The best intentions are no match for the havoc caused by stress, tiredness, and unusual circumstances. Even though we know these things can negatively impact our decision-making abilities, we override the caution needed to combat them with faith in our rationality. This failure to recognize our natural vulnerabilities affects everyone. In December 1922, it resulted in a lost suitcase that changed Ernest Hemingway’s life.
Hemingway, then 23, wrote fiction at night while covering the Lausanne peace conference on assignment for the Toronto Daily Star. Married the year before, Hemingway missed his wife, Elizabeth Hadley Richardson, back in Paris. He asked her to join him in Lausanne. This invite resulted in all of Hemingway’s work ending up in a suitcase.
“I have long held that stupidity is very largely the result of fear leading to mental inhibitions.”
— Bertie Russell
It’s unclear whether Hemingway asked Hadley to bring his work so he could show it to an editor who had taken an interest in him, or she brought it for another reason. Perhaps she thought he’d want to work on something over the Christmas break and wanted to give him all the options. Whatever the reason, the intentions were good. Hadley believed in Hemingway’s talent as a writer, and she was financially supporting them so he could pursue his artistic goals.
Sick at the time, Hadley managed to pack everything she could find, including the originals, the carbon copies, and all handwritten notes for a novel in progress, into a single suitcase. When she arrived at Paris’s Gare de Lyon, a porter offered to take her bags to her compartment. Right before the train was to depart, Hadley realized the journey would be long and rushed off the train to purchase a bottle of Evian, leaving the bags momentarily unattended. The suitcase was gone when she came back. Devastated, she cried for the entire eight-hour train ride.
Unaware of the loss, Hemingway waited for his wife at Lausanne station. When she arrived in tears, he said nothing warranted such sadness. Whatever was bothering her could be worked out together, he assured her. Hadley finally told him what had happened.
Laughing, Hemingway told her not to worry because he had carbon copies of all of his writings. Hadley could barely bring herself to tell him that those too were lost. In disbelief, he rushed back to Paris. In his memoir of those years, A Moveable Feast, he recounted: “It was true alright and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.” All his work was lost.
At this point, Hemingway wasn’t the Hemingway we know today. None of his fiction had been published. Only two very short stories remained in Paris, “Up in Michigan”—which Gertrude Stein had called unpublishable—and “My Old Man,” which was out with an editor at the time.
In a way that would make Marcus Aurelius proud, rather than give up, Hemingway found an interesting way to adapt to the reality of the situation. With the pressure of time, Hemingway shifted his writing style to shorter sentences, cleaner paragraphs and more readable prose. He could write faster this way. Four years later, The Sun Also Rises would be published and become a bestseller.
The lessons we can draw from Hemingway are obvious. It’s a classic story of a struggling artist who has a setback but overcomes it to achieve huge success. Disney created a multibillion-dollar company on the back of stories like this one. But almost everyone misses the lessons—hiding in plain sight—offered by Hadley. And when it comes to avoiding catastrophic errors, we should pay close attention.
Most of us are not chronically stupid. We make many good decisions and accomplish some amazing things. But we commit acts of stupidity once in a while, usually when we fail to recognize how certain variables are making us vulnerable.
Stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence. My friend Adam Robinson has perhaps the best definition of stupidity I’ve come across, defining it as the overlooking or dismissing of conspicuously crucial information.
Stupidity is overlooking or dismissing crucial information.
There are some things you should know about stupidity. Stupidity is easier to see in others than ourselves. Stupidity is easier to recognize the farther we are from the act. And stupidity is stubbornly difficult to see in the moment, often only becoming apparent when the outcome is known. This is why it is so important to recognize what the variables are that increase the chances of us doing something stupid. Stress, being tired, being in an unusual situation, these are all things that make us vulnerable to stupidity.
Back to our story: Hemingway shares some blame here, for not separating his originals and carbons. But more interesting are the details that affected Hadley’s decisionmaking at the train station. She was outside of her normal environment. She was rushing. She was ill. Each of these things on their own can increase the odds of committing an act of stupidity. Combined, they meant she was significantly vulnerable to errors in judgment.
Although Hemingway recovered, and arguably became a better writer because of it, the loss of his work was devastating to both him and his wife at the time. Only the benefit of hindsight gives this episode a decent ending, something that is no guarantee for most stupid decisions.
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- A Moveable Feast
- Adam Robinson (Conversation, Presentation, Draft Manuscript)