Thought Catalog
April 19, 2016

The Best Way To Learn Is To Ask — Even The Dumb Questions

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Paolo Raeli
Paolo Raeli

“Albert grunted. “Do you know what happens to lads who ask too many questions?”

Mort thought for a moment. “No,” he said eventually, “what?”

There was silence.

Then Albert straightened up and said, “Damned if I know. Probably they get answers, and serve ’em right.”

Terry Pratchett, Mort

Almost every teacher, professor and speaker says it at one point or another: “Remember, there are no dumb questions.”

Of course, there are dumb questions. A lot of them.

But there is some truth to the cliche that the dumbest question is the one you don’t ask.

Take most people who walk into a grocery store. They spend 15 minutes looking for what they’re trying to find. Is peanut butter in the condiments aisle or is it over with the bread? Where are the _______? Does this place carry ______ ? Oh wait, the milk and cheese are on opposite sides of the store?

Of course they are. Which is why there are employees in the store whose job it is to tell you exactly where everything is. You can wander the floors of Home Depot, pretending you know what you’re doing, or you can sack up and get someone in an orange apron to walk you right to what you need and show you what the best choice is.

But people don’t do this.

For the same reason they don’t ask for directions. Or they won’t ask someone to show them how to do things. And they waste god knows how much time in the process.

All I know is that when I run to the store, I am in and out quickly. Because I walk in. I ask. I get what I need. Then I leave.

There’s no wandering. No guessing. No waiting.

That doesn’t make me feel stupid or weak. I’m too busy doing other things to be worried what people would think.

If I don’t know where I am, I’m going to fucking ask someone—even if it’s just Google Maps. Getting lost doesn’t mean you’re an idiot. You’re not the one who designed the confusing building. You didn’t sign off on unclear signage. But if you stay lost, if you waste more than a second of your time being more lost than you need to be, then yes, you are an idiot.

Sure, questions can be a sign that you don’t understand what’s going on. Which is why…if you don’t understand…you absolutely must ask. Before you start, before you say yes, before you try to convince yourself that hope is a strategy and you’ll figure out it out as you go.

Why should you hope that you’re heading in the right direction? Why be pretty sure that 8th Avenue is this way? “I think I remember” are famous last words. And totally unnecessary ones.

It’s the job of human beings to help each other (in many cases, it might literally be a person’s job to help someone like you). Conversely, it’s your obligation to be polite, friendly and respectful.  

Which is why I am totally shameless about asking. I ask about everything. Everywhere.

I’ve probably asked my wife 50 times a week, “Have you seen my phone?” Understandably, she hates it when I do that. But guess what? She usually knows where it is! (and I usually know where hers is too).

This applies not just to getting around and buying stuff, but to work as well.

There is nothing more frustrating for an employer or a project manager than to assign something and then weeks later, get a question that makes it undeniably clear that the person hasn’t actually started yet or is putting thought to it only now, for the first time.

Actually, there is something worse: when you don’t hear anything until it’s finished but the end product is nothing close to what you’d requested. Because the person was too prideful or too busy doing to stop, think and ask. They assumed they knew what you wanted. They never do. There’s that saying what happens when you assume—that it makes an ass out of “u” and me. It’s true.

When I see people do this, I picture them spending an extra thirty minutes of their life making their way through Wal-Mart, forgetting that the store is supposed to be more confusing so you’ll buy more crap. I see them struggling to repair stuff that’s usually covered by a warranty or would be replaced by the retailer in two seconds. And then I shake my head. JUST ASK.

When I’m just trying to learn stuff, I ask. I like r/AskHistorians (where I’ve asked all sorts of questions). I’ve asked questions on r/Austin, where I live. I like r/Latin, which is a good place to figure out confusing words you don’t know. Quora is great for this, so is Twitter. If I was a bit dumber, I’d probably use Yahoo Answers too—but thankfully, it’s never come to that.

Even now, when I work on stuff for clients, I ask a million questions. What are you hoping to accomplish? Tell me more about what that looks like? When do you want to have this done? Is this sort of what you had in mind? Tell me what you think about this?

This was Peter Drucker’s philosophy as well. As he put it: “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions. I can only ask questions. The answers have to be yours.”

As an apprentice I would do the same thing. Can you show me an example? Do you mean like this? Here’s what I started with, is this close? Am I doing a good job? What else can I do? The jobs and mentors I was lucky enough to get—most of those opportunities came because I reached out to ask smart people some questions I had (which is a lot better way to get a mentor than asking “Will you be my mentor?”)

In all those cases, it’s the same thing. I’m asking. I’m learning. I’m checking in. I’m figuring it out. I’m zeroing in on the target. Because guessing and hoping and trying to get lucky are dumb.

There is always an easier way than the way you would assume.

So ask. Always ask.

You might just get the answers. TC mark

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