In praise of stupid

By Matthew Bostock on November 28th, 2012

As a kid I relentlessly threw all sorts of stupid questions at my friends and family: why I needed to go to bed, why Granddad disappeared, and why I couldn’t throw cutlery at the dog. I was the type of child that you couldn’t be around too long without wanting to punch me square in the face. But with my persistent yearning for answers, I slowly decoded the complexities of life and began to learn who I was, why I was, and where I was heading.

My life path has led me to some exciting revelations and extraordinary experiences. It’s been carved out by indulging in – and being comfortable with – my own stupidity. Because stupidity is not a bad quality in a person, no matter how many people say it is. Peeking at a dictionary, we can define stupid as someone “marked by a lack of intelligence.” To me, that’s a perfectly reasonable attribute. We don’t just become intelligent one day.We’re in pursuit of cleverness. Many of us never get there. But we try.

I fear the death of stupidity is upon us. In the world of work, it has to be minimised or removed all together. We can’t afford to make mistakes and question things. And the start-up world, with its fast pace and occasionally self-satisfied demeanour is one place where this seems amplified, as it becomes ever more competitive. I’ve seen many people come inside with wide eyes and open mouths, only to be shovelling numbers into spreadsheets in the corner of an office a month later. Their spirit and willingness to try things out has been quashed, all in the name of getting things right the first time.

That whole cult of failure thing? Not so much, for those of us working on the ground, where deadlines are tight, demands are tough and founders can be ruthless, impatient and intolerant. As a newcomer, it’s easy to feel inadequate: phrases like “hire fast, fire fast” float around coffee hang-outs. The idea that your margin for error must be narrowed to the point of nonexistence slowly forms in your mind until it rains dread down your spine.

Today’s start-up entrepreneurs are the children of the Apples, Googles and LinkedIns: big businesses with even bigger egos. As Steve Jobs famously put it: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” This philosophy has spawned a kind of self-confidence that stops at nothing. No time for questions; no need for answers. Metrics predict the future, ensuring we have boundaries to wonder within.

So I worry that there’s no room for stupidity any more. I guess you could substitute “humility” for stupidity in some cases. As a newcomer to a start-up, the atmosphere doesn’t seem to promote the kind of stupidity that we’ve come to rely on our entire life. It feels like we just have to know, as if by osmosis, what we ought to be doing.

It seems rather contradictory to say that start-up scenes are beginning to disintegrate this way, when their roots are meant to be firmly lodged in “stay hungry, stay foolish” mentality and in the philosophy of the happy accident. In 1894, a couple of guys were boiling some wheat, got distracted, and left it out to dry for too long. It was a stupid thing to do. Those guys were the Kelloggs brothers, and their stupidity led them to invent corn flakes and a billion-dollar cereal industry.

As we move forward in an uncertain world, we need more of these happy accidents. We need real human trial and error. We need more discovery. Because, if I’m right about all of this, we’re missing out. Entrepreneurship is building an arrogant cocoon around us. To quote a recent fortune cookie: “He who asks a question is a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.” If we continue pretending and posturing, the prospective generation of entrepreneurs – the ones currently working as interns manning phones and support accounts – will be fools.

We’re great at feeling smug about ourselves in the start-up world. But let’s not allow that warm glow of satisfaction to blind us to the virtues of humility – and stupidity.