You don’t want to look stupid because you want others to think that you’re smart 1. But doing so impedes your growth.
For example, when you hesitate to ask a stupid question in order to maintain an image, you miss an opportunity to learn something new. Or when you avoid walking across the coffee shop to talk to the seemingly interesting person, you lose a possibility of a good friendship. There are many variations of this and they mostly result in missed opportunities.
But why would you avoid doing something that’s good for you?
Probably because looking smart could mean more money or more respect or popularity. So you do everything you can to look smart.
Another possibility is your cultural norms in regards to stupidity and how you were raised in the context of those norms. You might have been chastised as a child for asking seemingly stupid questions or for doing seemingly stupid things. That child might be here with you now trying to avoid that old pain2.
If you’re truly curious and your intention is to learn and understand, then you can look at stupidity differently so it’s productive. Here are a few possibilities:
- Stupidity is missing the obvious; and that’s expected in the course of learning.
- Always assume that you’re below average, and always work at becoming above average.
- To fail or not know something is a result, not a fault.
Being OK with feeling and looking stupid will empower you to learn effectively, but it requires practice. Practice will hone your senses at catching the feeling of not wanting to look stupid and then acting according to your best interest instead of tending to that feeling.
How can you practice being OK with feeling stupid?
You need to invoke the feeling repeatedly so you can work with it and mold it like a clay. Three ingredients are necessary: you must learn something hard. Then, you must perform what you’re learning with people that are already proficient in the subject matter. Finally, failing over and over with these people shouldn’t cause you irreversible harm.
A good example of something that meets these requirements is learning a new language. A foreign language will almost certainly be difficult to learn. You must speak it with native speakers in order to practice it and measure your progress. Constantly failing until you’ve improved sufficiently shouldn’t cause you any harm if you’re learning with the right people3.
The most beneficial characteristic of this is the sheer amount of trivial mistakes that you will make as you speak with a native speaker. Feeling stupid several times per conversation is great practice at discovering the shape of the feeling of stupidity. Then working at understanding it deeply in order to change how you react to it. After a thousand times of this, which shouldn’t take more than a few months of daily practice, this feelings becomes nothing more than an artifact of the mind as it’s growing.
Or to avoid the bad feeling of feeling stupid. ↩
My middle school years and first year of high school were at a French school called Collège des Frères. There I was beaten, sometimes with a stick, for making the usual mistakes one makes in class. I hope they stopped this terrible practice. ↩
One thing that you’ll notice as you go through this is how people with deep knowledge and clear understanding of what you’re learning will almost never make you feel stupid. Most likely because they’ve looked or felt stupid as they’ve developed deep expertise and know that that’s how it goes. On the other hand, the people that do make you feel or look stupid might be trying to camouflage some of their insecurity. ↩