On Looking Stupid. Or, What did Tenali Rama tell the Footballer?

When I was a kid growing up in India, me and other kids like me were brought up on a steady diet of stories. The most popular of these were stories of Tenali Rama, the Court Jester, the Royal Clown in the court of the great Krishna Deva Raya, king of Vijayanagaram in the South of India. His wit and humour were always backed up by an innate wisdom and a deep understanding of the human psyche.

Here’s a small Tenali Rama story to put you in good humor, as a prelude to me getting your goat.

Once, the King got annoyed with Tenali Rama for some reason. Tenali Rama had rubbed him the wrong way, and the king wanted to punish him. So he looked sternly at Tenali Rama and said:

“Tenali Rama, you are so wise. You must make my horse fly.”

“Hmmmm,” said Tenali Rama.

“What do you mean, hmmm? Don’t tell me you dare to disobey a royal command. Here are my orders. You are to make my horse fly. Else I will have you beheaded in public.”

All of this was happening in the court, bang in the middle of a huge number of high ranking functionaries of the government.

Tenali Rama said:

“All right. I will make your horse fly. But you have to give me 6 months.”

“Agreed!” Said the king, and ordered Tenali Rama to go and come back in 6 months to make his horse fly. Else, it would be ‘off with his head’ .

When Tenali Rama came out, the courtiers surrounded him.

“Are you crazy?” They said. “What made you say that you would make it fly in 6 months? How can you ever commit to such a thing? You will be killed in 6 months.”

“Aahh, but,” said Tenali Rama, smiling. “The king was determined to kill me any way. Now- who knows what will happen in six months? In six months, I might be dead; or the king himself might die. And and- the horse might even end up flying!”

Moral of the story: It is impossible to predict what will happen in the future!

Now- let me ask you a question: What is the most difficult sentence to utter? In any language?

There are various answers. Some of the popular ones are:

“I love you”

“Will you marry me?”

“I resign.”

“I don’t agree with you.”

… and so on and so forth. But actually the sentence which takes pride of place in terms of the difficulty it places on the utterer, is:

“I don’t know.”

Honest. That is the one sentence people have the most difficulty uttering.

When asked a tough question, even something that they are incapable of ever knowing the answer to, people will struggle to say “I don’t know.” Instead, they end up making wild guesses, predictions. They will dilly-dally, prevaricate, look the other way, delay answering, try to cook up something weird…

All that trouble, when a simple “I don’t know” will do!


Ok, now look at this question. I can hear you groaning, ‘Oh no, not another question!” Please bear with me, humour me on this one.

What is the greatest fear of mankind?

Now if you were Asterix the Gaul you would instantly say, “The sky falling on my head!” But obviously you are not, so what is the next best stab?

Let me not prolong the agony by making you guess- and guess wrongly, because you don’t want to say “I don’t know.”

The answer is- the one greatest fear of most people on this planet is- the fear of looking stupid!

More specifically, it is the fear of looking stupid in front of other people!

Imagine you are a football player, and you have to kick that goal in. You have the opportunity in the form of a penalty kick. You are facing the goal and the goalkeeper is waiting. Where will you kick the ball?

When kicked by a professional level player, the ball travels to the goal at a speed of about 85 miles per hour. At that speed, its motion is just a blur to the goalkeeper.

Now the goalkeeper must dive to save the goal. Will he dive left, or will he dive to his right?

The goalkeeper cannot wait to see which way the ball has been kicked. There just isn’t enough reaction time. He must just make a prediction and dive blindly, hoping that the ball will come that way. This is a fact. Don’t bother challenging it- I will cite the source if you want.

Statistics say that about 57% of the time, the ball is kicked to the left of the goal. Therefore the goalkeeper must dive to his right 57% of the time.

And about 41% of the time, the ball is kicked to the right, so the goalkeeper must dive to his left to save the ball.

And just 2% of the time, the ball is kicked right at the goalkeeper. He simply needs to keep standing where he is standing, and he can save the goal. Easy-peasy.
Now- what does the kicker do?

Let’s ask this question in a different way. What will be the shot most likely to score the goal?

Well, according to the above statistics, the greatest likelihood of scoring is when the kicker kicks it bang at the center- right where the goalkeeper is standing! 2% — just 2% of the time, the goalkeeper will keep standing at the center and not dive.

So if you were standing there about to kick the ball, what would you do? You would kick it right towards the middle, no?


As I said before, only 2% of the shots are hit bang at the middle. Even though these statistics are in the public domain, and everyone knows this, but still hardly anyone does this.


Very simple. It is the fear I talked about earlier in this post.


Football is a religion, and the spectators are fanatics. If you score that goal, you are a God to them. If you don’t , if you goof up, they are ready to tear you from limb to limb.

If you kick the ball to the middle, and the goalkeeper just happens to stand there and catch it, how stupid you would look! It would look so simple! You will look like a moron who doesn’t know how to kick the ball!

Whereas, if you kick it to the left, and the goalkeeper dives and manages to stop it, it will look like you took a good shot, but the goalkeeper pulled of a miraculous feat! You can heave a sigh of relief- at least no-one’s going to come to lynch you now!

But- and it is a very big but- have you done the best thing for the team? Obviously, you haven’t. You haven’t done the thing that would have maximised your team’s chances. You opted instead for the thing which will save you from public ridicule and scorn.

Is this right?

Most of us are not football players. But however, most of us end up behaving in this sub-optimal manner. We place our self-interest over and above the organisation’s. because if we do something that will seem stupid if it doesn’t come off, there is penalty waiting. But we do the thing that doesn’t look stupid even if we fail, then we are safe.

So- being aware of this, perhaps we should reflect on our true motivations for doing something in a certain way, when faced with a multitude of choices. Cross-check to see if we are doing that thing which maximises the organisation’s interest, and perhaps go ahead and do it anyway?

As I said before, the greatest fear is the fear of looking stupid.

And that’s precisely the reason why, the most difficult statement to make is “I don’t know!”

If you say ‘I don’t know’, you look like an ignoramus. Whereas if you went ahead and predicted something, but did it in a confident manner, people don’t come to the conclusion that you are stupid. And — the outcome is anyway going to be known much later, and many times, it is impossible to determine what extraneous causes came in to skew the results!

And moreover, there is no real disincentive for making a wrong prediction, is there?

That’s why astrologers, palmists, economists, stock-market advisors- they all get away with murder!

Now- what does all this have to do with Tenali Rama, you ask.

Well- the fear of looking stupid, which leads you to take the sub-optimal decision, is also what makes it so difficult for you to say “I Don’t know”- and the fact that the future is unpredictable allows you to get away after making even outrageously wrong predictions- is precisely what Tenali Rama banked on when he bought 6 months’ time for making the horse fly!

And since posterity does not record that Tenali Rama was hanged by the king for not making a horse fly, one must assume that he got away, scot-free.

Confused? Don’t worry, statistics reveal that of all the people who get thoroughly confused reading blog posts, only 44% end up punching through their LCD screens; the remaining are content with merely banging their heads on the desk!


Reference: How to Think Like a Freak: Steven Levit and Stephen Dubner -the same chaps who wrote Freakanomics!