The Art of Looking Like a Fool

by David Cain at Raptitude

You’ve probably experienced a phenomenon we could call the “Spiral of Delay”. You put off an obligation repeatedly, until it seems so stupid that you haven’t done it yet that the thought of doing it becomes almost humiliating. So you delay a little longer.

You can’t always know what costs you’ll face in embarrassment and penalties to, say, renew your tenant insurance eleven weeks late, but we all know that those costs can only get larger when you make it into sixteen weeks, or six months. Yet, so often we procrastinate anyway, for a very predictably worse outcome.

I suppose some of you do everything more or less on time, and don’t know what I’m talking about. You can click away now if you like, or you can continue to read, out of curiosity about what’s quietly tormenting many of your fellow humans.

From the emails I get, I know that many of you are horrendous procrastinators like I am, and that for you, having something on your to-do list that’s two months or two years overdue is totally normal, if not exactly comfortable.

Part of what we procrastinators worry about is that everyone will find out we aren’t really adults. We avoid a task for the usual reasons at first—we can’t find a good time this week, we need to look something up before we do it. But once we’ve delayed six weeks or six months or six years on it, we start avoiding it for a different reason: because doing it so absurdly late is revealing to the world (and maybe confirming for ourselves) that we are failed adults, incompetent people all around.

Really a child

About a year ago I realized it had been about a year since I paid my yearly fee for my PO Box. I’m not sure what else happened that day, but I definitely didn’t go down to the post office.

I remembered it again three months after that. I knew it had almost certainly lapsed by then, and it needed to be sorted out. But already I felt dumb for not having acted when a responsible person would have. By that point, doing the task wasn’t just an annoying prospect, it was embarrassing one.

The usual rationalizations surfaced—they hadn’t phoned yet; maybe I had inadvertently paid for two years? Knowing I’d feel sheepish and stupid no matter when I went, it seemed not entirely unreasonable to do it later. 

Stupidity grows when we hide it

That was nine months ago, and finally I went down there yesterday, having thought about it at least weekly for the last few months. This tiny to-do was so built up by this point, that walking down there felt like I was doing something much more serious, like reporting for the draft, or getting baptized. No matter how small the thing, the act of avoiding it for so long makes it huge in your mind.

And in a way, it is huge, because now the clerk or revenue agent or doctor you’re dealing with can finally call you out on not being an adult. You would have no defense against this charge—they would only have to ask you the perfectly reasonable question, “Why are you only doing this now?” and you would have to say, “Well, you see, I’m a moron.”

Some clever famous person (Oscar Wilde? Jerry Seinfeld?) once said something like “If you’re caught in a vicious circle of your own doing, just turn left someplace where you normally turn right.”

My normal impulse, when I do finally tackle an overdue obligation, is to do my utmost to conceal my stupidity, despite the evidence. I feel like I need explanations prepared that are more satisfying than “Yeah I just took an absurdly long time to get around to this”.

But this time, I did something totally different. I decided to embrace my general incompetence, and make no efforts to obscure it or minimize it. I figured it’s better to come off like Forrest Gump than to make another vain attempt to come off as the 99-percent-organized person I for some reason think I should be.

I walked into the post office fully willing to represent myself as obtuse, incompetent, completely oblivious to what’s expected of a functioning person.

And wow, was it liberating. I felt bulletproof, because there was nothing I felt the need to defend against. It was a strange sensation for me, to have no vital areas I felt I had to protect with excuses or rhetoric, or hope.

The truth is, most people you deal with will do anything to avoid openly implying that you’re an idiot. That’s at least as embarrassing for them as being one is for you.

Admitting and embracing personal incompetence is a lot easier when you first recognize and embrace the incompetence of our species in general. If you’ve ever had to hire someone, you’ve seen at least one convincing sample of human ineptitude, in the flood of completely unhireable people that respond to every job posting, and who won’t hesitate for a second to insist they’re perfect for it.

Nobody’s a grownup at everything

I now believe that all adults are grossly incompetent in at least a few areas, maybe many. Everyone’s failings are just distributed differently across their respective lives. We meet society’s standards, and our own, in a few areas, and fall pitifully short in others.

And that’s normal; what’s not normal is accepting it. We’re all adults when it comes to certain things, but never everything. Sure, I push certain easy things off for weeks or years, but I do floss at least 360 days a year, and I wonder how many Fortune 500 CEOs could say the same.

So what happened when I finally went down to the post office, without my usual determination to avoid looking dumb? As you might have guessed, it was completely painless, took less than five minutes, and went down in a way I never could have predicted anyway.

Apparently they have no record of my having rented the box. At some point they rented it out to someone else, even though I was never notified, and even though I still have a working key. Oddly, or maybe tellingly, the four pieces of mail sitting in the box were addressed to four different people (none of whom were me or the “current” renter).

The young clerk was about as embarrassed at the Post Office’s bumbling as I feared I would be about mine, and I ended up being the one graciously fielding the apologies. “Oh it’s no problem, I’m sure it will get cleared up,” I said, with genuine compassion. The situation itself isn’t resolved (she will call on Monday) but my need to avoid it certainly is.

I am fully aware that at least some of the incompetence that created this mess is mine, and I’m enjoying this new feeling of being completely okay with that.


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One thought on “The Art of Looking Like a Fool”

  1. As an electronics engineer (when I have that hat on) I and some others are aware of an analogous syndrome which we have dubbed “line cord syndrome” – some of us are old enough to have worked in the days when anything at all significant had this wire thingy you had to plug into a wall socket to make it go – the line cord.

    Being initially confident (hubris?) that you can invent, design, and build this complex whatever, you devote significant time and resources to doing so, confident that it will help you make your mark in your career or something similar. You get almost all the way done, or even done in the sense of having made this thing.

    Then, for whatever reason, you just can’t seem to plug it in. What if it doesn’t work, or simply goes up in the magic blue smoke? What if your idea was just plain wrong? Now your ego is invested in this, and you’re fearful of it being bashed, in much the same manner as a shy teen asking for a date might fear rejection – only this might be more public and the effects more serious. At least in your mind, which is where it seems to count the most.

    We call that line-cord syndrome. Yes, there are variants – like one we call “line cord polishing” where one checks and re-checks everything imaginable almost endlessly, in lieu of actually just plugging the darn thing in and getting on with it. This is, of course, often futile as you can’t usually see your own bad assumptions anyway, This is usually but not always a less serious form of the syndrome. And yes, we made endless jokes about which flavor we were exhibiting at any one time.

    After all too long, I figured out it’s best to just plug the darn thing in, come what may. You can’t fix it – or know if it needs it if you never even try. After some experience with this, it’s liberating. For one thing, the major mistakes are well, major (dead short circuits etc), easy to find and fix – only a little embarrassing. It might even work! A few times, you find you just plain had the wrong approach or any problem is really subtle, but you use that (if you have self-honesty) to adjust what you’ll tackle in the future, so it’s still a win.

    There are others…fear of delegation comes to mind in my own case, sometimes justified by events.
    Before I started my company (now retired more or less) I thought golf was a waste of time.
    Maybe the game is, but it’s immensely popular among CEOs, and now I know why.

    I was fortunate enough to have two world-class guys working directly for me. One was insanely brilliant and incredibly fast. The other was a line-cord polisher, and a completion-avoider. He could never just finish something.
    The first guy, you had to take to lunch or a bar, keep him away from computers, paper, whatever, get him lit – just to get the vision statement across before he was done doing an incomplete version. Totally amazing, but frictional when it came to having to do something over because by golly, that wasn’t the vision – you might even need a complete redesign to get the real deal.

    The other guy – somewhere in his mind, hidden, was the idea that if you finished something, that was it – no job anymore. Very much not true in our case, we were losing work due to not being fast with results – time to market was devastatingly important for our customers, and price no object (if we were fast). For this guy, you had to tell him a thing (software in this case) needed, say, 115 features, and would you please do them in more or less this order, then take the project away at around 98 – he would start polishing and never finish the assigned task as it was originally stated.
    Yes, this upset him the first few times. And it wasn’t that he wrote poor code that needed polishing, and man, was it tight and right when he did. But you needed the darn result!

    And now I understand golf better (and long range shooting, a sometimes hobby of mine with a lot in common*).
    If the wind is blowing this way and the lie that way, you aim not for the hole, but to compensate for the effects of the weather and hills will have after the ball has left your control – delegation is like that – once you turn it loose, it’s not your vision anymore. You’d better put the right ‘english’ on the ball before you toss it out. It’s a question of balance, like many other things.

    *Playing golf in the mountains is pointless – all balls land at the bottom of the hill, often in the creek that’s almost always there. So we shoot. Same deal on a lot of levels, though. Who else has time to play with tens of thousands $ worth of toys on a Tuesday afternoon? Hint, it’s not the losers of society. This is where the good deals are really made…Yes, some losers are attracted for just that reason, hoping they’ll somehow grab some coat-tails. They are quickly detected and rejected unless they happen to already have a lot of power or influence (like our current POTUS).

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