Stupid by choice

September 18, 2023 · 7 mins · 1403 words

A short bio

My grandmother-in-law is amazing. She studied physics in Spain during the 50s, then she moved to Switzerland to do physics research, and then she moved back to Spain to teach physics and algebra at the university (some of her exercise books are still used today at her university). She also had 4 kids and widowed when she was 40. All of that was during a period when Spain was under a dictatorship, and women weren’t allowed to do a lot of things, e.g.: they needed the approval of a man to open a bank account. So I think it’s safe to say she didn’t have things easy.

Since I also studied physics I enjoy a lot talking with her and learning about her experiences. She’s also an avid reader and she always has a lot of book recommendations (which are usually better than the ones pushed to me by typical RecSys). I usually have the opportunity to talk with her once a month, and I always enjoy it.

One might think that, with so much experience and wisdom, this woman would be a person who always has advice or an opinion to share, but instead she never says one word louder than another. She spends her life reading, taking walks near the beach, eating paella on weekends, and spending time with her family. So when she shares a piece of advice you know you have to pay attention. This is the story of the funniest and most practical advice I have ever received from her.

Dumbness as a simplifier

Some weeks ago we were talking about how she manages today’s technology and how it isn’t trivial for people from her generation to deal with technologies that are straightforward to younger people. At some point she said

When I don’t want to do something I act like I’m stupid and I ask for help.

And after saying it with a completely straight face we both burst out laughing. She, with tears of laughter in her eyes, told me that she wasn’t joking. “I’ve been doing this all my life and it has always worked,” she explained to me. You have probably heard similar advice from other people (e.g.: Willingness to look stupid by Dan Luu, How To Understand Things by Nabeel S. Qureshi, or Don’t be Afraid to be wrong among many others) where they argue that you don’t have to worry about looking dumb and should ask questions until you fully understand everything about the subject in question. But she meant a completely different thing, the advice was in the opposite direction. Her recommendation was to actively look stupid to avoid learning about things you are not interested in. It’s saying “I don’t care about this and I don’t want to care”. If you don’t want to do something, make another person do it for you, and playing like you’re dumb it’s a great way of doing so. For example, every time she needs to withdraw money from her account she goes to the banker and says something like “Look, I’m an old woman, I barely can see, and I don’t understand how this works. Can you give me money from my account?”. The point is she isn’t interested in learning how the ATM works, and she doesn’t want the banker to explain how it works. She only wants her money, and making herself look unaware is the easiest and quickest way to do so.

But why would such a wise person be willing to look like a fool? Why spend all your life learning and mastering algebra and physics and then pretend like you don’t know anything? While it seems counterintuitive, I think that after a life devoted to learning and understanding difficult things she has realized that her learning capacity is limited, and she doesn’t want to spend it learning trivial things. A life exposed to difficult situations has taught her to simplify situations as much as possible, and only dedicate her full attention to what really matters.

The first thought I had was that this approach is only useful for old people, or for people that is not interested in learning new skills, and I don’t consider myself in any of these groups. But she has been doing this all her life, not only now that she’s older, and it’s clear she isn’t the kind of person who lacks curiosity. So what are the benefits of this approach? What am I missing? Here I’ve compiled a list of benefits you get from making yourself dumb about things you don’t want to know about.

After reading this list one could get the impression that this technique is the definitive one to never have to work again in life. However, if I want to be honest with myself and I want to honor the memory of my grandmother-in-law, I cannot finish the post here. Here is a list of situations in which you don’t want to use this approach.