Asking (Stupid) Questions

We all have an image of ourselves and how we come across to others. Whether it's being perceived as kind, smart, or funny, we all have certain things that are important to our self-esteem: this is only natural. The problem is that worrying about being perceived in a certain way sometimes holds us back from doing things that might help us to grow.

Being perceived as “smart” has always been quite central to my self-esteem. My earliest memories of feeling good about myself are all related to getting high marks in tests, doing well in class, or being told I was bright. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: in a lot of ways, this has served me really well - it means I’ve always had very strong intrinsic motivation to achieve academically, which has probably played a big part in getting me to where I am now. But, because being judged as intelligent is so tied, still, to my image of myself, it means that I’m pretty afraid of losing this. One of my biggest fears is that I'll come across as stupid.

Fear of asking questions

One big way this has held me back is that it’s prevented me from asking questions. Especially if I’m talking to a person or group of people I perceive as more intelligent than me, my natural inclination is to sit there in silence rather than admit that I don’t understand something. Relatedly, I’ve found that whenever I go to a talk or lecture where there’s a Q&A afterwards, I often sit for ages with a question I want to ask in my head, but rarely ever ask it. I start to convince myself that the question isn’t really a good one, it’s actually quite stupid, and so I should just keep quiet. 

Obviously this is silly; it’s preventing me from learning and having more interesting conversations with more people. If I could admit that I didn’t fully understand something in these situations, I’d not only be able to learn something new, but I’d also then be able to more fully engage in the conversation. The risk of being perceived as stupid, is, in reality, probably quite low, and easily outweighed by the expected benefits. I do know this: and I know that I probably actually come across as less intelligent sitting there in silence than I would if I just asked the questions I'm afraid of.

Facing the fear

A few months ago, I decided that I really needed to do something about this. I realised this wasn't something I was going to overcome immediately, but that I could tackle in small steps. So I started consciously pushing myself to ask questions even when I was afraid they might sound stupid; to ask people when I didn't understand things. The only problem was that “ask more questions when you don't understand” doesn't have totally clear success/failure conditions - I needed a slightly more concrete task. So I decided that every time I went to a talk or a lecture with a Q&A session afterwards, I had to ask a question. This gave me a very specific context and trigger, and had the added benefit of helping me to speak up in public and large groups more. 

It only struck me this week how beneficial this habit has been, and how much I’ve improved. On Thursday, I went to a seminar organised by my research group at Warwick, where a pretty well-renowned economist from MIT had been invited to speak. He gave a really interesting talk (on finding the truth even when the majority is wrong for anyone who's interested!) and I found I naturally had lots of questions. I asked two questions during the discussion that followed the talk, and afterwards realised I'd barely hesitated or found it difficult.

Three or four months ago, there is no way I would have put my hand up and asked even one question of an MIT economist in a room full of professors – I would have been far too intimidated. I've still got some way to go – I'd still struggle to admit not understanding something in some contexts, I think. But in general I now find it much easier to speak up and ask questions without worrying whether they're clever enough.

What I've learned from asking questions

  • I've realised that a lot of the questions I would reject as “stupid” really aren't, or at least others aren't judging the quality of what I say as harshly as I am. 
  • I've realised that not everything I say needs to be perfectly well-thought out – even if I do say something a bit silly every now and then, it really doesn't matter that much and no-one going to infer from this that I'm an idiot.

And in terms of pushing myself out of my comfort zone more generally:

  • Setting goals that are concrete and have clear success/failure conditions is important. Deciding that I was going to “ask more questions when I didn't understand” didn't work that well, because it was too easy for me to just avoid doing it on any specific occasion and then discount that occasion. On the other hand, if I knew I had to ask a question at any talk, if I left and hadn't asked a question, it would be much clearer to me that I'd failed.
  • Doing “comfort zone expansion” in small steps, rather than big actions, is sometimes better. When I've been thinking about things I could do to push myself, I've so far mostly been thinking of fairly big, independent actions – like “singing in public” or “go to this event where you don't know anyone.” Whilst I think doing these kinds of things is good too, what makes them quite difficult is you really have to psyche yourself up. Pushing yourself to do smaller things repeatedly, on the other hand, seems to have the advantage that each time doesn't take so much effort, but over time you can build quite strong habits and change attitudes (perhaps more so than from a single small event.) Other things to try in this realm might be things like “Speak to a stranger every time you go on public transport” or “Email a stranger every morning.”
  • The other great thing about taking small steps I've found is that success tends to breed success: doing one thing a bit outside of your comfort zone then makes it easier to do the next thing, and so on.  I'm not sure whether this is because you realise that the thing isn't as bad as you thought, or whether it's that the more things you do the more incentive you have to "not give up" or "not break the chain" or similar - perhaps a bit of both.