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The Key to Effective Learning is "Constructive Stupidity"

somedood profile image Basti Ortiz (Some Dood) ・7 min read

DISCLAIMER: I fully understand that the word "stupid" may initially come off harsh to some people. For now, I invite you to temporarily excuse the strong language so that I may illustrate how a shift in mindset (on "stupidity") can foster a healthy, constructive attitude towards learning.

The Unknown

The long journey of learning always begins with... nothing. Naturally, the first step is the most crucial one among many to follow soon enough. But despite the beauty of a first step, there looms an intimidating shadow for what lies ahead. From the very first step, we have come face-to-face with the Unknown.

The Unknown encompasses everything that is yet to be known about a certain topic. Looking ahead the path of learning, the ominous shadow obscures that knowledge away from us. Frankly speaking, the Unknown represents our naive "stupidity".

Thus, we are cast into a world in which we don't know what lies ahead. This is the feeling of learning something new: it is both exciting and uncertain. By definition, we don't know anything about the Unknown. We don't know what we don't know.

And that is precisely the worst part.

Moving forward with curiosity

When we want to learn something new, we are driven by curiosity. Curiosity pushes us deeper into the rabbit hole of knowledge.

Yet, curiosity implies that we already have a vague idea of the Unknown. Curiosity requires us to know what we don't know. In order to be curious about something in the first place, we first have to identify what that "something" is.

That's exactly the issue with being cast into the Unknown. The first step is indeed crucial, but if we don't know what else there is to learn, then how can we possibly expect to move forward? The path to learning is obscured by the Unknown; if we let the Unknown tempt us into believing that we're "experts" in a certain field, then there is no longer any room for improvement.

And that is precisely the worst-case scenario.

Setting aside the harsh connotation

As imperfect human beings, we have a strong tendency to downplay our abilities, hence the prevalence of "imposter syndrome" in the software industry.

We are especially quick to doubt ourselves. In extreme cases, we outright brand ourselves as "stupid" for not knowing about framework X, or not using text editor Y, or not taking advantage of buzzword Z at the company.

But now, it is time to set all of that negativity aside. We must advocate for a shift in mindset when it comes to "stupidity". Setting aside its harsh connotation, "stupidity" should not be a shameful brand of gross incompetence; instead, it should be the mark of a wise learner with an open mind to new knowledge.

As I was reflecting on the nature of learning, I thought about what it meant to be "stupid". By definition, a "stupid" person is someone who generally lacks knowledge or common sense in a certain field.

For someone to deem themselves "stupid", they must first acknowledge the fact that they lack experience in certain areas. At some point, they must have come to the realization that what they currently know—if any—is vastly inferior to the entire breadth of knowledge in that area. Otherwise, they wouldn't consider themselves "stupid". This consequently implies some vague awareness of what they have yet to learn. In other words, they know what they don't know.

And that is precisely the best place to start.

We are not so "stupid" after all...

At this point, we have come full circle. By knowing what we don't know, we can spark the inner curiosity that pushes us into the rabbit hole.

In a way, acknowledging and accepting our "stupidity" is a recognition of the shortcomings we must work on. Returning to the analogy about the "first steps" into the Unknown, this is an arguably better place to be in compared to starting with... nothing.

During the "first steps", we didn't know what we didn't know. But once we have expanded our horizons and realized our "stupidity", we now have (at least) a vague idea of what we don't know.

We should never let our "stupidity" misguide us. We should never allow ourselves to be discouraged from pursuing the path of learning. Instead, we must let our "stupidity" motivate us to fill in the missing gaps in knowledge. We must take advantage of the fact that we are fully aware of our shortcomings.

Unlike during the "first steps", we now have a concrete roadmap to success. We now have a goal to work towards. We now have the spark of curiosity that will fuel our long journey ahead.

This is the essence of constructive stupidity. It is a shift in mindset that fosters a healthy learning attitude. Instead of destructively branding ourselves as "unworthy imposters", we use our "stupidity" to pique curiosity, which in turn opens our minds to new knowledge. Sooner or later, we realize the truth that we once refused to see for ourselves: we are not so "stupid" after all.

Constructive stupidity and curiosity—when coupled together—can turn us into unstoppable learners. Perseverance is just one part of the equation. One can be perseverant in many other aspects in life, but if we don't channel our perseverance constructively, then we allow ourselves to be consumed by the Unknown. "Constructive stupidity" is more than just a mindset for learning; it is also our guide for whatever path we take into the Unknown.

And that is precisely a virtue worth embracing.

No experts allowed

Paradoxically enough, the more we know, the more we are made aware of the fact that we don't know as much as we once thought. That means the more knowledgeable we become, the more we are convinced of our "stupidity".

As I have argued earlier (and will argue again), this is not such a bad thing. The more we have to learn, the more we can improve as developers, professionals, and human beings.

Great "stupidity" comes with great potential. "Stupidity" is only a matter of perspective: destructive or constructive. Needless to say, we must always prefer the latter.

Personally, the moment we deem ourselves as "absolute experts" in a certain field, that is also the exact moment we waive the potential to improve ourselves. By convincing ourselves that we are "absolute experts", we lose the fire of curiosity that has kept us going for so long. No matter how knowledgeable we are, we must always nurture the curious mind.

After all, an open mind is an open book on which new knowledge can be written, whereas a closed mind is a closed book for which there is no more room for improvement.

In general, proclaiming expert status over anything is an admission of lost potential. Thousands of years after his unfortunate death, the great Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates' statement about wisdom remains relevant to this day: "I know that I know nothing."

And that is precisely the truest wisdom.

Conclusion

The key to effective learning is less about rote perseverance. Without the strong foundation of curiosity and "constructive stupidity", learning is just a task to be completed. There is no fulfillment whatsoever. If we succumb to destructive attitudes after taking the "first step", the Unknown will easily consume us.

For that reason, we must always keep an open mind to new knowledge. As much as possible, we must keep track of what we don't know so that we can guide ourselves in the path of learning. We must not let "stupidity" discourage us; rather, we must let it spark our curiosity. Once we have shifted our mindset on "stupidity", we can no longer be intimidated by the Unknown.

Eventually, as we learn more by practicing and applying new knowledge, we can productively transform our "constructive stupidity" into a concrete roadmap to success.

"That feeling of confusion is your friend. That means you're learning."
MPJ (Fun Fun Function)

Face the Unknown. Embrace "construtive stupidity". Nurture the curious mind.

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Basti Ortiz (Some Dood)

@somedood

Just some dood trying to make code work without bringing the Universe to its demise.

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