Weekly Thoughts: Purposeful Stupidity

Here is something that caught our eye this week:

Purposeful Stupidity

Some thoughts, first posted in 2015, about being stupid … on purpose 

This week we stumbled upon a few articles which highlighted the potential benefits of stupidity. While most people (ourselves included) intuitively grasp the concept that understanding and effectiveness in any field are strongly correlated with the amount of knowledge one is able to acquire on the topic, there are exceptions to this rule, particularly when considering innovative and creative processes. Natalie Portman, for example, noted in her 2015 Harvard University Commencement Speech that her complete ignorance has lead to some of her best work as an actress either because she didn’t realize the extent of the challenge she was taking on, or because she wasn’t burdened by a preconceived notion of the way things were supposed to be. From her speech:

“I know a famous violinist that told me that he can’t compose because he knows too many pieces so when he starts thinking of a note, an existing piece immediately comes to mind. Just starting out, one of your greatest strengths is not knowing how things are supposed to be. You can compose freely because your mind isn’t cluttered with too many pieces and you don’t take for granted the way things are. The only way you know how to do things are your own way.”

Portman highlights a kind of obliviousness that one frequently observes in people who achieve success early in their careers. In lacking an understanding of the struggles others face, these people feel freer to perform. But this type of “unknown” ignorance doesn’t tell the whole story. The other option, of course, is to pursue stupidity proactively by consciously seeking out new activities, research projects, or ideas in which one has little preexisting knowledge or experience. An excellent article in the Journal of Cell Science by Martin Schwartz picked up on this topic as it relates to PhD research:

“I don’t think students are made to understand how hard it is to do research. And how very, very hard it is to do important research. It’s a lot harder than taking even very demanding courses. What makes it difficult is that research is immersion in the unknown. We just don’t know what we’re doing. We can’t be sure whether we’re asking the right question or doing the right experiment until we get the answer or the result…

…The crucial lesson was that the scope of things I didn’t know wasn’t merely vast; it was, for all practical purposes, infinite. That realization, instead of being discouraging, was liberating. If our ignorance is infinite, the only possible course of action is to muddle through as best we can.”

While this notion of muddling through difficult problems with ambiguous end points is crucially important, it certainly isn’t covered in more elementary education where the emphasis is placed more on learning and regurgitating facts. Moreover, since the whole concept of intelligence and academic success is based on having all the answers, students are often discouraged from pursuing fields of inquiry where the opposite might be true. Again from the Schwartz article:

We don’t do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don’t feel stupid it means we’re not really trying. I’m not talking about `relative stupidity’, in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don’t. I’m also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don’t match their talents. Science involves confronting our `absolute stupidity’. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown…Productive stupidity means being ignorant by choice. Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time….The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries.

We think the benefits of this kind of “known” or purposeful stupidity apply to business settings just as well as they do to the research lab. In fact, the word “Chenmark,” while completely fictional, was chosen to be synonymous internally with taking the plunge into the unknown. While we fully admit to our own latent desire to be right and informed, we also seek to champion the active pursuit of new and diverse challenges, and we have named our firm accordingly.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Team

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