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Success Requires Stupidity

OK, bear with me on this one.

For the last few days I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather—a cold, a sore throat, nothing particularly debilitating but enough of an impediment to make my work day miserable.

In a somewhat unrelated fact, I’ve needed to clean the basement for months. A while back one of my dogs, Pandora, died—she was a very, very old dog, and at one point near the end she stopped trying to make the effort to go outside when she needed to… well… go. The basement became her toilet, and I cleaned up after her as best I could, but there was… residue. And the basement has needed scrubbing ever since.

Yes, I know, that’s just lovely. But it’ll all tie together.

What the basement needed was mopping and scrubbing, and the most effective cleaning I’ve ever done down there involved using a solution of water and bleach. The problem is that the basement is not well ventilated—the windows down there are nailed shut—and bleach is a very intense aroma. So I’d been putting it off, because I was hoping I’d find a way to avoid killing brain cells. Trying to avoid killing brain cells is the smart thing to do.

But today at work, as I was lost in my mild feelings of misery and discomfort, I decided “to hell with it.” So I texted my wife to tell her I was cleaning the basement when I got home, and when I got home, I went down stairs, prepared my water/bleach solution, and started mopping. It was disgusting work. The main thing I remember is the color brown. When I was finished, I realized that I was going to have to it again, soon, maybe tomorrow… but it was better. Progress was made.

And as I stood down there, inhaling the bleach fumes rising up from the bucket, and the floor, and the sink, and the mop, feeling my sore throat expand and my lungs burn, I had a revelation: It takes a willingness to embrace stupidity in order to succeed at anything. This may sound shocking. It may BE shocking. It may, more accurately, be the result of inhaling toxic fumes in a poorly ventilated room… but there is, I think, a certain truth to this: success requires risk, and while small successes can be had at small levels of risk, the people who succeed big—I mean, really, spectacularly big—are essentially betting on an outcome that defies sanity and logic.

They look at the odds, see that the odds are not good, and say “fuck you” — which is really the stupidest thing you can possibly say to the odds, because the odds are just as happy to screw over a defiant guy as they are a cautious one. Of course, once these successful people stupidly get into whatever situation they’re in, their intelligence kicks in and they find a way to overcome the negatives, maximize their strengths, and take advantage of every lucky break that comes their way. And in the end everyone focuses on that and calls them smart, and deservedly so, but the genesis of it was being too stupid to recognize that it could never work in a million years.

I mean, when smart, practical people say “it’ll never work in a million years,” they don’t say it because they’re secretly stupid people masquerading as smart people. They say it because practicality and threat assessment has calculated the probable outcome, and the outcome is a spectacular cock-up that will result in a) failure, b) damage to reputation, c) severe loss of income, or d) two out of three, or all of the above. Success requires the ability to suppress that threat assessment long enough to get so deep into it that there is no exit strategy other than success.

And chances are you will, in fact, fail: most risks don’t pan out. But sometimes everything will line up and work out, and you’ll be given the laurel to wear and people will go on and on about how you’re a genius for recognizing the time was right, striking while the iron was hot, and doing something brilliant. And you’ll know the truth is that one day you were too stupid to realize you were making a very bad choice, and by the time you figured that out it was too late.

Boy that bleach was strong. Floor looks better, though. I might wait till Wednesday to try that again.

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