Why smart people do stupid things

On June 5, 2009, Stanford University computer science professor Rajeev Motwani, 47, the teacher and mentor of the two Google founders (Sergey Brin and Larry Page), was found drowned in his own backyard swim pool. Friends said he didn’t know how to swim, according to the Stanford news release.

Motwani was the brain behind the Google search algorithm, and the man who put in money to help keep Google going when his two students initially ran out of cash. Read Sergey Brin’s blog on Motwani.

So, why would a smart man like Motwani build a pool in his house and not learn to swim? You ought to have realised by now if you don’t know how to swim, a swimming pool is a dangerous place for you. Keep away unless you have a swimming coach with you.

Every month in Singapore, people drown in public pools, even with lifeguards on duty!

Why do smart people do stupid things that endanger themselves and their loved ones? Read the book Everyday Survival, Why Smart People Do Stupid Things (2008), by Laurence Gonzales. He mentioned a scientist who locked his infant son in the car, leaving the kid to be baked to death.

The answer for our unthinking, life-threatening action is our behavioural script. The script guides us on a pre-determined set of actions, without taking into account new and additional information of the surroundings. For example, we go on a vacation trip up the mountain, and at a scenic spot, we fish out the camera and tell our spouse, “OK, just a little further back now… Smile.”

The author says: “Dozens of people have fallen to their deaths off the rim of the Grand Canyon at the scenic viewpoints. According to park records that date back to the 1920s, more than 20 percent of them died while taking or posing for photographs.” (p55)

Modern society has made us lazy and susceptible to previously unknown threats. “Curiosity, awareness, attention: Those are the tools of our everyday survival...we all must be scientists at heart or be victims of forces that we don’t understand,” says the author.

Live mindfully

Pay attention to your surrounding, to the people around you. Children do it naturally, says the author, and this practice was essential for survival in traditional societies. But in modern society surrounded by technology and gadgets, we stop paying attention, when we shift our focus from the real world to the electronic world.

To be in the moment is the ultimate act of redemption. To live with an unquenchable curiosity that sweeps away our mental models and makes everything new is the ultimate triumph we can experience as humans before inexorable forces pull us apart, says the author.

“Although it’s easy to pass through life as if in a waking dream, we can enrich our lives, make ourselves more effective, and sometimes even cast a protective web around ourselves and our children, by a habit of knowing—a craving to know—our world and ourselves and by the simple act of consciously paying attention.” (p266)

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Kid playing in the sea in Tioman