The Happy Idiot

Today is November 1st, and there’s an event that takes place every November called National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I don’t believe I have the ability to really write a novel, and have no reason to think anyone would read it if I did. But I would like to make an attempt to write a blog post every day this month, and this month’s post is about The Happy Idiot. Hope you enjoy it and leave comments.

Who is the happy idiot? It’s the person in class who shrugs off fears of looking dopy and raises their hand. It’s the person who, in an architecture meeting, isn’t afraid to be wrong in asserting that a new bottleneck is quickly emerging in the design. It’s the person who gives presentations on topics they’re really only 75% comfortable with, and announces as much to the audience, inviting corrections and more input. It’s the person who invites feedback and asks questions that seem trivial, even if it exposes their ignorance.

We need more happy idiots.

I wholeheartedly accept this role, even though there are circumstances where it might be easier to keep my mouth shut and keep up appearances or it might seem beneficial to not put a dent in some perceived reputation or something like that. The problem I have with doing that is that appearances are, in my experience, largely bullshit. Reputation, in my experience, comes from doing, not from merely being perceived as smart, or good, or whatever. Execute. The rest comes from that.

Furthermore, once you enter the realm of keeping up appearances, you wind up in this horrible vicious cycle where eventually you just always have to clam up to seem smart about everything. Purposefully keeping quiet when you have no idea what’s going on – indeed, *because* you have no idea what’s going on is a close relative to lying, and has the same consequences. Eventually you’ll be cornered to execute and you’ll have no idea what to do. The fear that this will happen will eventually take over your waking hours, causing stress, and it’s all downhill from there.

On the other hand, being the happy idiot means filling in the cracks in your knowledge. It means you’re conscious of your own ignorance. It means you’ll be able to execute more effectively. This starts a positive cycle: you learn more, you execute more effectively, you begin to be perceived as smart, good, whatever, and it’s not completely unwarranted, because you’ve actually asked questions that took guts to ask and as a result you executed in smart ways. Eventually, your dumb questions aren’t perceived as being dumb anymore. Eventually, when you ask a seemingly trivial question, people stop reflexively thinking ‘how does he not know that’ and start thinking about what your brain is about to do with that little tidbit of data.

Further, it means people will trust you more. Think about it. Would you rather give a critical project to someone who absolutely never asks questions and “seems smart”, or the person who asks intelligent questions and executes?

So, I say be the happy idiot. Put yourself out there. If you’re perceived as being dumb for taking steps to be less dumb, then the problem isn’t yours, and you shouldn’t make it yours.


  • Elias Dorneles

    Thanks for writing this, I’m often referring people to it — well done!