The upper tiers of success to which so many of us aspire appear to be built upon meticulous scaffolds of unremitting excellence. Every detail must be attended just so in exactly the right order to conjure up exceptional performance, or so it seems. Focusing on doing the right things will surely take a person far, but attention should be paid to the other side of the equation as well. When it comes to the wrong things, just don’t do them!
Renowned investor Charlie Munger understands the importance of avoiding the bad even when you don’t know how to pursue the good: “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
By “people like us,” Munger presumably means successful, famous, and fabulously wealthy individuals who routinely leverage insight, skill, and daring to accomplish great ends. But what does this smart fellow mean by stupid? Merriam-Webster, as ever, captures the right words to define this term as marked by or resulting from unreasoned thinking or acting.
To understand stupidity–as distinguished from lack of knowledge or capacity to understand–we can look to the contrasting examples set by Goofus and Gallant. This pair, which has been setting the tone for both virtue and vice since 1940, sometimes veer into morality but often serve to depict the differences between smart and stupid. Since stupidity results from a lack of reasoning or forethought, we can learn to avoid acting that way by considering two potential actions at the same time: what would a Goofus do and what would a Gallant do?
Apply this idea to big tests like the SAT and ACT:
GOOFUS: Never looks at an SAT or ACT before taking the official tests.
GALLANT: Takes time in advance to find out what such important tests look like.
GOOFUS: Shows up on test day hungry, tired, and over-caffeinated.
GALLANT: Arrives rested, well-fed, and ready for sustained performance.
GOOFUS: Forgets a calculator, photo ID, admission ticket, or some other important item.
GALLANT: Packs everything needed for test day the night before.
GOOFUS: Tests at the last minute in conflict with other major commitments.
GALLANT: Plans ahead to avoid testing during important academic or extracurricular activities.
GOOFUS: Decides to wing it and hope for the best.
GALLANT: Knows that your best results come from your best prep.
Munger, who I’ve also quoted on mental models and the power of reading, offered one more valuable insight on this topic: “A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you want to avoid.” Avoid being a Goofus on test day!