People Are Stupid But Harmless

It is very embarrassing to share, but this incident changed my understanding of how the world works.  

When I was in high school, I was a member of the Disco Club.  I learned all the moves.  I wore elephant bell jeans: the cuffs slapped each other everywhere I walked, providing everyone a distant warning of my approach.  I wore silky polyester shirts with at least two buttons open.  

Then, suddenly, the disco era ended.  

In an instant, my wardrobe switched to cotton.  Mainly Izod.  My music allegiance immediately transferred from the BeeGees to the B-52s. From disco to punk.  My entire value system quickly shifted.  The world’s crazy suddenly stopped, and we bought button-down collar shirts.

Now I know that about myself, and it is a part of myself I don’t like.  But the most disturbing part is that it wasn’t only me.  EVERYONE I knew did the same thing.  Everyone in my world instantly changed what they believed to be true.  They followed fashion, not principles.

But ever since that incident, I have been less alarmed by weird movements.  Alarming political trends, demagogues, disturbing fashions, and outbreaks of mass hysteria don’t stress me.   I’ve been alive long enough to know that the world will eventually flip back.

Do you suffer from insomnia because of a politician or some moral trend? Don’t worry, stupid will soon be replaced by another type of stupid. Relax. People are fickle in their stupidity.

Am I still a tourist ?

Visiting 50 countries is on my bucket list.  I’m still at 35.  Three more are planned for next Spring.

This picture shows the countries I’ve visited:countries

Some I’ve visited for hours, some for days, and some for years.

How do I define a visit?  

If I sprint through Heathrow airport during a connection to Paris, did I visit England?  Can I include that on my list?  (I did that, and I didn’t include it.)

This is my rule for inclusion on the list:  a conversation, a meal, and a pee.  In order to have visited a place, I need to meaningfully talk to someone, eat something, and use the restroom.

In my view, foreign exposure is a range: tourist –> visitor –> resident –> citizen.

I did some research on this topic.  One study I co-authored (unpublished) indicated that breadth is more important than depth for developing cultural intelligence (CQ).  Visiting multiple countries for a short time each affects CQ more than living in one new country for multiple years.

That is why I visit as many countries as I can.  But for each of these countries, I can’t claim cultural expertise after a short visit.

Many people mistakenly generalize.  Someone visits the countryside of Ireland for a few days, then tells us how all Europeans prefer darker coffee, or that the European climate is damp.  This is an error.  One Irish town doesn’t represent Dublin, much less Kiev and Athens.

To understand a place as much as possible in a short time, I engage in three activities:

  1. Visit a local grocery store, to see how locals sustain themselves.
  2. Walk around the city in early morning, before the crowds arrive,  as shopkeepers prepare for the day.
  3. Ride pubic transportation.  If the country has none, commute the way common people commute.


I challenge you to visit as may places as possible, and to learn as much as you can while there.

Side Note:

As you can see from the map, my exposure to Africa is lacking.  If you would like to finance a trip there, please contact me at brock@BrockStout.org.  Economy class flights are adequate.

::: Be fierce. Be kind. Be knowledge-hungry. :::

I’m Not That Famous

I built new shutters for my house last year.

My old ones were old shuttervinyl shutters with fake louvres, purchased from a hardware store.  (“Vinyl” sounds better than “plastic.”)

new shutter

I bought lumber and built new ones.   I painted them black.  The new shutters attach two boards, and feature a diamond shape in the middle.

Very cute, you must admit.

It shows I’m creative.  But cute shutters don’t qualify me as eminently creative.


Picasso changed the way we think about painting.  He never made cute shutters.  Picasso would have endured living in a home with vinyl shutters, rather than be distracted from his calling.

Eminent creatives are different from every-day creatives.  I discuss this in my upcoming book, Glitchy People Save the World.  But if you’re interested, you can check out research on the issue, such as Sylvia, et al. (2011) or Batey & Furnham (2006).  

If I need to replace shutters in the future,  I’ll outsource it to professionals.


Batey, M., & Furnham, A. (2006). Creativity, intelligence, and personality: A critical review of the scattered literature. Genetic, Social, and General Psychology Monographs, 132, 355–429

Silvia, P. J., Kaufman, J. C., Reiter-Palmon, R., & Wigert, B. (2011). Cantankerous creativity: Honesty–Humility, Agreeableness, and the HEXACO structure of creative achievement. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(5), 687-689. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.06.011

Great Leaders Feel Deserving

Many potential leaders never reach greatness because they feel they lack a mandate to lead.

Consider the case of Babur.

Babur ascended the throne of Fergana in in what is now Uzbekistan.   It was 1494, when Spain was claiming Caribbean islands, and Babur was only 12 years old.   At age 14 he led his forces to conquer Samarkand.   Soon after, he lost Fergana, his original holding.  Attempting to reconquer Fergana, he lost control of both.

Five years later, Babur tried to capture both again and failed.  He should have become a tent maker, or used his influence to amass wealth along the silk road trade, which passed through the region.   But he was the grandson of Timur (aka Tamerlane).   It was his right to lead.

So Babur turned his attention southward.

He invaded northern India, and built the Mughal empire.   It lasted until the British Raj in 1858.

The Muslim presence in India facilitated the export of Indian knowledge to Europe and the Arab world.   This included mathematics.

Mathematics made commerce and industry possible.   It made the technology revolution possible.


A common cause of failure to launch is what psychologists call Imposter Syndrome.  Many people fear others will discover their inadequacies.   “Only a matter of time before people figure out I’m a fraud, that I’m only pretending to be talented.”   Amanda Palmer (of Dresden Dolls) calls it the Fraud Police.

You probably are faking it a little.   Everyone is.   You must be courageous anyway.   We have to be comfortable with not being completely adequate, because no one is adequate.

Be like Babur.   Be a tenacious, entitled brat.   Just a little.   And eventually you will become the leader you need to be.   Then you’ll change the world.

Be Inclusive

(This post is part of my series on leadership lessons in history.)

The Roman empire promoted locals in conquered lands to trusted positions within the empire.  George Washington could have never become prime minister in England.  But in an earlier age he could have become a Roman senator (Peter Drucker has observed).

symbolsBecause of this practice, people felt like part of the empire, not subjects.  They were stakeholders rather than slaves.

The culture of inclusion was pervasive.  Centuries after the fall of Rome, many people still thought of themselves as Roman citizens.

Maybe you are governing a non-profit that employs mostly volunteers.  Maybe you are managing the integration of a corporate merger.  In either case, you must make people feel they are vital parts of the organization.  Help them to feel like citizens rather than hirelings.

Rome didn’t make people feel like citizens by claiming “people are our greatest asset.”  The empire had a policy of promoting the best, regardless of geography.

When I was a consultant in Asia, I observed that British companies were sometimes more successful that their French counterparts because they hired and promoted locals.  French firms often insisted that the smartest people were all French, so only French nationals could hold executive posts.   I was told that it was the heritage of the two colonial eras.  Top colonial posts were always occupied by French nationals, but locals could be promoted in British colonies.

Equating inclusion only with skin color is a missed opportunity.  A potentially greater strategy: promoting people from diverse geographies, unrelated corporate divisions, and unconventional educational backgrounds.

Better Leaders Recruit Variety

The Parsi have lived in India for a long time.  Many centuries.  They still tell a legend of their journey to become one of India’s ethnic groups.  

The Parsi were Zoastrians living in Persia.  Zoastrianism had been the main religion for 1,050 years, but when Arabs invaded and Islam became predominant, Parsi adherents became outsiders in their own country.  They wanted to maintain their cultural distinctness, so packed their suitcases.  They wandered and arrived in India.

A Hindu king initially refused to allow their settling.  To illustrate his situation, the king showed them a bowl full to the brim of milk, and said it would overflow if more milk were added.  

Parsi leaders responded by pouring sugar into the milk, which was absorbed and did not overflow the bowl.  The sugar also adds sweetness, they said.

The king was convinced.

The Parsi still live in India, and still maintain their distinct identity.  Their unique skills, and the connections they had as outsiders, have greatly benefited India’s economy over the centuries.  They have added sweetness.

Smart outsiders have improved other economies and cultural ecosystems.  Jews in Europe and Chinese in Southeast Asia built economies, to the benefit of locals.  


Suggestion:  as a leader, you should bring in outsiders from other cultures.  Let them maintain their distinctiveness rather than mainstreaming them.  They will add flavor and improve connection opportunities with the outside.  

If your diversity strategy involves hiring people who differ only in the way they look, but who graduated from the same business school as yourself, you might be missing an opportunity to accomplish great things.   

I’ve done research on this.  Serious research, experimental designs with groups   (paper publication pending).  Social scientists don’t agree.  Some research claims diverse groups are more creative, and other research posits that diverse groups are ineffective.  So I spent two years experimenting.  It turns out that the optimal combination is a group of similar people who are similar, but who have all spent significant time interacting with other cultures.  

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