Why some smart people become oblivious to their stupid actions

Have you seen some people do stupid things?

More importantly, have you seen some smart people do stupid things AND are completely oblivious to that fact?

If you are curious to know why this happens, please read the outcome of my mini-research project on this topic.

[ Note: Replace “You” with any smart person in question ]

Over the last few weeks, I asked a bunch of people about stupid things that they have done and what was the cause of that. I got dozens of interesting answers. Here is the partial list:

  •  Didn’t seem stupid when I did it.
  • Error in judgment, should not have happened
  • I do stupid things all the time. The smart things I do more than compensate for these stupid things
  • Well, time will tell if it was really stupid. The world will see
  • I am a risk taker unlike others
  • Mistakes happen to everyone. I am a human after all
  • I am not alone in this, Am I?
  • I move fast in comparison to most others and when you are that way, you slip and fall sometimes
  • I don’t know what happened
  • It is silly, I know. I just move on…
  • Ah… those were the days
  • Well, you live and learn

You are I are not evergreen heroes who will never do stupid things. If you recently did something stupid, it will not be the first time you did something like that nor it will be the last time. Unless, you did something so stupid that you reached a point of no return, this is not a real problem. You normally recover quickly and stay safe until your next act of stupidity.

The problem is when you are oblivious to your stupidity – if you don’t realize that you are doing something stupid, it is not easy to recover because you won’t make an attempt to do anything else. The telltale sign of that situation is that you shun accountability AND move the blame to someone (e.g. Your Boss, your spouse) or something (e.g. Changes in law, luck) very quickly.

Why does this happen?

Here is what happens in many cases. It starts long before this stupid act.

1. It starts with defying normal boundaries in the wrong direction

You test the boundaries by breaching them a little beyond normal limits. A trivial example: if everyone comes to office at 9am and it’s OK to be late by up to an hour, you will come to the office at 10.30am. You get away with it because you are smart and you make up for that lack of discipline with your super duper skills.

2. You give repeated deviations a positive twist

You continue to break the normal boundaries and rather than catching yourself as a repeat offender, you give them a positive twist with justifications that others can’t easily refute (e.g: out of the box thinking, creative people always are different etc.)

3. You start believing your own story

Giving a positive twist was a way of getting away with your “deviant” actions. The real problems start when you start truly believing that you are not at fault. Others around you are polite to say anything else and if nobody is making a ruckus about your “deviant” actions, then they are not that “abnormal” – so they are OK.

4. You increase the deviations and repeat steps 1 to 3

The problem with repeated deviations is that they become “normal” routine in your mind. The world notices the deviations but won’t speak much and in your early stages of fast-growth career, these things won’t matter much.

5. You forget to notice that your accomplishments are not commensurate with your smartness

This is an important point because if your accomplishments are commensurate with your smartness (in a manner that others can vouch for) then you can continue to get away with your “deviant” actions because valuable accomplishments in most cases will trump noticeable aberrations. For a deeper discussion about this topic, please read: The Inflection Point around 40.


6. You create a mess with your macro deviation:

Then, it happens – the stupid act. It had to happen one day or the other but that happens to be today. Because of the way you kept deviating incrementally from your “normal boundaries” you didn’t realize that your deviations are quite BIG in comparison to the “normal boundaries” as defined by the world. Over a period of time, collective and progressive micro deviations have resulted in a macro deviation that is easily noticeable.

You are oblivious to this because you don’t think about deviations that much. Your actions are well within your “normal boundaries” as you kept stretching those boundaries over a long period of time with minor breaches. This time someone out there will also point this out to you as it is clear by now that your accomplishments don’t match with your smartness for them to keep giving you a long leash. The party had to end one day.

What can you do?

This is a case where prevention is better than cure.

Have someone else on your side (mentor, confidant) ALWAYS. That someone MUST be competent AND candid with you. That someone must be one who can call you out on your micro-deviations along the way. It is also important that you trust that someone without judging them or justifying your actions. If you are in the fantasy land for too long, you will pay a price sooner than later.