Why Smart People do Stupid Things

Consulting firms prize people who are logical, analytical, and rational.

However, smart people routinely make “stupid” decisions. Here’s why.

Smart people are like Superman. They have superhuman abilities (in this case, intellectual).

BUT, also like Superman, they have an Achilles' heel — a vulnerability and weakness that can bring even the most superhuman of us crashing down to our knees.

Superman’s Achilles' heel is kryptonite — a physical object that renders his superhuman physical powers completely useless.

Many smart people have their own version of kryptonite. It is strong enough to make a brilliant intellect become completely ineffectual. It will cause the most rational of minds to do irrational things.

I’ve seen this happen at McKinsey over and over again. I’ve seen those with PhDs from MIT in the hard sciences do completely irrational things.

I’ve seen this in McKinsey partners, in McKinsey engagement managers, and in McKinsey clients. I’ve seen it in industry. I’ve seen it amongst people I’ve worked for and people who’ve worked for me.

Even if you don’t personally have this kryptonite, I am confident that two out of the three people around you have this form of intellectual kryptonite.

If you aren’t aware of what vulnerability does to you or the people around you, it will cause you to be caught completely off guard.

What has the power to cause smart people to do stupid things, even if they know better? What is this mysterious "X factor"? What exactly is the kryptonite that completely neutralizes a high IQ?

It is...

Low Self-Esteem.


That’s it?

How can something as seemingly simple as low self-esteem bring down an otherwise smart person?

Here’s how.

Esteem = How you feel about yourself.

Esteem can come from one of two sources: 1) Yourself; or, 2) Other people, organizations, or institutions.

If your esteem comes from within you, it’s called self-esteem.

When your esteem is derived from other people or organizations, it’s called “other-esteem.”

Here’s a simple test to figure out from which source you derive your esteem.

If you have self-esteem, and if you get fired, did poorly on your GMAT score, got rejected from Harvard for grad school, didn’t get into McKinsey and someone calls you a loser, you’re disappointed but not shaken. You know you have inherent worth.

If instead you have “other-esteem,” if you get fired, you’re devastated. If you did poorly on your GMAT, you feel terrible about yourself. If you get into Harvard you’re elated, because it’s now obvious to you and others that you’re now a “somebody.” If you get that McKinsey offer, you’re on top of the world... but then if you don’t get promoted, you feel worthless.

If any of this sounds familiar either for yourself or the people you know, it’s important to recognize the role esteem plays in how people see the world and make decisions about their lives.

When you, or someone you know, operate in an other-esteem based view of the world, you’re unusually susceptible to the opinions of others. This creates a vulnerability in your decision-making process.

You will be at risk of making poor choices in hopes of getting external validation and esteem from others. This insecurity can be exploited by others. It can be used to incentivize you to do what they (not you) want. It can be used to penalize you.

When you need "other-esteem," you make the other people in your life all powerful.

So what’s the solution to inoculate yourself from other-esteem?

Answer: Develop your own internal form of “self-derived esteem.”

If you’d like to learn how to do this, consider my program on How to Develop Unshakeable Self-Esteem and Incredible Self Confidence. This is a downloadable program I developed from a series of classes I conducted on the components of unshakeable self-esteem and how that translates into incredible self confidence.

To learn more, just Click Here.

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1 comment… add one
  • Sam May 7, 2016, 6:06 pm

    Very insightful article. Another term for this idea is “the virtue of self-acceptance.” Acquiring the virtue of self-acceptance is something that was emphasized in previous generations (50+ years ago) but that seems to be forgotten in the modern era. Until you learn to accept yourself, you’re always going to be stuck in some form of immaturity. Of course, that is often easier said than done. And some folks may need professional assistance to accomplish this. But it’s something that’s very important to strive for.

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