Remaining “stupid”

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”. Stephen Hawking

“Nobody knows nothing”. William Goldman

One of my central tenets of Stratecution is to “remain stupid”. When I wrote this, lots of people asked if I really meant it – should people really strive to be “stupid?” Didn’t I mean “remain curious”, or “be open-minded?” Well, I wasn’t just being cheeky – there’s a reason I said it this way. It focuses on the fact that we have to recognize we don’t “know” very much. And it puts a bold emphasis on the need to be hungry for new information, for better ways. For learning.

The idea of remaining “stupid” is related to the concept of being a “learner” vs. being a “knower”. If you remain stupid, then you can’t be a “knower”. Knowers (and knower cultures) seek certainty, and they base their self-esteem on being right. A learner understands that they can’t possibly know all they need to know and actively seeks new ideas and concepts contrary to their own to fill this learning gap. Because a knower has to be “right”, they never make mistakes – it’s always someone else’s fault – whereas a learner sees mistakes as a natural part of learning.

We had a great example of taking a learner’s approach during the development and execution of a Direct Mail program for Porsche. We developed a lead generation mailing utilizing an incentive offer to elicit leads. We modeled our efforts on a previously successful program, generated our projected lead total from that effort, and were fairly confident in our estimates. However, within a day or two of the first of three mailings reaching homes, we noticed something was wrong – the results were significantly worse than planned. Rather than finger-pointing or developing excuses, we dug in to figure out what was different this time. We  discovered that the offer was unintentionally down-played and the call-to-action not clear enough. By quickly optimizing them for mailings 2 and 3, we drove results back to our original projections.

Thus, while the knower’s fear of failure is a dead-end for innovation and creativity, the learner, and the person who “remains stupid”, admits he doesn’t know everything and is always open to approaches different or contrary to the way they’ve been done before. They’re focused on outcomes and accountability, not on whether they look uninformed, ignorant or “stupid”. In this way, mistakes and failures are simply inspiration to a learner, not labels to avoid.

I once worked at a “knower” culture. The organization would focus on what they “knew” wouldn’t work. They knocked down ideas with “we tried that”, “that can’t work” and “the lawyers would never allow that”. And the leadership never said three important words – “I don’t know”. So everyone was afraid to try things, to acknowledge ignorance, and to say “let’s figure it out”.

The thing is, in this time of great change and flux in marketing, knowledge gained in one situation won’t necessarily help you in another. You need to be open to be influenced by new information. That’s why knowers have difficulty adapting to change, while learners readily adapt – and become stronger. It’s their willingness to “remain stupid”.


  1. Whenever meeting with potential clients, I always find it a good strategy to assume that I’m the dumbest person in the room. It forces me to listen more, ask questions and to be humble. Your blog also reminds me of what Neil Young said about his creative process “You think, you stink”.

    1. Also, “failure” is a relative term. I think if you take it to mean that your in-going expectations weren’t met, you can use it to inspire and provoke improvement. But if you view failure as a state to avoid at all costs, and something where you will be viewed badly and treated punitively, then it’s hard to be open to it. As you say, openness and humility are the keys.

  2. A better statement to my sentiment above, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” (Richard Fenynman – Physicist, Nobel Winner)

  3. Completely agree, Michael. It’s a mindset marketers on both agency and client side must be confident to embrace. Which means it’s even more critical now to show clients HOW you operate, learn, analyze, and adjust continuously. HOW you learn becomes just as important (arguably more?) than the idea itself. Nice Porsche example.

  4. That’s why knowers have difficulty adapting to change, while learners readily adapt – and become stronger. It’s their willingness to “remain stupid”.
    Sometime, I calculted that if there is any thing going wrong on confident projects, it disheart me but be the learner help me to resolve the issues properly….
    What I get through this is that there will be a learning phrase although u r confident.

  5. It’s human nature (and more prominent in our business) to be the “Leader of the Pack” and always be the “Knower”. However, the “Knower” can quickly burn a relationship where a “Learner” seems to be able to adapt better and has a stronger relationship with the client in the long run. Knowing versus Learning is something that sometimes either comes as a hard lesson learned or with time. Great article!

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