You Can’t Fix Stupid, but We Often Elect It!


“Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”― Mark Twain

As a retired business employer and author on management I have put to test my views of competence and incompetence through many years of observation and experience. My firsthand experience with people, in particular evaluating an employee on the job, is they fall into one of the following three categories:

  • Competent

  • Conscious incompetent (inexperienced but learning)

  • Unconscious incompetent (incompetent and doesn’t know it)

Combine incompetence with unawareness and you have “stupid!” And, to make matters worse, the “unconscious incompetents” usually think they are the smartest people in the room!  Also, a prestigious degree doesn’t protect one from being an “unconscious incompetent.” Stupid doesn’t mean uneducated and being smart in one area doesn’t keep you from being incompetent in another. You can be young and stupid or old and stupid. You can be new to your position, or heaven forbid, in your existing role for years. As an employer, I wanted to replace the unconscious incompetent as soon as possible. Why, because “You Can’t Fix Stupid”.

I’m not making this up.  I just read an article in the Post-Tribune titled Science Finally Proves You Can’t Fix Stupid. The article reports on the findings of  now retired Cornell University psychologist David Dunning who since 1999 had been researching stupid— “how totally brick-headed people are, and how little any of them realize it.” His findings demonstrate that dumb people can’t tell they are stupid. “The very factors that impose human incompetence also make them incapable of realizing it.”

Dunning wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, ”What's curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge. A whole battery of studies … have confirmed that people who don't know much about a given set of cognitive, technical or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it's grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating or financial knowledge."  

I’m no longer in management but I’m trained as an observer of people and I can spot an “unconscious incompetent” person in a New York minute. You can find a swarm of them in the political arena particularly Congress–several new members stand out to such a degree as to mask the incompetence of all the rest.

As an example, David Rutter, in his Post-Tribune article observed, “The research has profound effects on public policy. When a politician starts a conversation about climate change with, "I'm not scientist, but ...," it usually means they have translated their total ignorance about science into a comforting self-delusion.”

Go figure.

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Read more about Tom Collins’s views on management and leadership in his book The Language of Excellence. For signed copies of books by Tom Collins, go to Unsigned print and eBook editions are available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookstores.
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