Why Smart People Do Dumb Things

Originally published: 11.01.06 by Guy Kawasaki


How did you end your summer? A nice barbeque at the beach or maybe a quiet afternoon with the family? Mountain biking? Surfing? Blogging? Playing in a hockey tournament? Go ahead: Ask me how my summer ended.

On Saturday, September 2nd, I got up and found that my MacBook’s hard disk was quasi hosed — not totally hosed like “Accept fate — there’s nothing you can do, it’s dead.” I could somewhat access files and even come close to booting the MacBook. So unlike millions of other people, I ended my summer cajoling, coercing, and cursing my MacBook’s hard disk assisted by Data Rescue II (which got back some files I thought I’d never see again).

The $64,000 question is, “Why didn’t I have my MacBook completely and currently backed up?” During this weekend of aggravation, I read a book (at the suggestion of my buddy Bill Meade) called Why Smart People Do Dumb Things by Dr. Mortimer Feinberg and John J. Tarrant, and it answered this question.

Truly, the book answers much deeper questions than why I was too dumb to backup my MacBook, but the concepts are the same. The authors list four reasons why smart, famous, powerful, and rich

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people who should obviously know better end up crashing and burning:

  • Hubris. Pride to the point that you no longer feel shame, no longer believe that you are subject to public opinion, and no longer need to fear “the gods.” Examples: Gary Hart’s involvement with Donna Rice that ended his run for the presidency and Dennis Kozlowski’s (Tyco) $2 million toga party.
  • Arrogance. From the Latin word arrogare: “to claim for oneself.” Arrogant people believe they have claim to anything and everything they want — they are “entitled” to it. King David, for example, felt entitled to the wife (Bathsheba) of one of his soldiers. Modern day King Davids feel entitled to corporate jets and an entourage to tell them that their keynote speech rocked.
  • Narcissism. Self-absorption to the point that you are blind to reality. The world only exists to provide you gratification. Examples: Richard Nixon and Watergate; the Clintons and Whitewater — really just about every politician and business owner who falls from grace.
  • Unconscious need to fail. If you think failing is hard, try winning. The questions that go through people’s minds when they are on the doorstep of success are: Do I really deserve to win? Do I want the pressure of constantly having to win in the future? Can I really handle success? Perhaps this explains why professional athletes still take performance-enchancement drugs even after watching their colleagues get busted.


The authors go on to discuss maturity (the “capacity to make constructive use of our inmost feelings”) and what they call the “Six Basic Principles of Maturity.”

1 Accept yourself. “You’re on the road to maturity if you can begin to appreciate yourself without trying to be what you cannot possibly be.” The CEOs who failed at Apple did so because they wanted to be another “Steve Jobs.” They couldn’t accept themselves and their own, different capabilities and shortcomings.

2 Accept others. “Your relations with other people are a basic test of your maturity. If you don’t get along well with others, it’s not because you’re not smart enough, or because you’re smart and they’re dumb. It’s because you still need to grow up in some vital centers of your being.” For example, there are companies in Silicon Valley that maintain a “tyranny of PhDs” where only the advanced degreed are held in high esteem, and marketing, operations, and others are fodder.

3 Keep your sense of humor. “Your humor reflects your attitudes toward people. The mature person uses humor not as a bludgeoning hammer but rather as a plane to shave off rough edges.”

4 Accept simple pleasures. “The capacity to get excited over things even when they seem ordinary to others — this is a sign of a healthy personality.” For example, some tech entrepreneurs have yachts that can barely pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. (I’d just be happy if I could skate backwards.)

5 Enjoy the present. “Emotional grown-ups don’t live on an expectancy basis. They plan for the future, but they know they must also live in the present. The mature person realizes that the best insurance for tomorrow is the effective use of today.”

6 Welcome work. “Appreciation of work is a hallmark of mature people. Immature people are constantly fighting certain aspects of their work. They resent routine reports, or meetings, or correspondence. They allow these annoyances to grate on their nerves continually. Satisfaction in doing a good job is blocked out by the dust speck in the eye of resentment over trivia.”

Good stuff, huh? You could photocopy this posting and slip it under the corner-office door of you-know-who. There’s so much material in this book that this may turn into Feinberg-Tarrant Week. But back to my wasted weekend. Why didn’t I, a seemingly smart person with a computer background with difficult-to-replace files, not back up my hard disk?

  • Hubris: I no longer feared the hard-disk gods.
  • Arrogance: I was “entitled” to a trouble-free hard disk. Even if it did fail, I have enough connections for some company to jump through hoops to recover it for me.
  • Narcissism: Hard disk failure cannot happen to me, Guy Kawasaki. Now let me get back to admiring myself.
  • Unconscious need to fail. This, honestly, doesn’t apply to me. :-) Although, perhaps I had a conscious need for my hard disk to fail so that I wouldn’t have to answer my backlog of 300 e-mails.

As I learned from reading this book, whether you’re talking about business, politics, or your hard disk, it pays to be mature. The first thing I’m going to do is change my backup strategy.

Guy Kawasaki is a managing director of Garage Technology Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm and a columnist for Forbes.com. Previously, he was an Apple Fellow at Apple Computer Inc., where he was one of the individuals responsible for the success of the Macintosh computer. He is the author of eight books, including his most recent, The Art of the Start, which can be found atwww.guykawasaki.com


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