Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Humans are the problem


2024 introduction and remarks

This page is one of many originally written in 2012 but only published beginning in 2023. The belated publishing follows with a slightly polished version of the original text and the odd addendum. (A greater amount of polishing would have been beneficial; however, I lack the time.)

In my impression, things have grown worse going from 2012 to 2024, including through a further drop in competence, a larger shift to focus on factors like “people skills” over competence at the work, per se, and a further lowering of the quality of writing—especially, on the Internet.

In my own “modern” writings, I tend to avoid the word “people” in other meanings than e.g. “we, the people” and “the English people”, while I made ample use of it in senses like “humans” and “persons” in the past. (See [1] for more on why my I normally limit my use of “people”.) Below, I have altered some uses of “people” accordingly; however, in some cases I have been limited by convention, e.g. in that the phrase “people skills” is sufficiently established that “person[s] skills” would look very odd and be misunderstandable, while “interpersonal skills” is both rarer and lengthier than “people skills”.

(Also note that the use of “people skills” over e.g. “soft skills” and “EQ” is deliberate. The focus of this text is not on what skills are or are not valuable, by whatever name, but on specifically the human/“people” angle.)

It might be that I have written on this topic in the interim. While I could not find another text during a brief search, the specific idea of “humans are the weakness—not the strength” feels like something that I have addressed much more recently than 2012.

During polishing, I was struck by a number of more-or-less strongly related points that could be (but are not) discussed, including:

  1. How an over-focus on e.g. “people skills” can lead to a climate where competence drops because of that focus. To boot, such a focus might well be self-reinforcing through the “tall dancer” issue (cf. below).

    Indeed, an increased shift to select the people in charge from business graduates can make this problem much worse, as they tend to be lacking in both brains and understanding of the field (relative e.g. an engineer), but can have an almost cult-like belief in ideas like “people skills”.


    There also seems to be similar shifts in other fields, e.g. in that a teacher’s competence in the subject taught is valued less and less as time goes by, while various credits/credentials/whatnots in the field of education have grown more important. Worse, we are currently going through a strong period of extreme political correctness, woke nonsense, Leftism, whatnot in many fields that can have a very negative influence on e.g. competence levels, through mechanisms like hiring based on sex, race, sexual orientation, whatnot, instead of actual competence.

  2. How competence must be measured against the field/position/whatnot at hand, with the implication that someone more competent in a more challenging situation might miss the mark by as much as the less competent do in a less challenging situation.

  3. How higher education used to be a valuable filter, but is now extremely weakened. (And the actual educational aspect of higher education has often dropped considerably in value.)

  4. How some groups have larger or smaller issues with a competence deficit. (Often overlapping with how much of a filter effect remains in the educational road.)

  5. How, on a more personal note, it is so very easy to forget how large the problems are, to act as if they were far smaller, and then to be surprised when they pop up for the umpteenth time.


    A strong contributor to this is likely how weak the correlation between e.g. intelligence and the ability to talk reasonably well is, and how much easier it is to create a superficial impression of competence than to actually be or become competent.

    Another that it is easy to use oneself as a measure, e.g. in that it seems that what is easy/obvious/whatnot to me must be so for everyone else, while reality can be very different.

(More on these aspects might or might not follow here or in some other text at a later date.)

Original/2012 introduction

Over the years, again and again and again, I have heard claims about the importance of team work, that humans are our greatest resource, the need for “people skills”, etc. Recently, various “agile” software development methods have gained success with (among other things) a focus on “people—not processes and tools” (and similar formulations).

On one level, these sentiments are correct and valuable; however, on another, they are extremely naive, misguided, and entirely missing the point. (Although it might sometimes be a case of diplomacy and sugar-coating, rather than lack of insight.)

This missing of the point has also caused me to underestimate the importance of the area: The claims are often implausible, lacking in reason, poorly argued, or otherwise unconvincing—while still being true (or having a grain of truth) for other reasons than claimed. Indeed, my eventual increasing turn to more “human centric” perspectives is more a question of own experiences and conclusions than advice given by various books and “experts”.


Some of these books and “experts” have been outright detrimental to my development. For instance, reading Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” in my early twenties, I was strongly put off by the abysmal writing and reasoning, flawed and cherry-picked examples, and Machiavellian attitude. Re-reading it many years later, I found that most of the main claims well matched my own later conclusions or rang true in the light of later experiences—even if the claims are often too lacking in nuance or too generalized. Unfortunately, the author’s attitude of “convince the dumb masses” actually slowed my own development down and made me highly skeptical to this type of book. A book written for more intelligent readers, but with the same basic content, might have moved my development in this area ahead by several years.

My experiences with the works of e.g. Goleman are similar—he is more intent on selling books and luring the gullible into his seminars than on actually providing useful information or investigating a subject area in a critical manner. This to the point that he distorts reality to fit his simplistic (possibly, outright incorrect) thesis of EQ as the main determinant of this-and-that.


By 2024, I have repeatedly re-evaluated the general ideas of some poorly written books, articles, authors, and/or genres. A lamentable problem is that once a topic is of sufficient interest to the broad masses, or a large niche of the not-all-too-bright, ideas seem to be almost exclusively communicated in a poorly written, highly dumbed-down, talk-down-to-the-reader, whatnot, manner. This is a major turn-off for me, makes it harder to extract the value that is present, and is otherwise counterproductive for someone like me—but there might well still be value present. By ignoring such books and whatnots, access to that value is either blocked or has to be, more laboriously, created on one’s own.

(However, I have not revisited Goleman. This, in part, because my impression was too negative; in part, because there is so much else to read.)

The main issue

What then is the core understanding that is lacking?

Simply this: Humans are the problem and not the asset, the weak link and not the strength, and we need to work with this in mind. The practical effect of this understanding (and/or a phrasing that reflects the understanding) might not be that different from a naive take of, e.g., “Humans are our greatest asset!”, but the underlying idea is very different and the proper understanding/phrasing makes it so much easier to reach the intelligent and competent. (Also cf. an above side-note.)

The simple truth is that humans are stupid, incompetent, short-sighted, self-centered, egoistical, forgetful, sloppy. They have personal problems, bad days, irrational likes or dislikes for another. They make decisions based on irrational criteria or what serves their own best interest (rather than the project/team/employer’s). A human is an ape with delusions of grandeur—and, indeed, much of human behavior is caused not just by a lack of intelligence, but by animal drives, instincts, and stone-age adaptions. We should focus on humans because they are the biggest problem—not the greatest asset.

No: I am not being unfair and I do not exaggerate. Even the best and brightest are not very bright by an absolute measure: Even the likes of Einstein, Newton, da Vinci, and Aristotle were only so when compared to other humans—the one-eyed among the blind. Speaking for myself, I am very far above the average; yet, I have often had reason to curse my own stupidity and my own limitations. (I do certainly not claim that my name would belong alongside the aforementioned; however, I would not be surprised if they too were more aware of their own limitations than most of the rest of humanity). Believing otherwise, even for the greats, merely shows a lack of insight into what humans are capable of compared to what could be wished for. Going down to even the typical college graduate, the situation is abysmal.


There might be some points above, obviously, were there are exceptions that have come close to an ideal, most notably in not letting own interests negatively affect the work in progress. Even these, however, will have plenty of faults in other areas—including that the good intentions with regard to an ideal are often hampered by incompetence in practical execution. (This even on the level of understanding the ideal: Someone who works 80 hours a week might well be a bigger asset if “only” working 40 hours a week; someone who wishes to favor the team might focus on what the team wants, rather than what it actually needs; etc.)

Further, excellence in areas like intelligence and (task-based) competence often correlate with problems in other areas, notably a lack of tolerance towards those less competent, being so different in thought that communication with those of even average intelligence is hampered, constant over-estimations of the abilities of others, or similar. This while those who do have an accurate estimate of the abilities of others might tend to over-confidence.

Illustration based on software development

Let us look at software development (where I have my own main experiences): This might seem to be an area where human communication is secondary, where clear logic and technical knowledge decides everything, whatnot. Maybe (or not...) this was true in the days of yore, when small programs were developed by very small teams or single individuals. However, if so, the truthfulness began to deteriorate decades ago—and is now minimal:

  1. Even a small, but reasonably typical, modern software project includes a group of developers with very varying levels of competence (and intelligence, experience, motivation, ...) and an even larger group of non-developers with even wider range of competence (etc.), as well as backgrounds, world-views, priorities, ..., that are not conducive to effective and efficient communication and cooperation with each other and the developers.


    Exactly who these non-developers are, will vary too much from project to project for me to give a definite list even for a “typical” project. Common examples, however, include project and/or middle managers, product managers, business analysts, testers and/or quality managers, and the odd executive. Some projects (if far too few) actually have contacts with end-users...

    Large projects can include dozens, even hundreds, of developers, a several times larger number of non-developers, and might include a total “net of contacts” going into the thousands.

  2. Even small projects will make use of a number of third-party products used by the product (e.g. a persistence framework or a logging library), interacting with the product (e.g. application servers, web services, and third-party clients), or being used to develop the product (e.g. version control, build management, IDEs)—never mind the many tools not related to the product that are still used (e.g. browsers, email programs, document editors.)

    Having an in-depth knowledge of even all the products immediately affecting the correctness, speed, stability, ..., of the product is hard-to-impossible.

  3. Software it self can become immensely complex (and, more generally, I see handling, reducing, or compensating for the ever-increasing complexity to be the main reasons for various new methodologies, paradigms, whatnot) and the human mind is soon at its limit with such software, be it in terms of reasoning ability, knowledge about and comprehension of a particular piece of software, or short-term memory.


    Incidentally, this is a mechanism which causes many of the brightest (and potentially best) developers to write poor programs: Because they are better at understanding and deciphering programs, they often fail to realize that a particular way of writing a program is too hard to comprehend for many others—and they might instead delight in “clever” solutions, an optimized execution time, or other factors usually detrimental to readability (and maintainability, extendability, whatnot). Readability, however, is arguably the single most important aspect of code—exactly because humans are so limited. (Other aspects of great importance, e.g. maintainability, often depend on or correlate strongly with readability.)


    Here there might seem to be a contradiction in my attitude: Why would writing understandable programs be good when writing (natural language) texts readable by e.g. high-school drop-outs is bad?

    Firstly, I have no objections to texts readable by high-school dropouts—provided that they actually are intended for high-school dropouts. A problem appears when texts written for everyone else is taken to that level and/or the level of a text is geared at the “lowest common denominator” among those who could conceivably wish to read it.

    Secondly, there are several differences, including that understanding natural language is something that humans are built to do, while programming languages require a different type of thinking, that the complexity and/or obscurity of a computer program can easily get out of bounds by carelessness, while e.g. a book author might need a deliberate effort to reach similar levels, that too poor programs can over-challenge even trained professionals, that the consequences of a programming error often are far greater than for an error in a regular text, and that the reader of a program is often expected to change that program.

    Thirdly, the dumbing down of a text usually comes at the cost of completeness, accuracy, deeper understanding, or similar, while a “dumbing down” of a computer program serves to bring over the same information in a clearer manner—no more, no less. At an extreme, the dumbing down of texts can be so extreme that the reader comes away with an outright incorrect view of the matter at hand. (This, especially, when journalists are at work.)

Adults and Tall Dancers

A particular issue is that those who are more adult, competent, rational, whatnot, are on a collision course with the less adult (etc.) majority through mechanisms like the tall dancer phenomenon (a concept relating to others parts of this subject too). The above side-note could be seen as a special case; however, the more typical variation is that those who focus on contents over covers, the issue over the humans, etc., have problems getting along and fitting in with the masses. Indeed, this is likely the single most important explanation for my demoralizing and severely career harming experiences at E4 (cf. [2] and several other texts).

This issue is actually a multiple manifestation of the main problem: The incompetence of the masses harm the organization, the masses are unable to realize that they are attacking those that they should emulate—and the more adult often fail to realize that they must pragmatically adapt to those less adult.

Humans as the cause of the failure of methodologies

In the same way that methodologies are often intended to conquer the problem that humans pose, humans are the reason why most methodologies fail. The causes are many, e.g. obstinate rejections of sound methodologies and inability to handle a certain level of methodology-internal complexity. (Vice versa, methodologies are often created with insufficient concern for human nature.)

Software development provides many examples, having seen endless attempts to provide a “silver bullet”—all in vain. (Notwithstanding that some have brought non-trivial benefits.) Indeed, any new methodology, new tool/technology, new paradigm, whatnot, runs up against human incompetence and the fact that most software developers are not sufficiently bright and conscientious, and additionally have their priorities wrong. Where the developers do not cause the failure, outside influences (most notably naive managers and project managers) are more-or-less bound to step in and hinder the work, e.g. by forcing an on-schedule release with full functionality and sacrificed quality, succumbing to feature-mania, or insisting that “work” (= coding) starts before the developers have had enough time to think and plan, to decide how to best do what—the most important part of a developer’s work (without quotation marks).