“The Dumbest Thing I Ever Did”

Famous figures share the stories behind some of their most embarrassing follies.

apolo ohno illustration
Zohar Lazar for Reader’s Digest

It’s comforting to know that even the best and brightest among us screw up. So we asked men and women at the tops of their fields — inventors, authors, athletes, entrepreneurs, academics, and more — to share their boneheaded mistakes.

Lectured the Dalai Lama
Dean Ornish is president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute.

I had the honor of meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama about 20 years ago when he was staying with my close friends. He was interested in our research showing that a whole foods plant-based diet could help reverse certain chronic diseases.

He said, “I eat meat sometimes. I tried eating a vegetarian diet once, but it didn’t agree with my gallbladder.”

I replied, “It must have been a high-fat vegetarian diet. What were you eating?”

“Mostly yak cheese and yak butter.”

“You could try a lower-fat plant-based diet. It is the most compassionate way to eat.”

As I said this, I immediately thought, That has to be the most ridiculous and presumptuous thing I’ve ever said — telling the Dalai Lama how to be more compassionate!

And then he smiled and laughed heartily and compassionately — the beautiful sounds that Jim Henson likely sampled for Yoda’s laughter in Star Wars.

Was a Video Game Victim
Christian Rudder is the cofounder of the matchmaking site OkCupid and author of Dataclysm.

Many years ago at an arcade in Spring, Texas, I spent two hours in front of Time Pilot without actually playing the game. I was eight and didn’t understand that my quarter had run out. And so while the game just ran itself in the same long loop, I mashed the buttons and pushed the joystick, thinking I was the master time-fighter. Only when a couple of older kids looked at me like I was an idiot did I realize I was, in fact, an idiot. The pity of teenagers will wake anyone from any dream.

Had a Fig Newton Fiasco
Apolo Ohno won Olympic gold in 2002 and 2006 in short-track speed skating.

I blame a fellow skater. He always ate Fig Newtons the night before his race, and I was like, “That’s such a good idea. I love Fig Newtons — they’re delicious! I’ll eat some of those!” Well, I ate a whole sleeve right before a race. Here I am — wearing this ridiculous formfitting outfit with ten minutes before my race — running around trying to find a bathroom. I ended up missing the event. I mean, it was one or the other, right? If I win, then I gotta hang around and get my medal. I couldn’t risk it. Incredible. I couldn’t have just one Fig Newton. I had to have the whole damn sleeve.

An equally stupid moment came during a race in Calgary. With two laps to go and a huge lead, I stood up. I wasn’t celebrating; I was just so far ahead that I began cruising. And then the crowd began cheering loudly. And I wondered, Why are they cheering so loudly? Then I found out why. A Dutch skater was on my outside. I hadn’t seen him. He caught up, stuck his foot out, and beat me by 3/100ths of a second. I felt like such a jerk.

My Sleep-Deprived Spell
Arianna Huffington is the editor in chief of huffingtonpost.com and author of Thrive.

For much of my career, I operated under the delusion that burning out was the necessary price for achieving success. This led to my painful wake-up call. It was April 2007, and I’d just returned home from a college tour with my daughter. We had agreed that there would be no checking of my Blackberry during the days, which meant staying up very late at night catching up on work. The next morning, I collapsed from exhaustion and hit my head on the way down, cutting my eye and breaking my cheekbone. I wish I could go back and tell my dumb, deluded self, in my thick Greek accent, “Arianna, your performance will actually improve if you can commit not only to working hard but also to unplugging, recharging, and renewing yourself.” That would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress and a lot of unnecessary damage to my health.

Call Me All Thumbs
George Saunders is the author of Congratulations, By the Way: Some Thoughts on Kindness.

I’ve never done anything dumb in my life, except nail-gunning myself in the palm that one time.

My Money Mishap
Barbara Corcoran is a real estate mogul and costar of ABC’s Shark Tank.

My worst real estate investment was my first, a 12-unit motel with eight regular tenants. It was a dump, owned by a guy who’d inherited it from his dad — the owner of a local manure business. I grabbed the place for the full $220,000 asking price, knowing I could make a neat 10 percent return on my money every year from the rent. But then came the surprise: When my then-husband went to collect the rent the first time, it turned out the tenants didn’t have any money. In fact, they hadn’t paid rent in years. Lesson learned … Check the rent receipts!

Some Trouble with Math
Laurence Tribe is a professor of constitutional law at Harvard and coauthor of Uncertain Justice.

The task for our tenth-grade physics exam was to figure out the total area of contact between the rubber and the road of a hypothetical bike racing down a steep hill. The next day, our teacher held my paper up as an example in front of the class. He explained that while I did all the calculations correctly, I’d made one blunder: I’d mistakenly multiplied everything by two because, as I’d written, all “bicycles have four identical wheels.”

A Quick-Trigger Finger
Francis S. Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health.

When I was single, I received an invitation from a colleague to speak at a winter meeting in Florida. I forwarded the message to my sweetheart — my future wife — and included a steamy note about how awesome it would be to have some private beach time with her. I discovered later that I had actually hit the Reply button, when my colleague e-mailed back to thank me for the kind offer but explained I wasn’t his type.

What’s the dumbest thing you ever did? Share in the comments below.

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