How do we get smarter


Author and investor, Adam Robinson has a lot to say about intelligent thinking but we arrive there via learning not to be stupid [editor’s note: my son would prefer that I use the term silly]. Same goal; different path. Most experts, after all, can be identified by the long stretches of output unimpeded by obvious mistakes. From chess to jiu-jitsu, performing at a world-class level is less frequently about genius and far more commonly about not getting fooled by others—or yourself (the easiest person to fool).

Robinson’s research on stupidity unveiled seven critical factors. Each is powerful alone but can—and will— be compounded by others. He usually begins his list with rushing—or a sense of urgency. Like many profound things, this is not found on a mountaintop but hidden under the veneer of the obvious. Crossing the street. Delivering a project. Sharing your viewpoint… Statistically speaking, rushing tends to amplify errors in whatever we may be doing.

You’re probably curious about what the other six factors are, beyond rushing. However, in absolutely un-shocking news, we’ll be best served by taking our time on this first one.

In an interview, Robison brings up an example of Yo-Yo Ma rushing to an appointment in New York City in 1999. Ma was “late for an appointment… In the back of the cab in which he’s being driven is his [2.5] million-dollar cello in a big blue Plexiglas thing. It’s in the trunk. He gets out of the cab, he leaves it in the back of the trunk. All of a sudden, because Yo-Yo Ma is such a celebrity, the mayor is called, the police chief and all cars bulletin goes out, find this cello.”

Catastrophic examples of rushing are pretty rich, from Deepwater Horizon to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. Most of us live day-to-day, though. Our rushing leads to smaller accidents—minor problems that may compound in their own ways. Poorly chosen words; emotional reactivity; forgetting to keep the goal the goal—all like so much spilled milk. It’s unlikely that someone is going to send out an APB to fix our mistakes. So, learning how not to rush feels deeply important—a fundamental part of mastery. Yet it’s also kind of a paradox; how do you master not doing something!? It’s true that the best way to walk a tightrope is not to fall. Yet the best way to coach yourself not to fall doesn’t come from repeating, “Don’t look down, don’t look down…” You need a focal point. Clearer instruction. A thing to do instead of a thing not to do.”

Behaviour design expert, BJ Fogg has identified the three things that have to come together at the same time for a behaviour to occur: motivation, ability, and a prompt. You have to want to do it; you have to be able to do it; and you have to remember to do it. The problem is often the remembering. We tend not to notice that we’re rushing until after we have rushed. It’s the same way that saying, “I need to eat less junk food,” or “I want to stop staying up so late” are ineffective formulations. Not necessarily because motivation or ability are low but because the prompt doesn’t come until after. Your motivation and ability may both be high but unless they’re high enough to build a time machine, you are stuck—and doomed to repeat this cycle until you find a way out.

So, don’t be silly. Of course. But to do that, consider finding a prompt that takes place before the action and a focal point that helps you be smart. Here’s a mantra that has been battle-tested by the Navy SEALS: slow is smooth; smooth is fast.

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