Inside Out

Notes on stupidity

In an episode of the epic Hindu poem Mahabharat, there is a dialogue between a divine being, the Yaksha and the king Yudhisthira in context of the former trying to evaluate the wisdom of the later. Yaksha asks, “What is most surprising?“. Yudhisthira answers, “Day after day countless creatures are going to the abode of Yama (god of death), yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more wonderful than this?”1.

We define stupidity or foolishness as behavior that is incongruent with the system around. It reflects a lack of rationality or incorrect judgment. Sometimes stupidity is quite apparent. E.g. clicking that one million winning lottery email to get your prize, or giving away your personal data because your bank relationship manager asked for it.

In other cases, as Yudhisthira mentions, foolishness may be quite subtle and unintuitive. E.g., giving away your personal data believing that large companies like Fakebook or Switter or Yoogle are your friends and deeply care about you, your dog and your data.

Elements of Stupidity

Most of my own stupid behaviors share a set of interesting traits.

Emotion is the foremost of these. A strong attachment to a entity, an idea or simply to an ideal (of how things ought to be done) blinds the cognitive instruments. It appears as if the mental conviction has already been established, a conclusion is drawn, except that there isn’t any data to back it up.

Staying indulged in the micro comes next. A focus on the minute details of day to day execution impedes the ability to zoom out and see the bigger picture. The opportunity cost is huge. But, they told that deep work is awesome. Absolutely true. However, solving the wrong problem like a pro is stupid.

Lack of understanding the system is third and the most difficult. This comprises of lovingly nourished biases, cajoled narratives and deep rooted delusions. We live in our created bubble that may or may not intersect with the reality. E.g. take a common scenario of change: if the books say a thing, and dozen experts wrote a paper, it must be easy to convince people to follow a thing, right? Nope. A system’s behavior is a reflection of its structure. Just like you, it too has carefully evolved to reach an equilibrium. Anything that disturbs the equilibrium is treated foreign and system tries to reject it in extraordinary ways: question the idea, question the data, explain the behavior by claiming we are different and “that” doesn’t apply to us and what not. Believing that a system will pick up the right thing by mere rationality is stupid.

This must be the end of stupidity, right? Nay. Foolishness arising out of misunderstanding disturbs the mental equipoise. This fool’s thoughts and actions oscillate like a pendulum reacting to the attempts at explaining the irrationality and chaos of systems. That’s where we hit the bottom.

A way out

Let’s move up now.

First things first. We must recognize stupidity. If you’re frustrated, sad or out of tune with the natural state, please ask five whys and demand for raw data to prove your state of mind2. This will at the least provide a clue to think right in an objective way. A right state of mind is the minimum requirement for any enquiry.

We must recognize the system. Usually a system is never what it claims to be, rather how it behaves. So, to understand a system, observe the behaviors. To understand the behaviors, observe the structure, principles and their interplay (evolution). Every act or decision within a system reflects these. Ask yourself why the system did what it did.

Systems don’t exist in isolation. There is no real boundary. If smaller scope is not able to justify a behavior, please don’t forget to zoom out3. Once we have a reasonable explanation of a behavior, we have to decide if we are interested in making the system behave differently. Enquire what must change in the structure to reflect the behavior.

Acceptance

The desire to fix a system is orthogonal. Neither all systems need fixing, nor is it our imperative to indulge and be the change agent everywhere. It is absolutely alright to even not have opinions. All of these are our choices.

We must understand a system before we attempt to consciously contribute to its evolution. It is about accepting the reality with an appreciation for the underlying structure, framework, and the why for the external behaviors of a system. With this empathy and an ability to think like the system does, we strive to fix the root causes instead of treating the symptoms.

A humble suggestion from one fool. Let’s find which systems we’re part of. What triggers our actions? And what is the effect there of? Are our intentions (at the beginning) and the expectations (of an end) congruent with the system we belong to? The difference between should and should not is blurry at best.

“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies? Perhaps to be too practical is madness. To surrender dreams — this may be madness. Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

  • Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in the book Don Quixote.

  1. See Yakshaprasna translation by K.M. Ganguli. Archive has a copy. Yaksha asks किमाश्चर्यम् (What is most surprising?). And Yudhisthira answers as follows:

    अहन्यहनि भूतानि गच्छन्ति यमालयम् |
    शेषा: स्थावरमिच्छन्ति किमाश्चर्यमत: परम् ||

    Day after day countless creatures are going to the abode of Yama, yet those that remain behind believe themselves to be immortal. What can be more wonderful than this?

  2. Sorry, just kidding in SREish :) A pause to understand your emotions is probably enough. And while you’re at it, do not send any emails or make any phone calls until you have clarity.

  3. Interesting philosophical dilemmas pop up when we zoom out too much. Whether it is about the role of an individual, world and their interaction; or questions of identity and worth; these are worth pondering.


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