What Makes a Fool

My Favorite Fool

Some people occur to us as intelligent and bright. Others, however, strike us as painfully dumb. If you asked folks, “What makes a smart person smart and a dumb person dumb?” many might quickly reply that it is the amount of knowledge one possesses that makes them smart or birdbrained.

For the average case, I would disagree. Lack of knowledge means they don’t know too much, but does that make them foolish? After all, don’t most of us know about a certain topic in which others are clueless (usually job-specific information)? Does this make us smart and them “dumb”? More specifically, is this really the quality that makes one seem intelligent or unintelligent–simply knowing something that others don’t? I don’t think so; that’s an incomplete picture.

I’ve noticed that what a person knows actually has little to do with whether they strike us as smart or a few fries short of a happy meal. What really makes a person sound unintelligent is not a lack of brain content, but rather an overestimation of it.

Think about it; you must know some graduate students, business people, doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists, engineers, etc. who shock you with their stupidity. “How did they get into [insert college with impressive name]?!” Humans can possess a ton of information but still really strike you as a few noodles short of a casserole. How? They lack one important piece of information: the limits of their information.

If you are over-confident about your knowledge, you are less likely to ask for help or go and look up something that you don’t know because you won’t admit to yourself that you don’t know it! When someone “does something stupid,” what really happened? They didn’t stop and think, “how should this be done?” And why didn’t they stop and think that? Because they were operating under the assumption that they already knew. This also applies to “saying something stupid.”

We want to fix this, never be a dingbat and become clear about what we don’t know, but knowledge is funny–we don’t know everything that is unknown to us. We know some of it (for example, I know I don’t know biochemistry), but the stuff that we don’t know that is unknown to us oddly doesn’t exist on our mental map. The only way we can go about dingbat prevention is building a habit of evaluating our knowledge and, when appropriate, saying “I don’t know.” We can help ourselves by developing an attitude of humility when it comes to our knowledge.

The difference between dumb and not-dumb is “I don’t know.” The difference between not-dumb and smart is “I don’t know, let me go and find out.”


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