Why Smart People do Dumb Things

Isn’t it strange how smart people tend to do dumb things? I guess it’s one of those paradoxes of life when a computer genius locks himself out of his house, or a science whiz can’t remember where she left the pencil she used two minutes before.

It’s almost as if geniuses are using so much of their brain power on creativity and high-consciousness that they neglect the more primitive, but still necessary brain functions.

Social Skills

Furthermore, isn’t it strange how smart people don’t seem to have a clue when it comes to social skills? This premise has been etched into our cultural consciousness by a sharp divide between the “nerds” and the “cool kids.”

Traditional geniuses are like fish out of water when it comes to climbing the social hierarchy. Have you ever heard the statistic that most CEOs are “C” students? My life experience has shown this to be true. All the smart people seem to be placed in highly specialized jobs, working for a much less intelligent leader at the top.

What’s up With That?

Are smart people so deficient in social and primitive cognitive functions that average people pass them by; or are social skills and practicality a type of intelligence all their own?

The Lockout King

I learned the difference between traditional and practical intelligence early on. Even though I was top of my class in high school, I always did the stupidest things!

For starters, I locked my keys in my car about twice a week. My mom was so trained to bail me out of that mess that she kept a spare set of keys on her. No matter how many times it happened, I couldn’t seem to figure out how to remember.

It wasn’t until I was halfway through college that I developed a system: keys in my left pocket, phone in my right, wallet in my my back pocket. Every time I left any location, I patted my pockets to be sure everything was in it’s place.

Now, why couldn’t I have figured that out in high school? I guess I was too smart for primitive systems.

Master of Common Sense

Deryck, my best friend since I was 5, has always been the master of common sense (one of my great deficiencies). When I was a kid, I never fully appreciated the value of his skill; but looking back, he kept me from forgetting where I put my head.

Deryck and I would get into arguments because I thought I was too smart for common sense. I always had a “better” way of doing something and had little use for proven systems.

He would push me to just go talk to the girl, and I’d come up with some elaborate way to show her a sign without actually having to go through the discomfort of doing it the old-fashioned way.

In actuality, we made a great team. If I hadn’t grown up with him, I may not have developed even the sliver of common sense that I have now!

Many Types of Intelligence

Right around the last time I ever locked my keys in the car, I finally realized that there was more than one type of intelligence. Being “book smart” was only one kind, and to focus solely on it would be to neglect the other “muscles” in my brain.

Other brain muscles include common sense, mechanical ability, athleticism, verbal ability, musical ability, and social skills (just to name a few.) I made the mistake of thinking that my type of intelligence was the only kind!

This realization gave me a greater respect for everyone else around me. If you look closely, everyone has some sort of developed intelligence, even if the rest of society doesn’t realize it. Unfortunately, many people who aren’t “book smart” don’t think of themselves of intelligent and sort of give up.

I also realized that I was going to have to work on some of my deficiencies if I was going to be a more rounded individual. I spent a lot of time reading about and putting into practice my social and “common sense” muscles.

Why Do Smart People Do Dumb Things?

Smart people can get too focused on a single type of intelligence and neglect the rest. It’s easy to think you’ve got it made when your teachers, parents, and everyone around you is calling you “smart.”

Unfortunately, even though there are many types of intelligence, society has chosen the type it considers “smart.” People with other types are left thinking that they aren’t smart, and people who are considered “smart” are left thinking that they know it all.

When smart people neglect their social or common-sense muscles, it’s usually an issue with “being in the moment.” Creative or highly-cerebral people tend to feel very comfortable in their own heads and tend to stay there. They are always working on solving a problem or creating something beautiful, and sometimes neglect to take a look at what’s around them.

It can be quite a shift for a thinker to step outside his head for a few moments; but like a physical muscle, the brain muscle required to “be in the moment” can be exercised and strengthened.

Duality

We’ll probably always have a duality between “book smart” and “street smart.” Each group needs the other.

Genius Types recognize a duality when they see it, and don’t get stuck on one side or the other.

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42 Comments

  1. Brian Lee July 23, 2007 at 2:29 pm #

    Very insightful, Steve.

  2. Sam Smith July 23, 2007 at 3:01 pm #

    -I laughed out loud when I read about your “pocket system.” That’s exactly what I do! It really helps you check quickly that you have everything you need.

    -Saying that everyone around us has some type of developed intelligence is pretty deep. It’s true when you consider it. Even those people who don’t seem to be well off in life have got the street smarts that keep them on their feet.

    - I love this line:
    “People with other types are left thinking that they aren’t smart, and people who are considered “smart” are left thinking that they know it all.”
    It especially holds true when I talk to people who have let society convince them that they aren’t smart, and that only hurts their confidence…confidence that they would need to improve other types of intelligence.

  3. Steve July 23, 2007 at 1:59 pm #

    Hi Brain,

    Just giving some thought to the whole ‘Smart people making stupid mistakes thing’ and I have my own take on it.

    I was once in a postion of being the smart kid in school as well and I did some really dumb things – loosing my keys, wallet, clothes, bike, etc. I’ve broken bones and even lost money at times.

    Now you may think, “Well that’s not very smart!”

    and you may be correct. I did some really dumb things when it comes to being practical in the real world. I also did alot of smart things when it came to academics and my career.

    I think the reason that I did all those dumb things was to validate an old belief that I had that said, “I’m not smart enough”. Academically, I may have ‘proved’ to others that I was smart enough but deep down I never thought I was. This meant I had to keep proving myself to others. It was a belief that I formed a long time ago.

    So when i wasn’t proving that I was smart I was doing dumb things because that’s what I believed about myself. I believed, “I’m not smart enough” and therefore did dumb things.

    Hmmm…. might have a post brewing here.

    Cheers and thanks for listening,

    Stephen Martile
    Personal Development with NLP
    http://www.stephenmartile.com

  4. Joe July 23, 2007 at 6:41 pm #

    Hey, does anyone out there have any tips on fixing hard-to-turn coin mechanisms on Seaga Triplevends?

  5. walter Hieber July 24, 2007 at 9:17 am #

    Great article Brian! I have an article that I didn’t write but that I wish the entire world would read dealing with the same topic and the US school system. It was written a few year back on February 2003 by Paul Graham and man does it hit the nail on the head!

    http://www.yoperstuff.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=32&Itemid=38

  6. Lisa July 24, 2007 at 8:53 am #

    In this post you are just touching on the study of the multiple intelligences. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intelligence_(trait)#Multiple_intelligences) . Definitely interesting stuff. According to some people there are up to 7 or 9 different types of intelligence. Gardner’s being the one I am most familiar with: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences).

    I’m not sure I’d agree it is a duality.

    IQ tests completely ignore most types of intelligence and sadly we don’t bother to test and measure most intelligences. Although we clearly respect those with Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence and pay them a heck of a lot of money to entertain us.

    But to address the question of this post – why do smart people do dumb things? I think it is not because book-smart people are in denial there are other types of intelligence in the world.

    I think it’s because everyone does dumb things and no one has cornered the market on dumb.

    I seriously doubt there is some mystery here. I suspect high Interpersonal intelligence do stupid things also.

  7. betshopboy July 24, 2007 at 7:45 pm #

    Hi Brian

    I had the same habit developed since junior high of patting my pockets every time I left any location to ensure my things do not drop out.
    Keys in my right pocket, phone in my left, wallet in my my back pocket.

    I guess i sum up your post as in society recognizes a certain group of people as smart people because they value high IQ more than EQ.
    I think it is safe to say smart people have higher IQ than EQ.

    Oops! Am i offending many smart people here? Chill out guys, no offence intended.

  8. Theresa July 28, 2007 at 12:55 am #

    While I intellectually appreciate your argument, I don’t know that my mind fully accepts it all as fact :)

    My son is near genius yet his social skills are of the highest quality. You couldn’t ask for a more perceptive, caring individual. Actually, almost too caring, too perceptive – at times it’s almost scary lol.

    Does he make stupid mistakes? Of course… but then, don’t we all! That’s human nature :)

    Interesting article, thanks!

  9. Sweet July 29, 2007 at 11:08 am #

    I believe that people who tend to be intelligent are always crunching numbers in their head. For example, when I was younger, I became aware that one of my major problems that was my “psychic RAM” was always filled. I was a geek, and would describe my problem as “I always feel like my brain is using all its CPU cycles.” While I was driving, walking, or even sitting in a tranquil area of a park, I wouldn’t really pay attention to where I was or what I was doing.

    Walking and driving the same route, and mechanical things like brushing my teeth were all second nature to me, so I didn’t need to “be there” to do them. My brain was on auto pilot during those tasks.

    I was a straight A student, and spent most of my free time on my engineering and chemistry hobbies inventing things and reading, but when I was always clumsy when it came to things I was familiar with.

    I realized that I was rarely in the present moment. I was always in the past or future. My brain was bogged down with ‘what ifs’ and ‘should ofs’ and ‘if onlys’ and ‘if i..’ I began meditation and really got into being mindful about what I was doing. While taking a piss, brushing my teeth or taking a short walk, I focused 110% on everything in the current frame of life. In the present moment. Anything that popped into my head, I would write down to get out of my psychic RAM, and I would then revert back to being in the present moment.

  10. Phillip Fuller July 29, 2007 at 7:40 pm #

    “… and people who are considered “smart” are left thinking that they know it all.”

    And aren’t those the most insufferable bores… too bad there has to even be a division – everyone has talents of a sort.

    Interesting article, glad I stopped by.

  11. Brian Lee August 3, 2007 at 7:17 pm #

    Steve, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not necessarily the rule, but street smarts and book smarts seem to be on the opposite end of a spectrum.

  12. Steve August 3, 2007 at 6:43 pm #

    It is a good article and makes you think. My older brother was a propulsion engineer who worked on the space shuttle in the Airforce, Fired up Delta Rocket Engines for Aerojet and then switched over to a Software engineer. He has multiple degrees in aerospace engineering and computer science with masters degrees in each. But he does not have allot of common sense. If you don’t call him he will never call you. Yes really poor social skills. If you need something though and call him he’ll be right over to help and I could’nt ask for a better brother.

    My younger brother was a little rebel and decided he did not want to go to college. No matter how much convincing he dug his heels in and wanted to start a business. He started a vending business when he was a teenager, then a childrens consignment store and now runs his own online wholesale clothing website and makes a bundle each year selling bulk clothing. He has lot’s of common sense and would not say he is book smart at all. But he is very smart in regard to business and street smarts of using other people and resources to ultimately make the bottom line profit he is looking for. He works only a few hours a week and out of his home.

    This is just an example of I think what your article is pointing out. I would not say all cases are the same and sure you have your Bill Gates out there that I consider pretty Genius and yet he made a great CEO for Microsoft. Even though Gates left college before finishing he was in the book smart category. But not everyone can be really book smart and social with common sense. There does seem to be a pattern.

    Thanks for the article.

    Steve

  13. Brandon Boucher August 6, 2007 at 11:13 pm #

    I am a wise individual. My intellect comes when needed. But for some abnormal reason, I think, and i know I am very smart in certain areas of subjects and things. But I always get rude comments mentioning I am retarded, idiot, moron. But why? I am writing proper grammar. I am quiet most of the time. I don’t like speaking, because I use to have a constant stutter. I would always speak to fast, and people would tell me to slow down. But don’t the mentally disabled speak very slowly? I feel that I use my thoughts more then I should. I would just have a blank face staring at something, like I am not even there. But my mind is; thinking… of probabilities of things. Ideas coming up. I feel like survival is what I am smart in, Tactics, A way to engage an enemy with out them seeing you, and having the precise ability to know how to attack them so everyone fails to fulfill there mentioned duties. I have always thought and acted such ways as a conquerer would. It is odd that at times people think I am brain dead stupid, But oddly I know that I smart.

  14. cooliojones August 8, 2007 at 6:46 pm #

    Speaking of pencils, have you heard about the lady who had a pencil stuck in her head for 55 years? I guess when she speaks her mind, she always makes a point!

  15. Matthew Cornell August 23, 2007 at 6:50 am #

    I’d throw in the god/religion meme, which I realize is a personal preference/opinion. However, for me it fits your title.

    You might also enjoy this book, if you’ve not seen it before: How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life: Books: Thomas Gilovich – http://www.amazon.com/How-Know-What-Isnt-Fallibility/dp/0029117062/ref=sr_1_1/104-9472048-4474359?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1187876895&sr=1-1

    I admit I started it but didn’t finish.

  16. Lance Croft March 11, 2008 at 1:06 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoyed your observations. I have disabilities, one is ADHD, and the other is a reading disability (where I retain only 9% of what I read…). I have a very high IQ and inventive people and geniuses all run through my bloodline.
    I can’t tell you how many ‘dumb’ things I’ve done without thinking! I was never a disruptive child but I would constantly forget things immediately after they enter my thought! I am terrible with names, but I can memorize license plates, remember SSN for no reason and have a keen ability to fix things I’ve never even seen before.
    I would like to talk with someone though because I have issues with school. I am in college and fail everything, despite knowing how to do ALL of it! I would just like to understand how I think…?
    It’s helpful to read things like this. Keep going.

    -Lance

    Industrial Design; Inventor

  17. SilentDoGood March 27, 2008 at 9:29 pm #

    I can’t remember where I got this quote: “Smart people solve problems but only a genius can prevent them.”

  18. Masedi Mosimane May 16, 2008 at 11:35 am #

    this is Mind blowing! I’m like the 18 year old you never were, like the seperating your phone keys and wallet thing. im doing it now in college.

  19. Anonymous October 4, 2009 at 5:07 am #

    An interesting little article. I chuckled quite a few times.

    =)

  20. Mr. Pencil December 30, 2009 at 11:56 pm #

    There are two kind of smart people: the one who are good only in one thing, and neglect their social. This people are usual hard workers.
    But yoou alsso have smart people who are genius in every aspect.

  21. Ivan April 27, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    Great post! It as if there is a paradox, the one side of the brain is obviously overshadowing the other half. Balance seems to be the cliche. I have recently dabbled into brainwave entrainment and have had some good results, lets just say I’m not as clumsy as before. I found some great info here brainwave meditation. Thanks Again!

  22. phill.d August 20, 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    My guess is a lot of these genius’s suffer from Aspergers syndrome.
    Albert Einstein had Aspergers, and you don’t get a bigger genius than him.

    People with Aspergers are socially immature, they can’t understand social norms, and behavoiurs. They just cannot see it. They never learn from there mistakes, they just carry on making the same mistakes, time, and time again.

    For what they lack in maturity, and common sense. People with Aspergus usually concentrate, and can become very qualified in specialists fields. They can become computer whizz kids, scientists, anything that takes concentration. We’ve all heard of the mad boffin types. Incredibly talented people in there field, but they lack any common sense. Infact they couldn’t even tell you what day it was.

    You put a street wise, school drop out kid, and a genius scientist on a deserted island.
    Leave them for a month. Come back and see which has survived.

  23. Brian Lee August 23, 2010 at 8:14 pm #

    That’s great insight. Thank you for sharing.

  24. Caleb "Muscles" Anthony September 7, 2010 at 4:30 am #

    You see people like this all the time! I think a highly intelligent person however learns to step back a bit and develop the other types of intelligence in order to overcome those problems, however it’d be a hugely difficult thing to do.

  25. Jennifer September 8, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    This article is so true!
    My best friend had always called me ‘the dumbest smart person’ she knows! I do really well in exams but I do the most stupid things and seem to ask stupid questions. If I have read about something or made an effort to revise something in particular I will know it inside out, however I am not very good at forming an answer that I don’t know the exact answer to. I’ve never been able to explain it!

  26. Brian Lee September 8, 2010 at 4:14 pm #

    Welcome to the club!

  27. Jennifer September 8, 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    But I want to be intelligent in all aspects! If only common sense was a book to read

  28. Brian Lee September 8, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    I think that just comes with life experience…

  29. Luis October 17, 2010 at 5:00 am #

    Very good points you have made there brian.

  30. Kevin November 29, 2010 at 7:03 pm #

    This article was stereotypical. I didn’t like the part where you put down CEO’s and bosses intelligence. I think it is far from the truth when you say people at the top have less intelligence than other people. There are tons of very smart people at the top of companies. I do agree that smart people tend to do dumb and unusual things. Also, just because you locked keys in your car doesn’t mean you don’t have street smarts. Everyone has locked themselves out of somewhere before.

  31. Brian Lee December 2, 2010 at 1:37 pm #

    Thanks for the respectful disagreement Kevin!

  32. NoOne Special December 14, 2010 at 9:46 pm #

    Its the learn curve, as one makes mistakes, one learns. This happens over time. To communicate properly:
    The best mechanic is one who has made all the mistakes!
    So I would agree or disagree, everyone is different. Working at their own pace.
    Clear, lucent thought finds its way into to life, oh! no, where is my keys.
    One more thing.
    I understand.

  33. Meg February 7, 2011 at 8:24 pm #

    My husband who has a degree in engeneering claims he doesn’t know how to boil water to make pasta. I think it all comes down to being good at the things you do most and the things you do most being those that you are naturally good at. As you said, you can improve in areas you are not as good at by practicing. Maybe people who are book smart think because they are already so “smart” they don’t need to (or aren’t encouraged to) learn by practing other types of intelligence the way non book smart pepople are encouraged to study and memorize academic lessons.

  34. kat April 5, 2011 at 8:07 pm #

    i really do the dumbest things and im a straight a+ student

  35. Asii May 25, 2011 at 1:27 am #

    My little sister said that its societies fault, for up bringing their children to be have a lack of social life as an easier way to success. “Focus on school Johnny, forget those friends of yours”. Mothers have been known to state that famous quote, that their children shouldn’t go to school to make friends they go there to learn. They then feel left out of the life of their class mates, they start to lose interest in the social aspect of school, and focus on the academics. They lack forming that social creativity in the period of time, and as they grow older it becomes a norm. Smart students go to school to learn, where as “cool” kids want to make friends. Some smart people listen, they follow a functional, technical, and logical function, therefore lacking the out side the box crazy unimaginative illogical aspect of their lives, which tend to help make great conversation. Also some smart people watch their words, and think before they leap into relationships and tend to not associate with people who sound nuts! :D hehe. Thats my thought on why smart people lack socially!

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  37. Lj February 6, 2012 at 8:19 am #

    I specifically googled this type of article because my BF seems to be brilliant but… challenged. I feel like I’m taking care of a spoiled 5 year old! I genuinely think something is very wrong with his thinking. Socially, he is sweet and appropriate. But as discussed here he seems absent of common sense. He loses things, behaves without thinking and disregards my feelings and needs. For example, as he watches me mop the floor then mindlessly drops food and walks off. On a more serious note, he wakes me up every morning at 2 am banging doors and turning on lights all the while knowing I can’t go back to sleep. This has caused me to have an Ambien addiction as I became so miserably sleep deprived. After 5 years of this, I began yelling at him as he is driving me crazy. I even broke-up with him amicably thinking this was his cryptic way of saying “get lost”!!!! But he didn’t want that, so I’m trying to live with it. I love him and just want to understand and help him. I don’t think he does it on purpose, but he comes off as extremely rude and irritating. I’ve tried instilling methods to help him be more organized but he is totally resistant. I know no one is perfect. I admire his intelligence, but his personality is making me insane. Any ideas on how to deal with this?

  38. yarightlol August 10, 2012 at 6:47 am #

    lolololo I can’t believe what I’m reading

    look, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that smart people represent 1% of the population. Now imagine yourself being that one %, you have to live among and deal with people whose sheer existence insults you. Is it really so strange smart people don’t develop the stupid people’s social skills? Have you considered they see it as absurd and idiotic and they have a different, better way to talk and socialize?

    now, sure there are a lot of types of intelligence, but none of them include not forgetting things olololo

  39. Nicholas March 28, 2013 at 8:56 pm #

    lol, this article is very stupid…. sorry.

  40. Just2tired June 9, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    Great article, Brian, and an even better way to engage meaningful dialogue on the subject.

    I’m considered one of those book smart personalities, and I tend to see the full range of a thing (idea, concept, proposed project) and all its moving parts, all at once. My failing is in practical, everyday things, like budgeting/bill paying, managing household chores, family scheduling, or finishing certain kinds of projects. I can do it; I just don’t want to do it. And once I really don’t want to do something, I get a very strong aversion toward the task that becomes emotionally and physically debilitating in a lot of ways.

    It’s my personal belief that we might develop a measure of disdain for certain things, and the brain instructs the body to react in correlation with the level of disdain. An example of this for me would be squandering money that could have been used toward a few essential bills, which I now see was done because I couldn’t pay off ALL of the bills with what I had in hand. Stupid, right? Repeatedly doing this over a number of years, with full knowledge of the compound effect of late fees, service restoration costs, and so forth, amounts to insanely stupid!

    With this said, I appreciate your mentioning the different areas where intelligence lies. I know that I lack a measure of emotional intelligence at times, and this just permeates into every aspect of my dealings with self and others. I desperately want to experience life on a more even keel, and I know that I have to work on those other areas of intelligence.

    I can relate to your car keys story since I can usually gage my level of life stress by the number of times I lose my car/house keys in a week. I once had to smash the passenger side windows to let myself back in the car because I had left my cell phone, purse, and laptop on the passenger-side seat and couldn’t walk away from the vehicle.

    Life lessons learned–stupidity costs way too much!

  41. GeniusTypes.com August 29, 2014 at 10:24 am #

    That’s some great insight. I’ve certainly had that feeling of knowing I should do something but just physically not being able to do it.

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