How to Become Stupid

This is an anecdote that shaped my beliefs and views on intelligence – as a little follow-up to my last post on “Drive” by Daniel Pink.

I’ve only shared this story with close family members, as it stereotypes and isn’t very scientific. That didn’t matter for my young mind – Young minds don’t care about science as they’re trying to make sense of the world.

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As I was attending elementary school (not in the US and not in Asia) I happened to have quite a few schoolmates of Asian descent. As a young kid, I could tell these kids were just as sharp as me, and sometimes even smarter, more patient, methodical, etc. We did have dumb kids, and even kids with true learning problems – this is not a story about kids with real problems.

Among my Asian friends I noticed two distinct behaviors – Some would behave just normal, like me. Others would play the “language” card and pretend they didn’t understand things because of the difference in language – they had figured out they could get away with less school work and less demands from the teachers if they played like they were dumb… And they did, they kept playing dumb from the point I have clear school memories (about second grade) to the point they graduated from school six or seven years later.

The teachers saw a dumb kid, with learning problems and a language barrier, struggle through school for several years and make it out.

I saw a normal kid who played dumb since second grade – and by the time they were in seventh grade they had BECOME dumb. They were no longer faking it – you could tell the little spark of focused attention had been put out. It was like they became a little autistic as part of their act, and they became their act.

My little mind understood something about intelligence in very straightforward terms:

  • If you play dumb, you will get away with doing less, and you will become dumb.
  • If you do what you’re supposed to do, you will get smarter in the same time that slackers become dumber.


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Play dumb, be dumb. Play smart, get smart.