Those of you with a few miles under your belt may remember this little ditty from the original hard core troubadour, Jez “JJ” Jefferson:
“Jack up that old truck so you can change your bent wheel,
Whip out your mama’s skillet – get yourself a hot meal,
Hitch up your box scraper cuz you need a smooth field,
But you can’t fix stupid, son, your fate is done sealed.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
The problem with stupid is this – 99.9% of the time, it is unrecognizable to the practitioner until after it has occurred and the damage has already been done. In this way, stupid differs from some of the other afflictions of humankind. As an example, let’s discuss carelessness.
When you’re careless, you usually have a little voice telling you that what you’re about to attempt is a bad idea.
Say you’re on a ladder in your backyard, trying to get a big branch off the roof before the wind blows it onto someone’s head. You can almost reach it, but it would be much safer to move the ladder to a more convenient position and easily grab the branch. You stretch for it, the ladder falls away and you’re hanging briefly on the edge before you fall ten feet into the bushes. Assuming you didn’t break anything, all you are thinking is dammit, I knew I shouldn’t have done that! But you did, and now you’re horizontal in your hedge with a branch up your ass. That’s just careless.
Or maybe you are running a little late to a business meeting. You grab the papers you need from your desk and jog/canter to the conference room. Everyone is still standing (phew!) and making introductions. As you sit and the presentation begins, you have that nagging feeling that you forgot something. But what? You dismiss it, since you have everything in front of you. Life is complicated, and sometimes your brain gets spun up in all the excitement and chaos. Then it hits you, just as the presenter clicks to the next slide. Which is a photo of you sticking your tongue out at the camera, except that now you’re doing it to a room full of potential clients. You forgot to remove the placeholder image from the file. Embarrassing, yes. Career suicide? Hopefully not, but still careless.
And then there’s insensitivity. While in these instances you may not have that little conscience-fairy whispering to you, with hindsight you should have foreseen the potential for hurt feelings and worse.
You’re shopping for a birthday gift – nothing too extravagant, but something that will be fun for the recipient, who is a huge fan of the recent movie, “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” You look and you look and you look, and right there, on the clearance rack, is a beautifully embroidered shirt with a colorful image of the main characters. On the back it states, “Don’t mind me, I’m lost and mad as a hatter!” Perfect. You exit the checkout line, beaming and triumphant. But later, you hear through a couple party attendees that the gift didn’t go over too well. The party was for a child with special needs, and you never considered how a shirt saying something like that could be taken the wrong way. You call to apologize, wishing you had possessed the wisdom to walk right by that clearance rack and keep shopping. Say hi to insensitivity.
How about this – you’re in the bathroom at work washing your hands and two of your co-workers walk in. They are in stitches about a movie both saw recently, and take great relish in reciting some of the more libelous and libidinous dialogue contained therein. It sounds a bit naughty, but also hysterically funny, so you ask a couple questions and laugh along with them briefly, then exit. But as you leave the room, you see multiple eyes looking at you. Listen up Einstein – you do recall that most bathrooms are constructed of materials that amplify sound. You just did a live broadcast to a bunch of your co-workers. At this point, you have to hope that no one heard too much, because creating a hostile work environment these days is not just a no-no, it’s just wrong. To be safe, you should have left the bathroom the minute Beavis and Butthead showed up. Now you might be in big trouble due to insensitivity – there’s no way to tell until you get the call from HR.
But being careless or insensitive is usually not fatal, either personally or professionally. Stupidity can be fatal. Stupidity can ruin lives, and much worse. Stupidity can end lives.
Consider the flat tire. You hear that semi-familiar whump-whump-whump and know you have to pull over. You’re on an overpass so there’s plenty of room, which is fortunate because to change the tire, you have to pretty much empty the trunk of all your vacation gear. So that’s what you do, being careful to stack it against the wall away from the lanes of traffic. Finally, the compartment holding your spare is uncovered, and just as you are pulling out your jack, a huge truck blows by with a fierce wind blast in its wake. You watch in slow motion horror as most of your Sunday newspaper rises into the air, freezes, and slowly flutters over the guardrail, raining down on the oncoming vehicles below. After what seems an eternity, the first screech, then the second, the third. The first crunch, then a bunch more in quick succession. Silence. You just know. Stupid. Doesn’t even begin to describe it.
There are also stupid business scenarios that can lead to fatalities, literally and figuratively. Let’s say you and a couple of your friends got together five years ago and created a social media app that blew up beyond all expectations. Millennials absolutely love it, and daily use is now well north of 100 million. Your problem today is – how do you monetize your users without turning them off? Distract them with new features so they won’t notice the ads! Your product team keeps them coming – all kinds of customization options, chat, a smart watch version, video calling, additional data security measures, and more. Your valuation has grown to the point where you can acquire other companies, and you do this on a regular basis.
Sounds great Brian – I don’t see a problem. In fact, this is a “problem” that all of us would love to have!
Unfortunately, there’s more. One of the embedded features is a filter that measures how fast the user is traveling at a given time. Slick idea – if you’re running or on a bike or in a plane you can communicate this to your audience. But even great ideas can morph into morbidity – did you ever consider that your user base (especially the younger millennials who still march to the beat of their collective nucleus accumbens) might be tempted into irresponsible behavior by the challenge of speed? No, you were focused on feeding the beast, and we all get this – your company needs to evolve in order to survive and this is your sole focus (besides taking calls from investment bankers.)
So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of your dear users crashed a car into a family while using your speed filter. And probably it’s not a stretch to imagine that given the ferocious impact, everyone was killed. Snapchat is facing a very similar situation today. Stupidity in business can result in fatalities, both human and (quite possibly, in this instance) corporate.
So like I said earlier, stupidity is usually unrecognizable until it presents itself. At that point, it can’t be fixed cuz it happened. What can you do?
You’ve got to learn. Create your own filter and set it to auto so there is no chance of a recurrence. Practice engaging your filter throughout the day in difference situations. Even if you think it’s a waste of time and you already have the answers, do it anyway for two reasons. First, practice makes perfect. By looking at even the most mundane events and interactions a different way, you might learn something.
And second, an ounce of prevention cures a pound of stupid. Be sure to take the cure.