Why you should ask stupid questions

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As I've grown, I've learned that it's imperative to assume people know nothing, rather than the other way around. Admittedly, this assumption is pretentious because who’s to say I know any better?

Still, I think maintaining this mindset is important for two reasons:

1) If you assume your colleagues know how to do something, then you may trust them in a situation even when it’s not deserved.

Take sports as an example. If you assume your teammate knows your current defensive scheme, yet you fail to confirm, then you open yourself up to a charge of poor communication when your defense breaks down.

And in these breakdowns, the probability of a larger argument increases if you and your teammate disagree about the planned scheme. Also, your coach will likely be upset and angry with the entire unit, which leads to sprints for everyone! And nobody likes sprints.

This is why you should always trust but verify.

2) If you assume everyone else knows the given topic, then you're likely to be afraid to ask the 'stupid' question. As the logic goes, asking a basic question demonstrates that you don’t understand the ‘common’ topic, and you don’t want to expose yourself as a fraud.

Though I'm no longer 'in-school,’ I think it's still fair to assume that many Professors tell their students not to be afraid to ask questions. Yet, I'd argue it's likely that fear still resides in many students, regardless of the University, because they don’t want to ask a ‘stupid’ question.

Well, what even is a ‘stupid’ question? And is the question I just posed a ‘stupid’ one?

I’d suggest a stupid question is either (1) a question that has already been answered, meaning you didn’t pay attention, or (2) a basic question about a given topic that is ‘obvious’ and should be common knowledge.

This exact phenomenon — being afraid to ask ‘stupid’ questions — happened to me. I used to be embarrassed to ask questions in class because I figured my question was in the second category of stupid questions. To avoid this embarrassment, I sat at my desk quietly and pretended to understand each topic. Little did I know that the embarrassment eventually appeared when we received our grades weeks later.

This fear to ask ‘stupid’ questions is also pervasive in the workplace. Employees are scared to come across as dumb to their bosses, so they feel unable to ask basic questions. I’d also suggest that this fear is due to a combination of the boss’s poor management and the employee’s lack of confidence.

However, this fear of asking ‘stupid’ questions is completely off-base; asking questions is linked to deeper learning. It also makes you a more interested and curious person, which aids in the development of relationships.

I’d also argue that you could ask the same question and it could be a ‘stupid’ question to one person but not to someone else. For example, imagine a chalkboard with the most complicated mathematical equations you’ve ever seen — like something out of the movie Beautiful Minds.

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For you, saying, “What do these equations mean? I don’t understand.” reflects your level of ignorance to the math (most-likely).

However, if Albert Einstein said the same thing, “What do these equations mean? I don’t understand”, this would mean that Einstein’s previous understanding of a phenomenon has changed, and he’s working through the ramifications in his brain.

So, how can we fix this fear from the ‘stupid’ questions problem? I’m sure you could write an extensive book on the topic, something I do not want to do as of now. For now, I'll take the easier step and release my weekly stupid questions in my RD newsletter with the goal to (1) make you think and (2) show intellectually-conscious people that it's not embarrassing to ask the stupid question. Instead, I think it makes you more inquisitive and is a sign of intelligence. And maybe, your question isn’t as ‘stupid’ as you think.

Below are some 'stupid' questions I thought about this week that demand answering. Some are 'obvious', others not so much. Reply to me with an answer for any of the following:

  1. What is the difference between a book and a novel?

  2. What percent of humanity has heard of Donald Trump?

  3. Do media paywalls exacerbate income inequality due to its information inequality?

  4. Are U.S. Drone Strikes Unconstitutional?

  5. Why do humans have nails?