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.

# # #

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.
Audio versions of The Claret Murders and Diversion are available from iTunes, Audibles and Amazon. eBook editions are also available through Apple iTunes’ iBook’s Store and
Published by I-65 North, Inc.

“They’re Stupid!”

Where have you heard that lately? People are saying that Mr. Trump’s “they’re stupid” mantra has turned political correctness on its head. But, he may be on to something. A friend of mine reminded me of Carlo Maria Cipolla’s study of human stupidity which he reported in an essay titled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Cipolla identified five fundamental laws of stupidity:

  1. Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
  3. A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.

You ignore Cipolla’s five laws at your peril, especially #5.

As a business owner and executive, I didn’t use the word stupid, but like any good executive or manager, I understood the dangers stupid people presented.

My team at Juris, Inc. called them “unconscious incompetents.” They are people who are not yet competent for the position they are in and do not know they are incompetent. Few people, including the President of the United States, go into a position fully competent on day one. Conscious incompetent people know their limitations and compensate. They seek advice, take advantage of training opportunities, they self study, etc. — all in an effort to learn and gain experience that increases their level of competency. The process from incompetent to competent is explained by the authority triangle in my book The Language of Excellence.

The unconscious incompetent without hesitation makes decisions for which they are not qualified. As employees they expose an organization to undue risk and thus when identified they are driven out—terminated. The risk to society of unconscious incompetent political figures and bureaucrats is even greater, and unfortunately, they are seldom driven out, and prior to Mr. Trump, there was often no attempt to identify them. Who are unconscious incompetents: “They are the dangerous people—Trump’s “STUPID!” people.”

Now....consider this. Do you think Mr. Trump is ready, fully competent, for the job of President of the United States? If not, do you think he knows that? ...And if he doesn’t, wouldn’t that make him, I don’t know... “STUPID!”

# # #
For signed copies of The Language of Excellence and other books by Tom Collins, go to the Unsigned print and ebook editions are available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookstores. For an audio edition of The Claret Murders go to Ebook editions are also available through Apple iTunes’ iBooks Store and
Published by I-65 North, Inc.