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This is part two of the “Stop Doing Stupid” series. Or, for the older generation, the Suffering of Fools.

The reference to stupid is not to be confused with ignorance where the un-informed can get a free pass unless the people in question want to stay ignorant because of laziness or as a means to mitigate possible future liabilities. Ignorance of the law now seems to represent a probable plea and even a free pass, especially for the more innocent looking. Eventually, early retirement or, in some few cases, termination can take care of the culprit if repetition is the best teacher. Or, even better, the Darwin effect may eliminate them and the problem altogether. As for ignorance being bliss, I have no respect for those individuals who bury their heads in the sand, since they know they are not heeding the signs and thus choose to play dumb.

I also am not referring to stupid from an intelligence standpoint. The spectrum of intelligence among humans, like all living creatures, is wide and we are all equally qualified to “step in it,” as the saying goes, no matter where we fall on the intelligence scale. I suspect the lower end of the scale is far less guilty of contributing to foolishness or stupid actions because of their lack of reserves, both financially and personally, to cure the consequences. So this segment of the intelligence spectrum may in fact pay more attention to the world around them and the role they play in it.

The average- to moderately- intelligent are probably the most used to getting away with “stupid” because they often have the financial reserves to cover up their deliberate oversight, plus the refined ability to manipulate the system so they can, again, repeat that stupid act that Darwin hasn’t quite taken action on (yet). For this piece, the stupid I am referring to is a little more complex and involves at least two parties – the actor and the observer – no matter the intelligence. As I will attempt to explain, it really takes both.


If, for example, you step in it, no matter what the “it” is, and there are no witnesses and/or you did not realize or cause any lasting effects then, quite logically, it really didn’t happen. At least that is how we tend to internalize these occurrences. It has something to do with “if a tree falls in the woods …” and all of that philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Going around telling people about all of the stupid things I have done, just today, is clearly not my favorite pastime. Plus, there isn’t enough time to do both the act and the announcement, and still get anything useful done.

What this discussion comes down to are two specific groups and the people they affect around them. The first are those foolish acts perpetrated by individuals that can best be classified under lack-of-attention, oversight, absentmindedness, or just plain laziness – a kind of induced or indulged ignorance. Darwin can judge these and rule later. On the other hand are the people who do things that are clearly stupid and expect to continue to get away with it because they are entitled, above reproach, or simply smarter (so they think) than the individuals around them, or they are higher in the hierarchical pecking order and so no one better notice. In all of these cases it is the lack of the observers’ willingness to call the foul that continues to perpetuate the problem. In other words, there is a direct inverse correlation between the growth in the number of stupid acts and the ones that are identified as such, particularly when there is a large differential in the social or job-related pecking order.

We easily see this relationship where we work, and sometimes where we play, but we see them most often within the ranks of our appointed and elected officials. For whatever reason, we seem to select, or they self-select, individuals who are completely clueless and clearly not up to the expected or required tasks, and can’t (or won’t) learn the needed capabilities. It is bad enough to not have the knowledge or the skillset to do a job. To then expect everyone around you to kowtow to your inadequacies and/or lack of any measureable intelligence is another situation, altogether.


Most of the people who fit into this descriptive group pick one of two paths in their operational styles. The first is to appeal to the mercy of their associates or subordinates, learn what is needed and use the combined skill set of the group to most effectively move the effort forward. This would seem to be the preferred path and the one that eventually removes the party from the aforementioned group. I will let your life experiences judge the percentage that chooses this option, though.

The second is to ignore the realities, micro-manage the capabilities and skillset of the human and financial resources that are available, given or assigned to them. Note that they normally will also ask for time extensions and additional resources. Finally, they will find a way to blame everything and everyone around them for their failure to move the effort forward at a reasonable pace, and if they plead their case well enough they will most likely be rewarded with an advancement having even greater responsibilities that they can’t (or won’t) handle in the future. I think this is called the “Peter Principle”.

This latter situation is clearly too prevalent in our society at all levels of corporate America and, of course, government: local, state and Federal. It is also prevalent in our social programs and the very activities we subject ourselves and our children to. For a lot of these activities, people literally get fed up and leave. But, for the rest, we are mandated by societal, employment, and governance rules and expectations to put up with the worst of it... or are we?


Letting “stupid” continue with no relief or recourse is affecting our social climate where we live and work, our creative and innovative talents, and the governance we are subjecting ourselves to. I don’t have a problem with ignorant people who are willing to learn and to do the best they can. My problem is with those who are unwilling to learn, or to develop new skill sets, but still expect to be allowed by silent assentation to do as they please. This non-reaction on our part has perpetuated a growing degree of hopelessness and complacency, which has an additional downside. What you get from all of this is a breeding of incompetence where equally incompetent people are recruited at all management levels to insure the “stupid” isn’t exposed. More importantly, what you also get is a lowering of the bar that removes the challenge and the need for excellence.

As was said in "Stop doing stupid!", I am not sure how to deal with these foolish people and their equally stupid programs, except to make a stand and get noisy about it. Isn’t it time for each of you to identify a small piece of our current errant human condition so you, too, can do the same? I would appreciate the help. Oh, if you are one of those as described in the above piece, beware: both Darwin and I are looking forward to meeting up with you.

jesmith is professor and director of the Center for Industrial Research Applications at West Virginia University.