8 Stupid Mistakes Smart People Make

Stupid Mistakes Smart People Make

I bet you know quite a few capable people who are staggeringly unproductive.  They work long hours, stress themselves out and never seem to make any significant progress, right?

Over the course of our lives we all develop unproductive habits that hinder us from gracefully achieving our critical goals.  And often, in the fast-paced world in which we live and work we don’t even notice that we’re making the same mistakes over and over again.  To live a balanced, beneficial life and engage in a long-term satisfying work, ridding ourselves of these oversights is imperative.

Here are eight mistakes smart people often make and how to avoid them:

1.  They confuse being busy with being productive.

In his book, The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferris says, “Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference.  Being busy is often a form of mental laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”  This is Ferris’ way of saying “work smarter, not harder,” which happens to be one of the most prevalent modern day personal development clichés.  But like most clichés, few people actually adhere to it.

Just take a quick look around.  The busy outnumber the productive by a wide margin.

Busy people are rushing all over the place, and running late half of the time.  They’re heading to work, conferences, meetings, social engagements, etc.  They barely have enough free time for family get-togethers and they rarely get enough sleep.  Yet, business emails are shooting out of their smart phones like machine gun bullets and their daily planner is jammed to the brim with obligations.

Their busy schedule gives them an elevated sense of importance.  But it’s all an illusion.  They’re like hamsters running on a wheel.

The solution:  Slow down.  Breathe.  Review your commitments.  Put first things first.  Do one thing at a time.  Start now.  Take a short break in two hours.  Repeat.

2.  They spend time pursuing bogus achievements.

Personal growth is healthy.  Personal growth is an achievement.  So long as it’s real.  The problem is the pressure to grow brings with it the incentive to make growth easier.  Or more precisely, to make growth seem easier.

‘Growth games’ that promote bogus achievements are popping up online at an alarming rate.  Many of them are contained within products and services provided by popular brand names like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.  They each contain a psychological underpinning that supports a growth game filled with bogus achievements – an accumulation of points that’s tied to the intended benefit of the core product or service.

With Facebook it’s friends.  With Twitter it’s followers.  With LinkedIn it’s connections.

Yes, each of them serves a legitimate purpose if used purposefully in moderation.  But most people get so carried away – obsessed – with the growth game’s point system that they completely forget about the legitimate reason they started using the product or service in the first place.

If you’re playing the game simply for entertainment’s sake, and you’re aware of it, great, more power to you.  But if you’re striving to achieve more and more friends, followers and connections for the sake of achieving them, your achievements are totally bogus.

This is why it’s imperative to get your mind right about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

The solution:   Simply ask yourself:  Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life?  Is it a true prerequisite for a genuine goal?  Alternatively, am I absolutely okay with doing this just because I like doing it, laboring free of any delusion that it benefits me or anyone else?  The Success Principles is a great read on this topic.

3.  They learn how to do something and never do it.

Sadly, very few people ever live to become the success story they dream about.  And there’s one simple reason why:

They never take action!

The acquisition of knowledge doesn’t mean you’re growing.  Growing happens when what you know changes how you live.   Most people live in a complete daze.  Actually, they don’t LIVE.  They just ‘get by’ because they never take the necessary action to make things happen – to seek their dreams.

It doesn’t matter if you have a genius IQ and a PhD in Quantum Physics, you can’t change anything or make any sort of real-world progress without taking action.  There’s a huge difference between knowing how to do something and actually doing it.  Knowledge and intelligence are both useless without action.  It’s as simple as that.

The solution:  Success hinges on the simple act of making a decision to live – to absorb yourself in the process of going after your goals.  So make that decision.  And take action.  For some practical guidance on taking action I highly recommend The Now Habit.

4.  They use the wrong measurements to track their progress.

You can’t control what you don’t properly measure, and what you measure predicts your future.  If you track the wrong things you’ll be completely blind to potential opportunities as they appear over the horizon.

Imagine if, while running a small business, you made it a point to keep track of how many pencils and paperclips you used.  Would that make any sense?  No!  Because pencils and paperclips are not a measure of what’s important for a business.  Pencils and paperclips have no bearing on income, customer satisfaction, market growth, etc.

Let’s use blogging as a real world example.  Many wannabe probloggers (folks who aspire to blog for a living) actually view their blog’s RSS subscriber count as their number one measurement of success.  They track it meticulously and then freak out when Feedburner (a popular  RSS tracking service) experiences one of its frequent hiccups.  But what they fail to realize is that their RSS subscriber count is not a crucial measurement for their goal of becoming a problogger because most RSS subscribers have a very low level of engagement with the host site and its various revenue generators.  And generating revenue is a must for a problogger.

Once again, what you measure predicts your future.  You should be measuring the things that are directly tied to your primary goal.

The solution:  The proper approach is to figure out what your number one goal is and then track the things that directly relate to achieving that goal.  In my example above on problogging, that goal should be “making money from a blog.”  And a few things worth tracking would be click through ratios on ads, affiliate conversion rates, in-house product conversion rates, customer/reader feedback, etc.

I recommend that you take some time to identify your number one goal, identify the most important things for you to keep track of and then begin tracking immediately.  On a weekly basis, plug the numbers into a spreadsheet and use the data to create weekly or monthly trend graphs so you can visualize your progress.  Then fine-tune your actions to get those trends to grow in your favor.

5.  They become obsessed with making things perfect.

Many of us are perfectionists in our own right.  I know I am at times.  We set high bars for ourselves and put our best foot forward.  We dedicate copious amounts of time and attention to our work/passion to maintain our high personal standards.  Our passion for excellence drives us to run the extra mile, never stopping, never relenting.  And this dedication towards perfection undoubtedly helps us to achieve results.  So long as we don’t get carried away.

But what happens when we do get carried away with perfectionism?

We become disgruntled and discouraged when we fail to meet the (impossibly high) standards we set for ourselves, making us reluctant to take on new challenges or even finish tasks we’ve already started.  Our insistence on dotting every ‘I’ and crossing every ‘T’ breeds inefficiency, causing major delays, stress overload and subpar results.

True perfectionists have a hard time starting things and an even harder time finishing them… always.  I have a friend who has wanted to start a graphic design business for several years.  But she hasn’t yet.  Why?  When you sift through her extensive list of excuses it comes down to one simple problem.  She is a perfectionist.  Which means she doesn’t, and never will, think she’s good enough at graphic design to own and operate her own graphic design business.

The solution:  The real world doesn’t reward perfectionists.  It rewards people who get things done.  And the only way to get things done is to be imperfect 99% of the time.  Only by wading through years of practice and imperfection can we begin to achieve momentary glimpses of the perfection.  So make a decision.  Take action.  Learn from the outcome.  And repeat this method over and over and over again in all walks of life.  Also, check out Too Perfect.  It’s an excellent read on conquering perfectionism.

6.  They wait until they feel 100% ready before acting on an opportunity.

This point is somewhat related to the point above on perfectionism, but encompasses enough on its own to be discussed separately.

The number one thing I persistently see holding smart people back is their own reluctance to accept an opportunity simply because they don’t think they’re ready.  In other words, they believe they require additional knowledge, skill, experience, etc. before they can aptly partake in the opportunity.  Sadly, this is the kind of thinking that stifles personal growth.

The truth is nobody ever feels 100% ready when an opportunity arises.  Because most great opportunities in life force us to grow emotionally and intellectually.  They force us to stretch ourselves and our comfort zones, which means we won’t feel totally comfortable at first.  And when we don’t feel comfortable, we don’t feel ready.

The solution:  Remember that significant moments of opportunity for personal growth and development will come and go throughout your lifetime.  If you are looking to make positive changes in your life you will need to embrace these moments of opportunity even though you will never feel 100% ready for them.

7.  They inundate themselves with too many choices.

Here in the 21st century where information moves at the speed of light and opportunities for innovation seem endless, we have an abundant array of choices when it comes to designing our lives and careers.  But sadly, an abundance of choice often leads to indecision, confusion and inaction.

Several business and marketing studies have shown that the more product choices a consumer is faced with, the less products they typically buy.  After all, narrowing down the best product from a pool of three choices is certainly a lot easier than narrowing down the best product from a pool of three hundred choices.  If the purchasing decision is tough to make, most people will just give up.

Likewise, if you inundate yourself too many choices, your subconscious mind will give up.

The solution:  If you’re selling a product line, keep it simple.  And if you’re trying to make a decision about something in your life, don’t waste all your time evaluating every last detail of every possible option.  Choose something that you think will work and give it a shot.  If it doesn’t work out, choose something else and keep pressing forward.

8.  They lack balance in their life.

If you ask people to summarize what they want out of life they cough up a lot of words like ‘Love,’ ‘Money,’ ‘Success’, ‘Family’, ‘Recognition’, ‘Peace,’ ‘Happiness,’ etc.  But all of these things are totally different, and most people want all of them in their life.  Sadly, a vast majority of people don’t balance their life properly to achieve them.

I know an extremely savvy businesswoman who made almost a million dollars online last year. Every entrepreneur I know considers her to be wildly successful.  But guess what?  A few days ago, out of the blue, she told me that she’s depressed.  Why?  “I’m burnt out and lonely.  I just haven’t taken enough time for myself lately,” she said.  “Wow!” I thought.  “One of the most successful people I know isn’t happy.”

I also know a surfer who surfs almost all day, every day on the beach in front of our condo complex in San Diego.  He’s one of the most lighthearted, optimistic guys I’ve ever met – always smiling from ear to ear.  But he sleeps in a van he co-owns with another surfer and they both frequently panhandle tourists for money.  So while I can’t deny that this man seems happy, I wouldn’t classify his life as a success story.

These are just two simple examples of imbalanced lifestyles.  I could think of dozens of other examples like these just out of the small pool of people I know personally.

The solution:  When your work life (or social life, family life, etc.) is busy and all your energy is focused in that arena it’s all too easy to find yourself off balance.  While drive and focus is important, if you’re going to get things done right you still need to balance the various dimensions of your life.  Completely neglecting one dimension for another only leads to long-term frustration and stress.  For some practical guidance on balancing your life I recommend Zen And the Art of Happiness.

Photo by: Florian Leroy


  1. says

    I would suggest one more item on this thought provoking list – identifying a larger purpose or their life purpose. The larger perspective enables us to keep our more immediate choices and actions in alignment with the long term – fueling energy, enthusiasm, meaning and satisfaction in our lives. Most people make the mistake of going from one short term goal to the other, searching for success and contentment, but instead end up feeling frustrated or tired by the short term challenges. I have elaborated on this in my blog post ‘Road Map to Personal Peace’ at http://serenereflection.wordpress.com/2010/10/18/road-map-to-personal-peace/

    Thanks and Warm Regards :)

  2. says

    Interesting points you make. I’ve been trying to grow my online handmade jewelry business and sometimes I feel like I am just chasing my own tail trying to twitter and facebook to get more people to look at my stuff. It can get exhausting.

  3. says

    And I make 3 out of 8 stupid mistakes!
    The question is not how busy I am. It’s what I am busy about and the answer disappoints me. Thank you for your latest wonderful punch!

  4. says

    Lacking balance in life can be very dangerous. There have been times in my life where I did was work or study. Sure my bank account was looking nice and my grades were high. The negative was that relationships were deteriorating in my life.

    Ever since I graduated from college last year my focus has been on creating balance. This means finding time to work, hang out with friends, work out, and do activities that I enjoy. Balance can really do wonders for your soul.

  5. says

    This is a great list – and one we need to actively pay attention to. Everyone thinks they are too smart to make these mistakes, but you never realize it until it’s too late. I tanked my business the first time around because I was focusing on the wrong stuff and doing probably half of this list. In the end, I got stuck having to get a crappy job for a while to make ends meet. Now, I actively track all those little things to ensure that I’m focusing on the right stuff and getting the right results. So pay attention to what you are doing and be honest with yourself: are your actions getting you closer to the end goal or not?

  6. says

    This is a really good post. Your right, it is mostly smart people who make these mistakes. Especially #6. Procrastination is runng rampant nowadays, its a wonder how we get anything done.

  7. says

    Thank you as always for providing some common sense perspective.

    I’ve recently started a blog as I’m a single mom home schooling my daughter while working full-time. There weren’t enough resources out there to help my small niche of parents and I wanted to provide information to people struggling with the same goal.

    As I was reading this, I was obsessing about my own blog. Was it being read? How do I get the audience I’m trying to help to read it? Am I offering something positive to the world?

    But the real reason I started was to get information out there. To help others looking for the same answers I am and along the way, find some new answers myself. Thank you for refocusing me on what matters.

  8. says

    so many points and I (sadly) find myself in some of them. BAAAD.

    But I’m glad you confronted me with these points – and you offered solutions, too !

    Especially the first 3 points make complete sense, and make up a part of what I’m doing (or not doing right) every single day.

    Thanx for the wake up :)

  9. says

    In the practical realm, yes.. these things help.
    Eventually it is good to also see that
    ‘whoever makes the most mistakes wins’ – title of another great book.

    And what is happening needs to happen. Often we end up ‘fighting’ with, resisting and opposing what is happening.. and that- in my view is the single biggest mistakes that we make.

    And I don’t really feel that there are really ‘smart’ people and dumb people. This is another convenient way to label. Like most labels, partially true and substantially wrong!

  10. says

    The stand out one for me is the drive for perfection, especially personally. Yes we need to improve, grow, push ourselves to expand our capabilities, but being perfectionist in nature means reaching for a target that you can’t hit. Best to aim for your best and then settle – settle for the sense of achievement, settle for the renewed feelings of accomplishment, and settle for knowing you gave enough and are enough. It’s the perfect solution!

  11. says

    Thanks for all the added insight, guys and gals! You rock!

    @Kiran: I agree. In real life, labels are unnecessary because every human being is unique. But in writing, especially in short headlines, labels must be used to convey the underlying message of an entire article in just a few short words. And I think in this article’s case, the headline fits the bill.

    Have a great week everyone!

  12. says


    What a great list of reminders!

    It’s so easy to feel like we’re doing something when we’re really just staying busy.

    I plan to re-read your list and forward it to family and friends.

    Kindest regards,

  13. says

    This really provoked me to think twice of what exactly I want to achieve and what efforts am I putting into for it.
    Thanks a lot Marc, it really helped.

  14. Terri says

    A friend of mine shared this post with me. I really enjoyed reading it, like your style of writing and I look forward to reading more of post in the future. I am subscribing to your RSS feed. Have a great day and I wish you success and happiness in all you do.

  15. says

    Great article. However, I don’t understand why you say the surfer is not a big success. I’d say he’s achieved at least a large portion of something people have been trying to find since the dawn of time: Happiness. It sounds to me like the business women is the failure in life, not the surfer. She obviously missed the whole point.

  16. says

    What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing. I really needed to read this. After reading, I can see several instances where I’m only busy, but not productive. I tweeted and liked and will be doing a blog post this afternoon linking to this post.

  17. says

    Most people think IQ is a good measure for how successful one would be, but often EQ (Emotional Quotient) will give us a clearer picture of a person’s productive abilities.

    Understanding your level of self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills will help you make better choices and avoid these mistakes.

    We are giving free emotional intelligence assessments to those who register for our Emotional Intelligence: Secret Ingredient to Workplace Success webinar.


  18. says


    I’m so happy I stumbled upon this post. Point #3 really hit home – I actually taught myself to tune pianos one summer. I don’t even own a piano. I’m looking forward to following your feed and sharing some of your insights.


  19. bryan says

    #9. They are penny wise and pound foolish — Driving an extra 10 miles to a gas station in the next town because a gallon is a 5 cents cheaper than the one right down the street.

  20. says

    Aloha, I love all of your posts! I’m new to your site but I’ve followed some of your recent work and I’m always looking forward to the next. Mahalo and keep you the great work.

  21. says

    There are so many busy people absolutely going no where in life. They stay busy chatting with friends, watching t.v., or driving around with no where to go.

    Facebook is the biggest time waster ever invented. The majority of users are supplying free traffic to the host.

    I am o.k. with using social bookmarking sites for business and personal as long as it is in moderation.

  22. says

    Marc – there is a LOT of great content here.

    Right off the bat, I found applications for in my life (confusing busy with productive). Two hours of work always comes with 45 minutes of distractions. Then work turns into having 10 windows open on my computer, papers all over my desk, BBM’s from my blackberry, and intermittently checking my e-mail every 7 minutes. Work smarter not harder. Really worthwhile advice because there is definitely an illusion casted around my perception of efficient work.

    How is that book the 4 Hour Workweek? It’s been on my Amazon wish list for a couple months now.

    Also, love the stuff you wrote in taking action and not waiting to be 100% ready. Made me think back to this amazing Mark Hansen quote:

    “Don’t wait until everything is just right. It will never be perfect. There will always be challenges, obstacles and less than perfect conditions. So what. Get started now. With each step you take, you will grow stronger and stronger, more and more skilled, more and more self-confident and more and more successful.”


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