s a risk or a hunch or a gut feeling, if you know it will work, ignore the voices you hear because, soon, instead of stupid you will hear– that’s super…bet the farm. So, go ahead…take the next step–Be Stupid…

    “If Stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?” ~Will Rogers