The Midwit Trap
Jun 27, 2022
It absolutely baffles me how so many perfectly smart and capable people are absolutely stuck. They’re probably always talking about it too. Maybe it’s you. It definitely was me. But if they’re so smart, why are they so stuck?
When reflecting about it, I realised my answer came where I didn’t expect it. A meme. If you spend much time on the interwebs, there’s a chance you’ve come across it- the midwit meme.
In this post, I characterise midwits, go on to specify two very specific types of them, and explain why smart people are so likely to fall into this trap.
What's a midwit?
Urban Dictionary defines a midwit as someone who is around average intelligence but is so opinionated and full of themselves that they think they’re some kind of genius. The memes will usually show them as people who’ve overcomplicated something, while the truly enlightened have reached a level of simplicity that dimwits immediately gravitate to.
Everyone knows a midwit. They’re pretty smart, but don’t seem to get what they really want. Some are in a constant deferred life plan- their magnum opus is always about to be written (but not yet!). Some complain about how complicated things are and constantly get stuck.
Heck, I’m probably the biggest midwit I know (constantly overthinking, overcomplicating, meta-philosophising etc., etc.). The more I reflected on that this semester, the more I realised how deep the iceberg went. Midwittery is all around us, and increasing by the day. In fact, I think that there’s something unique about today’s society that gets smart people to display increasingly midwit behaviours. I call it the midwit trap.
The midwit trap: The tendency for intelligent people to be smart enough to approximate the identity they want without actually working for it, but not smart enough to realise that actually getting there requires real work.
Why people become midwits
Why do some people seem so confused, bitter, or unsuccessful all the time, even though they’re smart? I think it’s precisely because they’re smart.
See, smart people are usually good at getting what they want. I don’t think midwits avoid real work because they’re stupid, I think it’s because they’re optimizing for something else entirely- status.
We generally accept that doing the most you can with the resources you have is smart. Intelligent enough people realise this applies to status as well. How can you give yourself the identity of someone with status, while minimising the work required to do so?
Humans can make a habit out of anything, even misery. Someone complaining about being stuck doesn’t necessarily want to get unstuck. It’s precisely by constantly talking about something that you can seem like you have a certain kind of identity without actually doing the work required to earn it. That can be negatively- by complaining, or positively- by talking big.
Approximating being an entrepreneur: They could go to a ton of meetups, constantly talk about the startup they’re going to make, take entrepreneurship classes, and quote Steve Jobs. But none of these is the real work involved with making a startup. Building and talking to customers is.
Approximating being a successful artist (the starving artist archetype): An aspiring artist could constantly complain about how it’s so hard for them to make a living, how cruel the world is to artists, how they’re above ‘selling out’ and making work that earns them money. But selling your work is part of being an artist. By constantly complaining about how hard art is, they don’t need to put in the work required to sell theirs.
Instead of being “X”, they turn into “person who wants to be X”. “Person who wants to be X” allows them to seem close enough to X that it confers some status (or so they think), but they avoid doing any real X. X here could be entrepreneur, artist, writer, comedian, whatever.
This avoidance exists on two extremes of a spectrum. On one end, you have people who’ve become too pessimistic- constantly complaining and overcomplicating things. On the other hand, you have people who are too optimistic, constantly overinflating what they can do, talking, but not doing. I call the first type a Grindsetter, and the second type a Signalpreneur.
The Grindsetter is a midwit who escapes work by over-intellectualizing, complaining, and/or acting as if everything is impossible. They’re probably pretty smart, but have a predilection for falling into extreme rabbit holes and thinking too meta. Paradoxically, they’re usually caught up both in all the reasons why things are too complicated to work, but also why things are so easy that anyone could have done them.
Grindsetters could totally get the things they want, but they hide behind an aura of overcomplication- and it’s easy to spot, because it usually doesn’t make any sense. They don’t just do the thing that will get them what they (say they) want. Instead, they’ll find something that sounds like they’re doing it, but allows them to avoid the real work.
Here’s some Grindsetter giveaways
- Constant complaining
- Overcomplicating doing things in their head so much that they never try
- Feeling above marketing or promoting oneself but then complaining that they don’t get noticed
- Setting goals so ambitious that they never have to start working on them (and then they complain when others have built their way up incrementally)
- Always getting stuck
- Always talking as if the world is too complicated and unjust and the reason why they’re stuck
The signalpreneur is a midwit who escapes work by acting as if they know everything, constantly having deferred life plans, and focusing all their effort on, well, signalling over substance. Unlike the Grindsetter, who thinks everything is impossible, Signalpreneurs act as if everything they can do is possible, even if they don’t understand the nuance and difficulty involved. They’re so busy talking big that they never get to actually working.
Think of the Signalpreneur as that kid in school who’d do no work in the group project and then try and take the credit. Also notice that the word is a mix of signaller and entrepreneur. The half entrepreneur in there is intentional. There’s a certain amount of enterprising required to constantly sell yourself to be a Signalpreneur, even if there’s not enough substance to back it up.
Signs to spot a Signalpreneur:
- Always talking big with no substance
- Constantly coming up with new schemes
- Acting super busy so they can seem like hard workers, except they’re not doing much real work
- Constantly virtue signalling
Why they’re both midwits
Signalpreneurs aren’t midwits at first glance. While Grindsetters are obvious losers, Signalpreneurs have over optimised politicking and marketing themselves so much that to other midwits, they can seem like they’re winning. But in reality, they’re only talking.
Both Grindsetters and Signalpreneurs approximate the identity they want out of thin air by talking it into existence. Grindsetters do it pessimistically, by overcomplicating and complaining. Signalpreneurs do it optimistically, by talking big and self promoting. Both use these approximate identities (person who will do X one day/ person who tries so hard doing X but can’t) to avoid real work.
In other words, they’re midwits. Grindsetters think they’re smarter than everyone but the world is the reason they can’t be who they want to be. Signalpreneurs think they’re smarter than everyone but spend so much time talking about it that they fail to see or do the actual work required.
Why more midwits is bad
If midwittery is just smart people getting what they optimise for, who’s to say that it’s a bad thing? I’d argue it’s unequivocally bad, because it leads to unhappy, unproductive people, who then lead to stagnant and uncreative societies.
Optimising for status and work avoidance leads smart people to dig themselves into holes of dissatisfaction, hubris, and complaining. Remember- someone who complains about how it’s hard for them to do things might not actually want to do those things. Perhaps they find comfort in complaining instead of doing the stuff.
More unhappy, work avoidant people then lead means less real work being done. And less real work means that everything becomes slower and suckier. We want our future to look like Star Trek, not Star Wars. But a beautiful, sleek future arrives because we make it, not because it’s guaranteed. If people stop caring about real change, and instead only about status, who will build it? Organisations full of slackers and/or ladder climbers definitely won’t.
But I don’t want this to be another one of those ‘We need more progress, guys!’ posts. Operating only on the meta level can help us reorient the boat but someone still needs to row. This piece came out of a Twitter post I wrote to figure out all the ways I was being a midwit myself, and how to fix it.
Look, I’m super guilty of so many of these things, and I’m not exactly proud of it. I let myself get too infected with shinyobjectitis and didn’t follow through on enough projects in high school (signalpreneuring). I sometimes act like school is the bottleneck in my life and overcommit to so many things, I can use every one as an excuse for not performing well in the other (grindsetting).
I’m taking it on myself to
- Slow down more: (no ‘oh god I have two years to do something that people will think is so cool let me figure out what I can make in a weekend that’ll hit it big and then everyone will think I’m so cool’)
- Take more responsibility for what I choose: (no ‘ah shit I hate college so much. If only I had a million dollars and all the time in a world, then I would actually work hard on cool projects’, more okay I’m in a fantastic institution, how can I use the next 2 years to the best of my ability)
- Give up on status: i.e. I’m just going to work on things that I truly think are cool, that I’d do even if twitter and likes and approval of other people didn’t exist. I won’t try and pursue a faux sense of “I have to be original” or “I need to do something so new that everyone thinks it’s a masterpiece”