Shame: The Feeling of Stupid

Going to an English boarding school, shame was a big part of the academic experience. Things that would never, ever be done in the American system were standard operating procedure in England. The limeys loved to name and shame…literally. After finals, each grade would gather in the school theatre and the headmaster would read out the names of every single kid starting with the kid who came last.

While Americans may not publicly expose academic failure to the group in such an obvious way, the emotional experience of failing academically is often the same. The student feels stupid. And stupid is a feeling. It’s the feeling of shame.

The problem is that shame motivates avoidance…

…and hiding…

…and the key to learning is embracing and analyzing mistakes.

Feeling stupid is literally the most unhelpful way to feeeeeeeeeeel about mistakes. The big problem is that whether schools are intentionally shaming students (as my school did in England) or unintentionally shaming students (as many schools in America do) the problem is that students very often don’t know HOW to learn from mistakes. The result is that the source of the shame doesn’t get dealt with. Instead, the shame just builds and builds until the kid gets fed up with feeling stupid and just decides not to care. They say, “Whatever.” This strategy is emotional self-preservation and, in that sense, it works short-term. Whatever is clever. Long-term it sets up problems because they just avoid that whole area of activity. A LOT of adults trying to make it in the modern age are still running from academic subjects that created the feeeeeeling of stupid as kids.

And yet, fixing that is very simple. You confront the shame. You’re honest that your feeeeeeeeeelings about the subject are driving your thinking about the subject. Stupid is not a fact. Your brain has learned lots of things. And when you do the right kind of practice, you’ll get good at the thing that is currently the source of your shame. However, all of this requires confronting the feeling that makes you avoid, hide and bury problems. You have to take actions that are the opposite of what the feeling motivates.

Light really is the best disinfectant. Once students get their mistakes out and start analyzing them and using them to improve, it’s never as bad as it seems. Again and again, it turns out that that bad grade is the result of a relatively small number of gaps in understanding. Fix those and it all starts to make more sense.

In practice though, it’s worth recognizing that while we run from shame we actually can’t escape it. Shame is something we carry within us. My own feelings of stupid from high school mostly centered on writing and English. Ironically, much of what I now do is write. Part of the reason why we practice Mixed Mental Arts is because in order to be effective in the modern world we have to be like Bryan Callen. In the world of entertainment, we talk about triple threats. People who not only act but also sing AND dance. That’s Bryan Callen.

Actually though, Bryan does so much more. I won’t sing Bryan’s praises…because he even does a really good job of singing his own praises. I will say that I don’t think any of us is going to get very far in the modern world running from some middle school shame about how we did in writing, math or anything else.

Shame sucks as an experience. It sucks to feeeeeeeel stupid. So, confront that feeling and work through it. Rather than running from what you don’t know, embrace it and explore it. Success in the 21st century comes down to learning, unlearning and relearning.

The future for all of us is going to be defined by constantly running smack up against our own ignorance and mistakes. So, it’s time to train a new emotional association. Ignorance and mistakes should trigger feelings like curiosity and excitement at the opportunity to improve because those feelings will motivate you to improve quickly. Are you really going to let the course of your life be determined by the ill-informed opinions of middle school you? I doubt you have the same taste in music. Why should you have the same feeeeeeeeeelings about learning?


Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *