The Self Destructive Nature of Humans: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things
This is a story you see or hear often. A super successful person in whatever field (academia, sports, politics, business, media) who seems to have it all. Wealth, fame, family or whatever is societally valued. But then suddenly out of the blue, they do something incredibly self-destructive that their reputation or career or life in general is ruined. This could be a massive business gamble, an affair, doing something borderline or even grossly illegal. Or some major socially reprehensible act.
I should also note this tends to happen in very wealthy & modern societies where we have had multiple decades of prosperity. In countries that are closer to trouble, surrounded by enemies (Israel) or recently just emerged from economic challenges or war, I am not sure you see this occur as much. Self destructive acts are luxury acts when you are far from subsistence or survival situations. Maybe when you have had too much success you feel the need to get closer to chaos so you can feel pain and feel alive.
Now at the ripe age of 48 I have even seen these self destructive situations happen to people I know, multiple times. I’ve always wondered about this. What would cause someone on the rise to do something so stupid. Why do I do this myself?
Is it arrogance? Thinking you can do no wrong. Or more likely hubris: which is defined as pride that makes the gods plot your downfall.
I can think back to my own career of the multiple times that I’ve acted out or just done/ said something plain stupid that led to my own career set backs. Easy to arrive at when you have some success and money. Very easy when you are a high flying executive at a rising tech company. Or a venture capitalist. I cringe when I think back to these moments. Teachable moments as they call it.
Maybe it’s an internal thing where you do not feel you deserve your success, so you self sabotage. Or perhaps you are genuinely unhappy despite the outside social perception of you being “successful”. The consequent self destructive act is one of subconscious self sabotage.
This happened to me multiple times, in the last year at Yahoo! where I ended up picking pointless political fights with other regional executives. Or as a VC acting out or going against my Partners or other colleagues views, requests or directives. This was definitely my situation in 2019.
What have I learned since then? The antidote to all of this is gratitude, humility and mission.
- Gratitude: just being happy and present. Something I learned during the pandemic. A regular daily gratitude exercise where you recount all your blessings whether health, wealth, family and friendships is usually enough to ground you.
- Humility: understand you are a work in progress and that mistakes are part of the learning process. Be okay with not knowing everything and be open to learning opportunities. Basically know that you don’t know anything. But as long as you make some small progress every day that’s all that matters. Ie. Kaizen=small incremental improvements over time.
- Mission: the key goals that drive you in all aspects of your life. The vision board exercise is invaluable. And it helps to focus you on what matters. It clarifies. If the action or time does not get close to fulfilling your mission, then don’t do it.
Maybe on top of all this, the most important thing is bringing some form of active discomfort into your life like taking cold showers, martial arts training, preparing for marathons and Iron Mans or fasting. I’ve posted this quote from Tim Ferris’ before but it’s so apt.
“The more you schedule and practice discomfort deliberately, the less unplanned discomfort will throw off your life and control your life.”
This keeps you from being too comfortable and maybe will help you get closer to your base survival instincts so you don’t get complacent and do stupid things. Perhaps this is the secret hack and could be the most important act that will keep you out of trouble.