I’m the biggest idiot I know

I looked up an old high school buddy last month, hadn’t talked to him in over 20 years but he was a big Prince fan and collector so I decided to check up on him after the news of Prince’s death. I was glad to find him OK but then I started thinking about my high school days.

The worst thing about my high school is that I went to an elite high school where we were all told how very smart we were. Young and impressionable, I believed that utter nonsense. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of stuff I know: I speak 3 languages fluently, I’ve flown very old airplanes and brand new ones, I can navigate the Atlantic ocean with a watch and a compass. I’ve built jet engines and repaired radial engines. I know at least a half a dozen programming languages and I can make computers do stuff that matters to real people in real life.

The problem with my old high school is they taught me everything I was already good at and left out anything I wasn’t good at. I left there with a good bit of intellectual knowledge, the maturity of a 12 year old and the emotional intelligence of a frog. Most importantly, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.

Even strictly in terms of intelligence, you can’t rate someone by how smart they are, like being good on IQ tests. It should be more like in politics, where you have favorable and unfavorable ratings. When it comes to high IQ, able to solve complicated and logical problems, I’m up there. But when it comes to doing stupid stuff, I’m really up there!

Just the other day I blew up one of our production servers because I accidentally wrote a database query that performed 180 million unnecessary calculations. I made the change directly on a production server – which you should never do – because it was such I trivial change, or so I thought. And I’m supposed to be a database expert.

A few weeks back a number of our web applications ran slow and unresponsive because a hacker brute forced an empty server node and used it for a denial-of-service attack, thereby hogging all the bandwidth allocated to the entire network. Because it was an empty server node I hadn’t bothered to take any basic security precautions and it cost us.

I’ve done so much stupid stuff in my life. When I was a teenager a French girl who would stay the summer at my cousins liked me but of course I was completely enamored with another girl in town who didn’t know of my existence. What an idiot I was. The only satisfaction I get out of that is anytime my old work buddies in the US would talk about just how nasty French women are I would ask kindly, “so you’ve dated many French girls then?”

My penchant for doing stupid stuff goes way back: my younger brother was severely disabled but my father could do anything around the house. He grew up on a farm and he’s got the greatest technical skills of anyone I know. My dad installed a chain hoist in the bathroom so my mom could easily lift my younger brother into the bathtub on a homemade type strecher. It worked perfectly. One day my older brother and I decided to rig up the chain hoist to the door handle to open the bathroom door.

See the problem yet?

The hoist pulls up but the door handle is supposed to go down. After my younger brother passed away my dad left that twisted door handle in place for probably 20 years, I don’t think he could get himself to change it out.

I’m the biggest idiot I know because I’m the only person who knows every stupid thing I’ve done, dumb idea I’ve had and silly things I’ve said. Trust me, we don’t have time to go over all of them. My good fortune however, was that after high school I left that world of academic self-indulgence and got to know a bit of the real world and a lot of people with common sense, emotional intelligence, maturity, compassion, creativity, and many more things I never knew I was missing.

Sure I learned a few things from classic literature in school but I learned more from a Kalinago Indian girl in Dominica, from the Inuit in the Artic, from visiting a slum in Nairobi. I learned about flying from flying old airplanes and flying with even older pilots. I set out into the world mostly independently, no guided tours, no 4-star hotels. Then I started a family and learned it’s at once the most difficult and the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

For every place I visited I realized just how many misconceptions people in the so called “developed world” have about the rest of the world. You want economics: talk to a taxi driver in Greece. Want to learn something about Muslims? Talk to some Muslims. Peru isn’t anything like I imagined before I first visited the country, for that matter neither were Poland, Belarus, Hungary, Colombia and a host of other places I went to.

If you want to understand the challenges Europe is facing today – and I don’t mean the changes, change is the only constant in this world, but Europe’s reaction to the changes – consider that many of Europe’s leaders went to the same type of elite high schools like I did. Only, most of them never left that bubble, never set foot outside of their own comfort zone. Cushy public jobs and executive appointments, 4-star hotels, diplomatic missions, corporate boardrooms, armored limousines. Unlike me I’m not sure they realize there’s so much they don’t know, or have a desire to know what they don’t know.

* * *

This is one of my favorite Prince videos: he was such a guitar virtuoso, blended different styles effortlessly, he could do other people’s music so well, it didn’t always have to be just about him. Watch the expression on Dhani Harrison’s face about 3 minutes in, he knows something good is fixing to happen.

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4 thoughts on “I’m the biggest idiot I know

  1. None of your anecdotes seem that terribly stupid to me. I’ve told some of mine to close friends, and they say the same. We’re probably harder on ourselves than we should be.

    On another note, I’ve come to see it as a positive if we recognize our foolishness. The mistakes to truly fear are the ones we do not realize in hindsight. People who don’t take stock every once in a while, or an unexamined life as Socrates would have called it, are the true fools.

    Or as another buddy once said it, stupid people don’t know they’re stupid.

    • That’s exactly it, recognize our own foolishness and recognize there’s a lot we don’t know. Look at all the languages, cultures around the world, arts, science, nobody can ever know more than the tip of the iceberg. The risk is we become so invested in what we do know, whether it’s practical things or ideologies, that we aren’t open minded about things we don’t know.

  2. Another excellent piece of writing. We should all have as much introspection. The world would be a better place. Thank you for sharing a little more of yourself with us. I’ve been reading this blog for years and have commented before on your writing abilities.

    To add to the topic I’ll quote something I read from Earl Nightingale:
    “We are all self-made…but only the successful will admit it”.

    Keep up the good work.

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