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September 07, 2006

"Why Smart People Do Dumb Things" (Like Not Backup Their Hard Disk)


A strong mind masks immaturity.

—Dr. Mortimer Feinberg and John J. Tarrant

How did you end your summer? A nice barbeque at the beach or maybe a quiet afternoon with the family? Mountain biking? Surfing? Bloggin? Playing in a hockey tournament? Go ahead: Ask me how my summer ended.

On Saturday, September 2nd, I got up and found that my MacBook’s hard disk was quasi hosed--not totally hosed like “Accept fate--there’s nothing you can do, it’s dead.” I could somewhat access files and even come close to booting the MacBook. So unlike millions of other people, I ended my summer cajoling, coercing, and cursing my MacBook’s hard disk assisted by Data Rescue II (which got back some files I thought I’d never see again).

The $64,000 question is, “Why didn’t I have my MacBook completely and currently backed up?” During this weekend of aggravation, I read a book (at the suggestion of my buddy Bill Meade) called Why Smart People Do Dumb Things by Dr. Mortimer Feinberg and John J. Tarrant, and it answered this question.

Truly, the book answers much deeper questions than why I was too dumb to backup my MacBook, but the concepts are the same. The authors list four reasons why smart, famous, powerful, and rich people who should obviously know better end up crashing and burning:

  • Hubris. Pride to the point that you no longer feel shame, no longer believe that you are subject to public opinion, and no longer need to fear “the gods.” Examples: Gary Hart’s involvement with Donna Rice that ended his run for the presidency and the Dennis Kozlowski’s (Tyco) $2 million toga party.

  • Arrogance. From the Latin word arrogare: “to claim for oneself.” Arrogant people believe they have claim to anything and everything they want--they are “entitled” to it. King David, for example, felt entitled to the wife (Bathsheba) of one of his soldiers. Modern day King Davids feel entitled to corporate jets and an entourage to tell them that their keynote speech rocked.

  • Narcissism. Self absorption to the point that you are blind to reality. The world only exists to provide you gratification. Examples: Richard Nixon and Watergate; the Clintons and Whitewater—really just about every politician and CEO who falls from grace.

  • Unconscious need to fail. If you think failing is hard, try winning. The questions that go through people’s minds when they they are on the doorstep of success are: Do I really deserve to win? Do I want the pressure of constantly having to win in the future? Can I really handle success? Perhaps this explains why professional athletes still take performance enchancement drugs even after watching their colleagues get busted.

The authors go on to discuss maturity (the “capacity to make constructive use of our inmost feelings”) and what they call the “Six Basic Principles of Maturity.”

  1. Accept yourself. “You’re on the road to maturity if you can begin to appreciate yourself without trying to be what you cannot possibly be.” The CEOs who failed at Apple did so because they wanted to be another “Steve Jobs.” They couldn’t accept themselves and their own, different capabilities and shortcomings.

  2. Accept others. “Your relations with other people are a basic test of your maturity. If you don’t get along well with others, it’s not because you’re not smart enough, or because you’re smart and they’re dumb. It’s because you still need to grow up in some vital centers of your being.” For example, there are companies in Silicon Valley that maintain a “tyranny of PhDs” where only the advanced degreed are held in high esteem and marketing, operations, and others are fodder.

  3. Keep your sense of humor. “Your humor reflects your attitudes toward people. The mature person uses humor not as a bludgeoning hammer but rather as a plane to shave off rough edges.”

  4. Accept simple pleasures. “The capacity to get excited over things even when they seem ordinary to others—this is a sign of a healthy personality.” For example, some tech entrepreneurs have yachts that can barely pass under the Golden Gate Bridge. (I’d just be happy if I could skate backwards.)

  5. Enjoy the present. “Emotional grown-ups don’t live on an expectancy basis. They plan for the future, but they know they must also live in the present. The mature person realizes that the best insurance for tomorrow is the effective use of today.”

  6. Welcome work. “Appreciation of work is a hallmark of mature people.... Immature people are constantly fighting certain aspects of their work. They resent routine reports, or meetings, or correspondence. They allow these annoyances to grate on their nerves continually. Satisfaction in doing a good job is blocked out by the dust speck in the eye of resentment over trivia.”

Good stuff, huh? You could photocopy this posting and slip it under the corner-office door of you-know-who. There’s so much material in this book that this may turn into Feinberg-Tarrant Week. But back to my wasted weekend. Why didn’t I, a seemingly smart person with a computer background with difficult-to-replace files, not back up my hard disk?

  • Hubris: I no longer feared the hard-disk gods.

  • Arrogance: I was “entitled” to a trouble-free hard disk. Even if it did fail, I have enough connections for some company to jump through hoops to recover it for me.

  • Narcissism: Hard disk failure cannot happen to me, Guy Kawasaki. Now let me get back to admiring myself.

  • Unconscious need to fail. This, honestly, doesn’t apply to me. :-) Although, perhaps I had a conscious need for my hard disk to fail so that I wouldn’t have to answer my backlog of 300 emails.

As I learned from reading this book, whether you’re talking about business, politics, or your hard disk, it pays to be mature. The first thing I’m going to do is change my backup strategy....

Addendum: I am surprised by the reaction to this posting. I wanted to communicate a message about the corruption of power, money, and fame. However, people have focused on backup experiences and strategies. :-)

Be that as it may, Ross Williams pointed out a very funny site about the Tao of Backup. You must check it out.


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» Why Smart People Do Dumb Things from CMA Daily News
From Guy Kawasaki's Blog Signum sine tinnitu On Saturday, September 2nd, I got up and found that my MacBook’s hard disk was quasi hosed--not totally hosed like “Accept fate--there’s nothing you can do, it’s dead.” I could somewhat access files [Read More]

» Why Smart People Do Dumb Things from CMA Daily News
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Do get yourself a firewire drive and a copy of Super Duper and take care of this. This combination works wonders and it will only get better with that same firewire drive and the forthcoming Time Machine in Leopard.

you're brilliant.
having a rough time at work. and an even rougher time accepting that my pride is a part of the problem (not just my boss who is a real jerk). Having been searching the net for christian conduct at work. don't know you're religiuos leanings but your blog was the "preachin' and teachin" htat i needed today. sigh.

Guy, after reading your entry, it brought back memories of my hard drive crash last summer. I did not back up my data regularly, assuming that I would be able to save my data the following day, and then the day after, and so on. I found a pretty cool tool/service called Tilana Reserve. It monitors, and backs up everything I tell it to. I'm not sure if they're working on a Mac version yet, but I would still definitely check it out regardless. Their website is http://www.tilana.com

Dear Guy,
Your point about witholding info to the CEO is very interesting and makes a lot of sense. I've recently found out that the military have coined an acronym for this kind of behaviour: S.N.A.F.U.
Look it up, you'll find the story behind it quite interesting too.

For the backup and little in the way of thinkiness: SuperDuper.

For your backward skating physical challenge: take a lesson from a figure skater. Really, no one backs up as well, although a goalkeeper can backup better and faster than any of the other five position players. You need an actual lesson, cannot learn it from a book. I figure an hour and you are ready for a try out with the California Golden Seals....white skates are easier to backup in! Go Habs!!

Cheers, D.


When you read around the context there is a good message here. I think I should go and get the book and add it to this one from William Lundin "When Smart People Work for Dumb Bosses"


Now on to your follow up "When Smart Companies do Dumb Things"

I want to know which SV companies are the PhD tyrannies so I can make sure not to send my resume there.

Doug --
Or woefully uninformed. The clintons were exonerated of all wrongdoing in Whitewater in 1996 by Ken Starr's predecessor, who was then fired by a judge and replaced by Starr.

There is an automated desktop backup service from a telephone company, designed for small businesses... but it won't help them if they don't use it.


As it is, I think this type of service needs to be re-jigged to overcome exactly the user obstacles that you describe.

There are ways to make this sort of service more convenient and accessible to even those who suffer the problems Feinberg and Tarrant describe. The key is you don't want to tackle the job of 'educating the consumer.'

You want the service to work even for consumers who 'do dumb things,' as you put it.

That would be disruptive.


I've never been able to gauge how a certain post will be received. Glad to see I'm not the only one.

Re: your Addendum Guy:
Hubris unveiled is a much more daunting topic for many; talking tech is certainly easier. Your role-modeling however is priceless. Much mahalo.

Lots of talk about acceptance... Reminds me of of 12-step programs.

Great article on so many fronts. I must admit my first thought was I have not backed up for about two weeks now. But after that few seconds of fright (and taking the time to back up)I thought about how large groups of people exhibit the behaviors you talked about. Leadership teams as a whole often have collective hubris, arrogance and narcissism....not sure about the fear of failure. I am not sure if it is just following the leader or if these are just so much a part of how humans are wired....but in any event I could relate.

Guess we need strong friends and confidants to see those weaknesses and have the courage to challenge us on them periodically.


Guy... um.... .MAC !!! :)

Thanks, Jess.

www.carbonite.com works like a charm, with green dots and everything. $4.65/month, how can you lose?

The main content of your story about smart people not backing up their copies of documents. Well, I don't see why it should just be smart people; in fact I think generally people don't backup their stuffs, all depending too much reliance on hardware that they assumed will not break down. I can't disagree with you much further, but I think it pays to backup our own stuffs.

Ohmigawd! My entire PhD is on the laptop (Wintel) not to mention my million CV versions and my songs (not all of which I own on CD) and my photos (some of people who have since grown up considerably) and my phone numbers... Must back-up. Thanks Guy. I am not God so things CAN happen to me. Now whether they can happen to my husband's laptop, that is another thing altogether..

Public confession is good for the soul

I'm still wondering what's wrong with having a toga party :) Or do you mean the $2 million spent on it? That's a lotta sheets! ;)

Do you know how to use Google? You could do some research about it. Try "tyco +toga".


I know why I don't back-up my hard disk. Lazy. Plain and simple. And *I* should know better. You should hear my lecture on backs-up, esspecially in a business environment! As a system admin you can bet I have had alot of practice perfecting THAT speech over the years. Yet for my hard drive at home I hardly ever back it up. And here is why

I consider client (desktops and notebooks) machines to be untrustworthly period.

With that perspective I change the way that I look at data and where it is stored. Personal work and data is much easier to access then business related material that may have restrictions on how and where you can access it. Personal data I can store anywhere that I can be assured of resonable security and data integrity. One of those places is Google. So I use my email account to store documents and projects that I am working on. If you have projects over 10megs, this might not be the best idea.. but it is an easy way to have at least some assurance of data integrity. I am also starting to use http://www.writely.com for much of my writing. Again run by google, writely lets me store my work in a resonably secure location.

As for the home. I keep most of my data on a server. The vast majority of that is media which is easily replaceable. The rest is kept on Writely or gMail as well so it should one copy get toasted I still am fine. Just save the documents that you will need to work on remotely to the laptop and update the online version when you next get a chance. Use rsync or directory sycronization to automaticly store copies of work files to the server when you log into your home domain.

The best part of all this.. I don't have to change ONE tape, or burn a single CD. Like I said, I'm lazy!

Speaking of maturity and how to get there, has anyone here heard about Holodynamics by Vernon Woolf? It looks rather promising, as a way to hack yourself into maturity, benevolently, by using your intuitive mind.

And how about if you could easily sync up OSX's Time Machine (and whatever Google and Microsoft come up with) to any external storage system? Maybe even some kind of holographically distributed peer-to-peer system? :-)

... surprised by the reaction...wanted to communicate a messag...However, people have focused on backup experiences and strategies...

Interesting result. (and observation)

I've wondered about maturity and wisdom, as being smart is no guarantee of having either. I've also wondered if being smart, it's easier to cover up your lack of maturity and wisdom with a facade.

I key off the right words. I have the socially acceptable response catalogued. But it doesn't reach inside. I still wonder and sometimes fume at those who "get" it, seem so relaxed with themselves, wonder how hard they're working to fake it. Because, you know, they couldn't possibly be "real".

Fortunately age, marriage, and children have worked their slow magic. Or, perhaps, I've just listened better as they've taught me how to grow up.

my .02.

Wait, am I the only one shocked that Guy can't skate backwards? I always figured him to be the Herbie Wakabayashi of Silicon Valley.


I must admit I'd never heard of Herbie Wakabayashi. I thought he was a Japanese VW bug or something. But he's for real:


Learn something every day!



Hey guys, one of my friends just sent me a link to this thread. I work for an online backup company called Carbonite.

Carbonite backs up everything on a Windows XP PC completely automatically over the Internet for $50 per year. It's the same price no matter how much data you have.

It makes backup into a no-brainer -- new and changed files in your backup are updated completely automatically whenever your computer is connected to the Internet. There's not even a button to push.

You can download a free 15-day trial (email and password signup only, no credit card needed) at http://www.carbonite.com/manage/signup.aspx

Downside is that right now it's Windows XP only -- the Mac version will be out at the beginning of next year. (It will be a good complement to Apple Leopard's Time Machine, since Time Machine still won't save your tush if something happens to your physical setup.)

If you have questions about Carbonite, feel free to shoot me an email. jmcisaac at carbonite dot com. Thanks guys!

I'm more interested in the question, "Why can't the most arrogant people in the world design a robust computer?" (Sort of a Maytag or Toyota computer).

And second, why don't the arrogant weenies who spend so much money on computers ever complain about this?

Would it, for example, be possible to put in a warning light telling you that your fan is failing and that the computer is starting to overheat? That seems to me as though it must have already been possible by about 1920, but I guess I don't know anything.

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