John Cleese on Stupidity

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John Cleese is one of the best observers and commentators on the human condition. He is deep and funny simultaneously. I disagree with his world view and some of his conclusions that arise from his observations. Nevertheless his observations are keen.

In this short clip, he focuses on people who don’t know that they are stupid. Very funny insights.

But let’s take that a bit deeper than just a look at stupidity. At the 0:25 mark, he quotes a professor, “In order to know how good you are at something, requires exactly the same skills as it takes to be good at thing in the first place.” Is this a true statement? In part, yes; in part, no. Let’s start from his premise that a “stupid person” doesn’t know he is stupid.

When my son was in preschool, we were sitting at the dining room table one night. I commented about an event of the day, “That is so stupid.” My son piped in, “Daddy said the S-word.” My wife and I stared at each other trying to recall if I had said the four letter word or not. My wife quickly recovered and asked, “What word was that?” My son look horrified at the prospect of repeating the forbidden word. After some coaxing and reassurance that he would not get in trouble, he proclaimed the S-word as “stupid.” He explained that at preschool two of the boys called everyone “stupid” so often, the teacher had told the kids to repeat “Don’t say ‘stupid’!” every time they heard the forbidden word.

So borrowing this preschool lesson, let’s change Cleese’s very funny use of the S-word to something more prosasic. Using more diplomatic language, we can translate that to “an inexperienced and uninformed person.” What does the translation do to our understanding of the professor’s point, “In order to know how good you are at something, requires exactly the same skills as it takes to be good at thing in the first place.”

Do I need to be as good at basketball as Michael Jordan or LeBron James to understand how good they are? I don’t need to be as good as they are to know that they could dribble around me or shoot over me without thinking twice. I may need to be as good to know how they get around me so easily. A coach like Brad Stevens can probably explain what these players can do better than the players can. The players know what it feels like to do it. A great coach can see what it looks like and  have others approach those skills through practice what the greats do through instinct and experience born of hard work.

Do I need to be as good a physicist as Einstein to know that his insights into the universe are powerful? No, but I do need to be a good physicist to see how he reached those conclusions with so little available or existing knowledge. A good professor can explain what Einstein did even if the professor cannot make the intuitions and mathmatical proofs from scratch that Einstein did.

As either a basketball player or a physicist, I can probably increase my appreciation for the skills displayed by these men by increasing my knowledge about what they did. As a teacher, I can study the greats and learn to explain the intuitive insights that others reach.

What does that teach us in our scouting endeavors? New parents and scouts are not in a good position to describe what they don’t know or to instantly understand what we are doing in scouting. The boys tend to come to understand through experiencing the program. They can sense when things are working well, but they can’t explain it to their parents.

So, now you face a frustrated parent that wants to know why his boy is not advancing faster. Why are you not holding classes. Why are you not having the boys sit down and be quiet. Why the meetings are so loud and chaotic.

You need to be the Coach Stevens or professor. You need to be able to explain that good scouting is not in classroom and is not based on being quiet. It is active and boisterous. Yet at the other end of the process come contemplative and respectable men. You need to have a sense of what Baden Powell sought for scouting to be.

Good scouting requires study from its leaders. It requires training to get the basics. It requires experience to get the subtleties. It requires advanced training and reading to learn to articulate the philsophy well and timely as issues arise.

An untrained and inexperienced leader is an asset to the unit because he can be present with his son. A leader who seeks training and experience is a boon to her unit because she can identify successes and failures and elicit insights from her scouts. The trained and experienced leader promotes scouts’ self discovery and fosters in the scouts a desire to learn.

Coming back to John Cleese, an untrained leader does not know they are not offering the best possible program to his son and his friends. He doesn’t know what he is missing.

Make sure that your unit leaders are trained online using ScoutingU (accessed through and make sure that your scoutmaster and assistant scoutmaster attend the in-person training for Introduction to Outdoor Leadership Skills. Your trained leaders may not have all the answers, but they will ask better questions and be well on their way to being a better coach and teacher.