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William Nicholson: I for Idiot (1898)

"What I choose to do in that moment always defines the outcome of my effort."

When contracting for consulting work, I'd usually confide to my prospective client that if we agreed to terms, at some point during the following engagement, he would find himself convinced that he had hired a complete idiot as a consultant. I suggested that what we chose to do then would define the effort's success. This prediction usually came true, not because I possess any particular foresight but because it was in the nature of the sort of work I contracted to perform that I would usually appear to be an idiot if I performed well. I would not always seem capable of foreseeing because what I would be doing could not be foreseen but always needed to be prized out, discovered in stream, and not usually beforehand. It was more hunt-and-peck work that the less experienced invariably attempted to manage utilizing prior specification, a sure and certain recipe for the appearance of idiocy at some time during the proceedings.

We seem to be, as a species, very skilled at Idiot-Making.
We can transform virtually anyone into an idiot by merely less than generously interpreting their performance. We secretly enjoy savaging what we might not completely understand and even gleefully engage in situations nobody could reasonably expect to understand. Derision might serve as the default defense, leaving us at least feeling smarter than we started, more intelligent than that absolute idiot we're deriding. How stupid is this behavior? It's plenty stupid, it seems, but still wildly popular. Ask the loyal opposition how much disdain they're exposed to daily, and you'll learn that it's their steady diet when in the presence of their opponents. We seem to work hardest to divide ourselves further whenever we find ourselves divided.

Donald Trump, of course, must be the exception, for he's so obviously an idiot he might even be the much-vaunted complete one. It's not enough to recount his track record, which as president renders him objectively the worst incumbent so far on record. He could stand plenty diminished even if nobody ever suggested he was also an idiot. He might be more brilliant than even his wisest opponent could possibly expect, which might one day translate into him outsmarting his understandably fierce opposition. Few designations better position anyone than the ones that designate him an idiot. The label alone turns off an otherwise steadfast opposition's defenses and inhibits the labeler perhaps more than it ever does the labeled. We screw ourselves when we deeply discount our opponent's intelligence. It might be better for everyone involved if we could somehow stand to designate as a genius everyone we cannot understand. It might mean that I'm acting as the idiot whenever I'm in the business of Idiot-Making others.

My prescription for resolving many of this world's ills involves avoiding designating anyone an idiot. It also insists that I should not treat anyone as if they were anything but an undiscovered genius and that the onus for not understanding always, always, always, first lands in my own two hands and nobody else's. I'm suggesting that I try to hold myself responsible for making more generous interpretations, even The Most Generous Possible. However, this expectation often proves impossible due to inherent limitations in my own imagination. I usually have to settle for extending some middle-field generosity because I'm too much of an idiot to imagine anything loftier in that instant, so I'm stuck with whatever I can manage. Aren't we each usually similarly disadvantaged?

It might be that everybody qualifies as a misunderstood genius and that nobody or very few deserve to be labeled anything less. We must presume, I guess, but it baffles me why, when I presume, I so often do so in ways that worsen my own experience. I'd rather act to better my experience, though I don't always engage as if I intended to. When tangled up in the passions of the moment, I must forget the lesson almost every act of Idiot-Making ever attempted to teach me. At some point, I remember suggesting you'll be convinced you've hired an absolute idiot as your consultant. What I choose to do in that moment always defines the outcome of my effort. I, for Idiot, indeed!

©2023 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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