Two Smart Mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes. If you have never made a mistake, then you are probably not a person. Some people think they are immune to making mistakes, which is a mistake in and of itself. Even smart people screw up sometimes, they just screw up differently than an idiot would.

Intelligent people often make mistakes when it comes to knowledge. Not mistakes in what they know, but mistakes in what they think other people know. Intelligent people make mistakes when they assume other people don’t have knowledge. Intelligent people also make mistakes when they assume other people do.

Assuming other people are stupid is sort of a mean thing to do, but it is understandable how someone could draw that conclusion. If you pay attention to people at all, you will notice many people aren’t paying attention. There are a lot of people out there who just bumble through life. They don’t read signs. They don’t recognize facts. They appear to have no interest in the world around them. It’s easy to think these bumblers don’t know anything, especially for those of us who pay attention most of the time.

Waiting in line

“Does anyone remember what we’re waiting for?”

A person who is very smart, and has knowledge in physics or history or whatever else, might think they are the only ones around with this specialized knowledge. After all, other people aren’t even paying attention, how could they possibly know about the speed of light, the Sumerian King List, or the themes in Tolstoy? Many smart people assume it is their duty to pontificate on the subjects they know about, to demonstrate their mastery of knowledge, and to force the ignorant to notice.

If you feel it is your duty to tell people things they don’t know, without first asking them what they do, then you are going to sound like you are talking down to them. In truth, you probably are talking down to them. A little bit. Smart people who assume other people don’t know things are making a mistake. You can’t really know what other people know without talking to them. Even then, the knowledge of other minds is always a bit mysterious.


“Come on. Just tell me where you hid the cookies.”

Not all smart people are egotistical jerks who assume other people don’t know things. There are many intelligent people out there who understand knowledge is not personal property. Any person can know anything another person does. All human beings have the capacity to learn. Many smart people assume, as an act of humility, that other people know the same things.

Just as it is a mistake to assume other people don’t know things, it is a mistake to assume they do. Of the two mistakes smart people make, between assuming others don’t have knowledge and assuming they do, I have always though the latter option is the nicer option. I have thought it less judgmental to assume others know things than to assume they don’t. Then I thought some more, and I am not so sure of my earlier assessment.


If you don’t like changing your mind, then don’t think about anything.

Of course, it is judgmental to assume other people don’t know anything. Is it not also judgmental to assume they do? Would you rather have someone teach you something you already know, or be confused when they neglect to tell you something you didn’t?

I think I would choose to be told something I already know, except that I have always hated being told things I already know. Then again, I always feel terrible when I ask someone a question, and they reply, “You don’t already know this? How could you not already know this?”

Do I want others to assume I am smart and then fail them, or do I want others to assume I am stupid and then surprise them? It seems like an easy choice, but all choices seem easy when you don’t think about them.

Smart people make mistakes when they make assumptions about the knowledge of others. No matter what, they risk being, or at least sounding judgmental.

The truth is, you can never be certain of the knowledge of others. There are no solid guidelines for avoiding these mistakes, even for smart people.

It’s too bad that is not the sort of thing smart people like to hear.


“Just tell me the answers so I can pass the test!