You Gain the Most By Not Being Stupid

photography of book page

“You gain more by not being stupid than you do by being smart.” – Phil Birnbaum, baseball analyst, “An Important Life Lesson from Blackjack and Baseball

In an article published on, baseball analyst Phil Birnbaum talked about focusing on minimizing bad decisions rather than trying too hard to make the right decisions. Birnbaum continued by saying, “Smart gets neutralized by other smart people. Stupid does not.” That is to say, there will always be somebody smarter than you, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to be stupid.

Within that same article, Birnbaum mentioned how in blackjack, it’s much easier to try to lose than trying to win, because no one is trying to lose. Now, while knowing the odds and playing to your best chances of winning can certainly help, they don’t guarantee that you’ll win. But, by playing your best and using what knowledge you have to keep you from giving the game away, you’re gaining more from not being stupid than being a numbers-game savant.

In baseball, many organizations have beefed up their analytical departments in order to not be left behind by the big data revolution in the sport. At one sports analytics conference, Birnbaum is quoted as saying, “Being analytical can save you by filtering out the really stupid decisions.” This is because if you look at decision making analytically, and you gather and organize information well, you can reduce the potential of throwing away a high draft pick on a mediocre player or make smarter decisions on who should be starting every day for your team.

Birnbaum says in this same article, “If it’s true that sabermetrics [aka baseball analytics] helps teams win, I’d bet that most of the benefit comes from the “negative” side: having a framework that flags bad decisions before they get made.” Essentially, it’s hard to raise your ceiling, but it’s much easier to raise your floor.

Now, Birnbaum wrote this article with the intention of helping people apply what smart baseball organizations and good blackjack players do to real life. How many organizations do you know that are always looking for the best and brightest to put at the top, but aren’t so concerned with the lower levels of their business? How much do those lower-level people, who don’t have high ceilings to begin with, but have even lower floors, cost everyone else on the way up the organizational ladder?

That is to say, what are you worst at in your life? How much are your mistakes in certain areas of your life costing you in other ways? In an age of specialization, where the majority of our mind-space and training is focused on one specific career, other aspects of every day life, such as personal finance, nutrition, and time management go by the way side. For all the “programs” and “tools” available to help with these things, I’ve seen very few of them actually change people’s spending, eating, or scheduling habits. If anything, these things are designed with getting people more focused on work and less on taking personal time or bettering one’s own well-being.

The best way to begin being smart today is to figure out where you’ve been stupid; what have you been wasting your time on? Where are the low points in your life right now? What could you get better at that you’re absolutely dreadful at now? My entire life philosophy for the past several years, ever since having a mortal bout with cancer, is to spend more time raising my floor than trying to raise my ceiling. 

In my own experience, you actually become smarter by becoming less stupid over time. If you really don’t know about something, learn something about it. What you don’t know actually can hurt you in the long run. Having a more general interest in the world around you isn’t a distraction; it’s a must to become a more well-rounded, better human being. I can’t tell you how my dabbling in reading about business management, nutrition, and personal finance has saved me absolutely mind-boggling amounts of cash, especially when I was extremely low on resources, while still allowing me to have all my basic needs met.

My ideal world would be one in which organizations and individuals work harder on raising their floors and eliminating purely bonehead decisions than trying to shatter glass ceilings. That is to say, it doesn’t mean you can’t get smarter, but you only truly get smarter by diversifying, organizing, and employing your knowledge and experience better, not by drilling deeper and harder into a particular niche. 

Many people believe they are good at just one thing, and sometimes, that one thing is in long-term high demand, and that’s great. But, in my experience, people who are reaching the top of their industries are actually very well-read and highly self-educated individuals. If you think you’re only good in your specialty, take a step back and think about other things you might be good at. 

I’ve met farmers who became best-selling authors, doctors who became astute entrepreneurs, and deli workers who became social media managers. Sure, the knowledge and experience from their professions certainly colored their interests and goals. But, no matter where you start, you can achieve anything you set your mind to if you stop trying to be the smartest and just learn how to cover or eliminate your biggest weaknesses.

What ways do you think you can raise your own floor today?

~ Amelia Desertsong

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
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