Why Being Stupid is Close to Being Smart


Okay, so I did a pretty stupid thing the other day.  Let me set the scene:


“Okay, this theory sounds great,” he says. “But how does it help us teach kids how to read?”


‘Uhhh, well,” I begin. “The thing is…”


Those kind of moments happen pretty often in our lives, moments where a trusted ability or piece of knowledge we thought we had suddenly deserts us without warning. I knew the answer to the question, but for some reason I couldn’t deliver it. I don’t know why.

I don’t think there’s an essential difference between my screwup and a tennis player fluffing an easy volley, or a software designer botching a routine piece of coding. We usually call it choking — but I don’t think that’s quite right. “Choking” implies that it’s a response to emotional pressure, like a golfer missing a six-inch putt on the final hole of the Masters — and this isn’t really a response to pressure. It’s far more like a short-circuit. Things are working fine, and suddenly — bzzzzzzzt! — they’re not.

But here’s the thing — we never short-circuit when it comes to simple actions. We never go to brush our teeth and suddenly forget how to do it. We never short-circuit when it comes to walking down the sidewalk, or knowing how to unfold the newspaper, or how to eat chocolate cake. It’s usually complexity that causes it. So the real question is, what is complexity? And why is it so often connected with short-circuits?

Complexity is another way of saying that there’s a lot of stuff going on at a lot of different levels. One way to approach it is to divide skills into two basic types: hard skills and soft skills.

1. “Hard” skills are where there is a single right way to do something. Precision counts for everything. They’re skills where you want a tiny Swiss watchmaker inside you, performing the task with absolute control, doing it the same every time. Some examples:

  • a swimming stroke
  • music fundamentals: how to hold an instrument; play a certain chord
  • basic math procedures

2. “Soft” skills, where there are lots of equally good ways to accomplish a goal. Soft skills are about flexibility; having a lot of options to get past an infinitely varying set of obstacles. They’re skills where you want a tiny skateboarder inside you, making the moves in response to whatever obstacle comes next. Examples of soft skills include:

  • communication skills — writing, speaking
  • the improvisatory parts of sports/music/business
  • art

Complex activities — which of course are really neural circuits in your brain — have hard and soft skills woven together. Picture it as complex forest of circuits, with redwoods (the hard, high-precision skills) mixed with kudzu vines (the soft, high-flexibility skills). Or, to pick another analogy, performing a complex action is like building a Swiss watch at the same time you’re pulling double ollies at a skateboard park.

Think of what you’re doing right now, for instance. To read this sentence, you have to 1) instantly and perfectly translate these black squiggles into letters, combine those letters into words and then translate those words into meaning — a.k.a. the hard, high-precision skill; 2) scan ahead, connect ideas, and build an unfolding prediction what might happen next — a.k.a. the soft, high-flexibility skills. And you have to do it in microseconds, simultaneously.  It’s pretty dazzling.

Here’s the thing with complexity: when things go wrong, they really go wrong. When a single key element of our skateboarding watchmaker fails to function, everything grinds to a halt, and it’s not pretty. The lights go out; we’re rendered mute. Just as when a kid is struggling to read or, say, a person on stage is fumbling with an answer. In other words, Homer Simpson moments of stupidity are an inevitable outcome of every complex system. The price of dazzlement is occasional shame.

In the end, I think a few things come out of this.

  • 1. Don’t be fooled by short-circuits. They’re not verdicts on ability or potential. It only seems as if the wheels have come off, but in fact it’s a smaller problem. When it comes to complex skills, being stupid is often pretty close to being smart.
  • 2. To build complex talents, first analyze them to figure out the hard skills and soft skills. What elements have to be precise, 100 percent of the time? What elements change depending on the obstacle?
  • 3. Practice hard and soft skill separately — the hard skill first and the soft skill second

I think the biggest takeaway here is that the shape of the practice must match the shape of the skill you want to build. For hard skills, the practice space should resemble a watchmaker’s shop — with lots of slowness, precision, and a keen attention to errors. Think of the way a master music teacher works with a beginner, often spending an entire lesson on how to hold the instrument. Get it right the first time, build that precision. Don’t move forward until you’ve got it wired.

For flexible skills, on the other hand, the practice space should resemble a really fun skateboard park: lots of self-directed action at an endless variety of obstacles where you make lots of errors and learn a little something from each of them. Most flexible skills ideally don’t require a coach, but rather an addictive space to “play.”

This is one of those areas where we can “steal” a lot from others — especially regarding practice strategies for hard and soft skills. What strategies work best for you?

(PS — Speaking of fun and useful places to play: if you’re interested in music, you should check out master teacher Hans Jensen’s new website, Ovation Press String Visions. Check it out.)

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9 Responses to “Why Being Stupid is Close to Being Smart”

  1. David says:

    “But here’s the thing — we never short-circuit when it comes to simple actions.” I would disagree with this statement as during highly emotional events people have been known to forget how to dial “911” and some people recommend practicing. Emotions complicate things, as some people panic (oversimplifying a complex action) and others choke (complicating a simple action). Either way, I think it only strengthens your arguments for the important of proper practicing.

  2. Robert says:

    I know how to teach kids read better, to fix the so called dyslexia in spite of what science tells teachers, I can do it in a timeframe they say is impossible and I can repeat it with ease.

    what happens when I demonstrate what I do, the teachers short circuit, they cant belive and even fathom how the kid now can read when they couldnt an hour ago. all they been taught, is out the window.
    science is wrong, and I got the evidence to prove it.
    which also short circuit the science guys.

    this touch on the new paradigm phenomena.

  3. djcoyle says:

    That’s true, David — big emotions — which are a whole different kind of circuit — or, to be more accurate, more like lightning-storms of circuitry — make us short-circuit all the time. The moments I’m trying to describe — and maybe need to describe a little better — are those where emotion isn’t a big factor.
    Though you lead us to the question of emotional control. If frustration gets too big (and this happens a lot with young readers) the effect is the same — the “lightning storm” of frustration dominates, and keeps them from doing the simple 9-1-1 tasks they could normally do. Another good reason to teach emotional control.

  4. Rod Roth says:

    Dan, flexible skills, right! A futures trader has only one way to learn: in real time, with real money. And, since every moment in the market is unique, every trade is either a winning trade or a lesson. I had The Talent Code out this morning, trying to sort out this situation. I haven’t had a mentor in quite some time. My last one said, “You’ve got to see it, dude.” He knew it wasn’t about coaching anymore. It’s about getting on the skateboard and seeing what you’ve got. Great post! thanks, Rod

  5. David says:

    I’m wondering if you have a post coming on elite military divisions. What we just witnessed with the DevGru taking out OBL was probably a good mix of hard skills that are practiced extensively and soft skills such as decision making and action during actual battle. I’m not military so I’ll defer to any experts on that subject.

  6. Michele says:


    (Comments on the reading issue–and language–a segue from the complexity question.)

    I’ve been working with a method for teaching languages called TPRS that echoes a lot of what is in your book. (In fact, I have recommended to every group of TPRS teachers I know that they get your book now.) TPRS suggests that learning a language does not happen the way languages are traditionally taught. I have a feeling that the way reading “happens” is similar to the way that we learn language. It’s generally acquired, rather than something we learn. I think there are probably ways to speed up the process, but that it certainly starts with motivation. My neurologically impaired and learning-delayed daughter learned to read (for instance), and when her eye doctor watched her do so despite eyes that couldn’t focus, he said that she had simply willed herself to read, because there was no reason she should be able to with her set of disabilities. She was motivated.

    TPRS (TPR Storytelling) emphasizes staying slow, chunking, and repeating a new phrase (in new and compelling ways) 75-100 times in the first days of presentation. It seems like magic to those of us who have taught languages “traditionally” for 25 years and then happen upon this method.

    I have been using the techniques with my reluctant readers (I teach both Russian and English) and finding success, but I think it might take an eye like yours to figure out even more reasons this is successful and figure out ways to apply it.

    There are a couple of people experimenting with TPRS on the Peninsula, and a bunch more of us in the “big city,” so if you’re ever coming through to fly out, you would be welcome to visit a Japanese or Russian class…

  7. Vasco says:

    There are many levels to the subconscious and the deeper the level the harder it may be to elicit, depending on a particular external event. What you call “soft” skills are largely in the deeper levels and, determined by the complexity, can be very difficult to tap into on command. It’s true stroke of a genius to be able to access the deeper levels at will.
    Now, what you described here is a perfect example how an external event can influence the way you access something that in your deeper level. I like to call it a “subconscious blackout”. And what’s more interesting is that it can happen on all levels of the subconscious regardless of complexity, “hard” or “soft”, perfect example being the “911” reference earlier.

    Daniel, have you looked into NLP?

  8. David Dean says:


    I am a college basketball player and I recently finished your book. It was fantastic and one of the smoothest and most informative books I’ve read recently. I had a few questions particularly pertaining to basketball.

    1. What aspects of the game should be practiced as “soft” skills and which as a “hard” skills? – Possibly your research on Coach Wooden could be of use here.

    2. Are there any examples of “Link Trainers” for basketball that have been effective, or that you believe could be effective? Futbol de Salao is fantastic – I was a high school soccer player and we would play in the offseason. It really is so exhilarating and conducive to deep practice that you can almost feel the myelination happening.

    3. I’ve had a lot of personal issues with my college coach. I feel like he doesn’t really believe in my potential or value me for being a dedicated, morally sound human being. I believe in my potential, and I want to be a professional at some level. My last two years of basketball in college have been a very negative influence on my own personal “ignition.” I know I could improve dramatically with a master coach – a bright, intellectual trainer outside of college who knows how to motivate me. I have no clue where to begin looking. It seems in the hyper-masculine world of high level basketball truly respectable and nurturing coaches, who understand that talent can be grown in anyone, are hard to find. I would really appreciate any advice that you have on finding a master-coach.

    Thanks so much,


  9. liz garnett says:

    I seem to be losing an entire afternoon on your blog – but I’m having a great time here 🙂

    Anyway, I’m just wondering if the short-circuiting you talk about here is the same as what happens after extended practice/coaching at the outside edge of your ability, and suddenly you lose the capacity to remember your start-note, or something equally basic.

    This is something I regularly use in my coaching now to gauge if I’m stretching a group enough – if we don’t get to a point where everyone’s brains fall out I don’t feel as if we’ve worked hard enough. Same in my quartet rehearsals (which is where I really learned this) – the sessions where one or more of us gets a blank are the sessions where we make the most progress.

    So I tend to think of the blanks as a very positive thing, a sign that deep deep learning is going on – but this tends to be in a non-performance, learning environment. It’s a rather different kettle of fish when you do it in public of course!

    And it strikes me that your opening example is more like a fluff under pressure than the stupid-very-close-to-smart theme of the rest of your post. It was after all a pretty aggressive question, even if politely phrased. And, as you say, you’d normally expect yourself to answer it without batting an eyelid.

    On a slightly tangential note, your comment about looking stupid not being the same as being stupid, I thought you might like the illustration on this post of Kathy Sierra’s:

    Anyway, I’m off to a quartet rehearsal now, so thanks for a most interesting afternoon.


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