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Is Dumb the New Smart?

  • The Find: Those who want to get ahead in this tough economy should stop trying to be the smartest guys in the room and focus on looking like the dumbest, says one Columbia Business School professor.
  • The Source: A post entitled "Dumb is the New Smart" on the Columbia Business School Public Offering blog written by Brian Belardi and discussing the views of finance and economics professor Seth Freeman.
The Takeaway: Of all the explanations of what caused the current financial crisis, professor Freeman's may be the most novel: we weren't dumb enough, or to be more accurate, we weren't willing to act dumb enough. As Belardi explains it, Freeman believes that "failing to ask the right questions -- no matter how embarrassing -- allows us to be overwhelmed by jargon and complex terms, making us more susceptible to questionable practices." Excessively complicated dealings that no one (or very few) adequately understood but all were afraid to question? Sounds much like the financial nightmare we're all currently living through. Would it have all been averted (or at least lessened) had more people simply been willing to stand up and say 'I have no idea what you're talking about'? As a professor, Freeman underlies the point to his student with an exercise:
Students pretend to be teams of entrepreneurs, preparing extensively. I walk into class in the role of a corporate executive and give each team a complex investment offer. Secret: My character wants to take over their businesses, using charm, jargon and complicated terms. If they understand my offer, or admit to themselves they don't understand it, they'll walk away. Yet, it's easy to con a third to a half of them into fatal deals.
For more of Freeman's ideas, check out his recent USA Today op-ed.

The Question: In the exercise above, would you be willing to ask stupid questions or would you get conned?

(Image of confused stick figure by Tall Chris, CC 2.0)