What stupid is

illustration of four cats, one of which is wearing a dunce cap

I was sitting on my couch hoarding a “Sharing Size” box of Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies and clicking and re-clicking “x new Tweets” this evening, when I was rescued by a friend who was having some technical difficulty with an e-book she was building. A few of our Twitter friends made suggestions on how to troubleshoot the issue, and I did, too, but to no avail. I asked to see the file, she e-mailed it, and not only did the file also crash on my machine, but it caused a seemingly permanent crash-on-launch issue with Adobe Digital Editions, the application we were trying to view it in. I use ADE every day, as I borrow a shocking quantity of e-books from the New York and Brooklyn public libraries, so this was not a crash I could just ignore.

So I spent probably the next hour just straightening that out, through a series of haphazard and, as it turned out, needlessly drastic procedures: uninstalling ADE, trashing all my preferences, cleaning all my caches, rebooting into single-user mode, running AppleJack, reinstalling the app, and then . . . still getting the crash. Downloading an application-removal utility to make sure I was clearing out all the hidden bits. Creating a fresh user account on my Mac, switching to that account, opening ADE there (worked), opening the file there (crashed), etc.

Eventually I narrowed that problem down to where I could stop the crashing by deleting one tiny XML file in an invisible directory, and that method led me down a whole new (wrong) avenue of troubleshooting for the original problem. I diffed chunks of the broken file against one that worked, and I moved bits of code around, adding or tweaking, trying to find the one crucial difference. I tried opening the file in various other apps, in all of which it worked fine. Finally, I used Sigil, a semi-WYSIWYG tool, to rebuild the EPUB package from its component HTML and CSS files, and, Lo! the file finally opened!

I immediately e-mailed it back to my friend.

And then it crashed again, when I turned to the second page.

So that led to a new line of investigation, and within another five minutes, I had narrowed it down to the actual source of the problem: a new-to-us variation of a long-known bug in Adobe Digital Editions’ CSS parser. The CSS file was the very first place my friend had been advised to look for the problem. And it only took us a little over three hours to figure that out!

I was delighted.

But my friend was desolated. She felt stupid, so stupid, pissed at herself, and stupid.

I tried to stress how this was a learning experience, and how cool it was that we had found a bug that we’d never heard anybody else mention! And I’d had fun, and I hadn’t been planning to do anything with those three hours, anyway! But she was still bummed.


I want to make sure you know about this thing called “mindset.”

I had been aware of this concept for several years, but I didn’t really get it until I read Heidi Grant Halvorson’s excellent book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. (When I’m not eating Cheddar Bunnies and refreshing Twitter, I like to pass the time by reading pop psychology books.) Halvorson, in turn, credits the idea to Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford of whom Wikipedia currently alleges,

Her key contribution to social psychology relates to implicit theories of intelligence, per her 2006 book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. According to Dweck, individuals can be placed on a continuum according to their implicit views of where ability comes from. Some believe their success is based on innate ability; these are said to have a “fixed” theory of intelligence (fixed mindset). Others, who believe their success is based on hard work, learning, training and doggedness are said to have a “growth” or an “incremental” theory of intelligence (growth mindset). Individuals may not necessarily be aware of their own mindset, but their mindset can still be discerned based on their behavior. It is especially evident in their reaction to failure. Fixed-mindset individuals dread failure because it is a negative statement on their basic abilities, while growth mindset individuals don’t mind or fear failure as much because they realize their performance can be improved and learning comes from failure. These two mindsets play an important role in all aspects of a person’s life. Dweck argues that the growth mindset will allow a person to live a less stressful and more successful life. Dweck’s definition of fixed and growth mindsets from a 2012 interview:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

I’ve read both books, and I prefer Halvorson’s (pragmatic, peppered with summaries of persuasive research) to Dweck’s (repetitive, speculative, celebrity-focused), but either one will suffice to pound this very important idea into your head.

Note that mindset is said to be a continuum—you probably don’t have all one or the other. Also, you may have a fixed mindset about some of your abilities and a growth mindset about others. Quite a lot of people have fixed mindsets about “intelligence” (whatever that is), while they might have a growth mindset about, say, bicycle riding. Some people have a fixed mindset about computer programming, and quite a lot of people have it about math, while we assume that nearly every child will eventually figure out the profound mysteries of speech and bipedal locomotion.

The point is that whatever it is you have a fixed mindset about, if it’s something you think you’re bad at, you’re going to get worse at it, and if it’s something you think you’re good at, . . . you’re going to get worse at it. Whether you want to become good at something new or stay good at something you already have a knack for, you will get a lot farther if you can manage to not get hung up on looking like you know what you’re doing, or getting everything right on the first try. Dweck offers some pointers on her site, in How can you change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? I like Halvorson’s succinct advice: Focus on getting better, rather than being good. This is also a key tactic in reducing stereotype threat. And perhaps you’ve heard about that ten-thousand-hours-of-practice thing and how Talent Is Overrated?

Either way, don’t call yourself “stupid” for taking what seems to you like a long time to figure something out. What would actually be “stupid” is to be afraid that trying to learn or solve something will make you look stupid.


Photo: Five cats, one sitting with a dunce cap while one reads from a book to the other three. [front], a public domain image posted by Boston Public Library.

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