What I got right: Looking foolish
This is my new series, exploring experiences and ideas over the course of my life in order to see if those same principles hold true or not. Click here to see my previous idea!
I’m a huge supporter and practitioner of the “look foolish now, not forever” movement. My biggest life-changing moment was in 7th grade in English class, we had to pair up with someone and recite the alphabet. I know what you’re thinking, “they’re in 7th grade and are still on the alphabet?”. Back then, we didn’t question authority despite the ridiculous demands. Perhaps it was a way for us to get to talk to other people? who knows, but this was the least effective way. I was paired up with the “ditzy” girl in our class. People would describe her as outgoing, confident, and not book smart1. They’ve always made fun of her intelligence, but she was always nice to me so I never cared to join in. I remember specifically going through the alphabet and realizing that no one has ever taught me how to pronounce the letter “Q” in English. It had never occurred to me that the Vietnamese pronunciation of Q sounds like “wuh”, and English’s is “kyu”. She saw that I was visibly struggling, and asked if I was okay. Deep down, I didn’t want to ask for help. My ego and my pride were shameful in asking someone for help, especially for something so simple as this. It was because of her genuine worry that I was comfortable with asking for help. All of the anxiety and stress were brimming all the way to the top and it felt like it would implode on me. Our imagination takes us to the wildest of places and I was no different. But the emotional tidal wave passed quickly and all of my worries were for nothing. I learned something new that day, and it started a journey of looking foolish for a moment in order to educate myself.
You would think that the benefits of asking questions about things you don’t know would be easy, mainly if it serves the purpose of gaining new information or skillset, but it is extremely difficult for me. Perhaps it wasn’t ingrained in me to raise my hand if I needed help, but I often suffered in silence or waited until after class to find the answer. The latter wasn’t a bad choice since it encouraged ownership and the willingness to find answers, but it wasn’t efficient. I wasted a whole class in a confused state when a quick question would’ve solved my problems.
I was worried about what my classmates would think and the perception of being that kid that didn’t know anything would have me in a chokehold. The irony of this is if you start asking questions, you no longer were the kid that didn’t know anything. I often forget the capacity of mean kids would be especially those that were curious or passionate about an area2. I remembered asking my chemistry teacher a question, and from the back of the room, I heard “oh my god, shut up already! I like sleep”!”. It not only stunned me but also the teacher. From that day, I didn’t really speak much in class, and chemistry was the lowest grade for that semester. I dreaded going to class and it showed in my participation and interest in it. There are a lot of factors that could’ve changed things — the teacher stepping in, me speaking up and fighting back, or ignoring this student, but I feared the physical ramifications.
Nonetheless, I still got to practice this skill in other classes, but old habits of projecting negative thoughts die hard. I was overthinking and stressing about how my questions would make others think negatively of me. It’s like having an annoying kid asking you “why” questions all the time. It’s nice at first because you’re happy they’re showing curiosity, but then just becomes troublesome. I had a teacher that would ask me to explain what I thought the answer was and it flipped the switch. I started to think about it more before I asked the question because if I just thought about the solution, I usually could solve it. Whatever I couldn’t understand, I should ask. The valuable lesson my teacher taught me was if you don’t know the answer, think about it, and if you don’t understand, come to me and we’ll figure it out together. That was the biggest difference, the word together.
Starting to change
I didn’t make the full transition of looking foolish for a moment to learn until a decade after. If you thought that story in school would force me to make a permanent change for the better, but it didn’t. In hindsight, it felt like a waste of 10 years to be so stubborn to change. A more pessimistic view is how many opportunities I’ve kept from myself just from not wanting to open my mouth. Instead of focusing on the past, it’s better to be happy with learning this lesson now so I can make the best of the next few decades.
This graph from Tim Urban, from Wait But Why, illustrates that point:
One of the biggest changes I’ve seen from adopting this new mindset is the curiosity about topics I don’t know and do know. This trickles down to many aspects of my life and my thinking. For one, it led to better conversations and the development of better questions. When I wasn’t focused on looking silly, I could get to the core of what’s important, the other person/topic. Especially for learning, It became fun to have someone else talk the whole time instead of having to interject so I could hear my own voice. I realized that if I wanted better conversations, I should develop better questions, and thus I got better answers. Similar to a snowball rolling down a mountain, this cycle compounded. It also led me to do go research on new things so I could bring more to the table. I saw that just asking people questions over and over again was annoying. It felt like an interview if I just asked questions the whole time and did not give some valuable input. I noticed if I did a little bit of “pre-work”, it showed the other person how interested I was and then it became a wonderful back and forth conversation.
There are still many situations that still require consistency — large group get-together, family get-together3, and meeting new people. The mental gymnastics I play with myself is a tiring game, but one factor always seems to work — a genuine curiosity for the other person. I do realize that my fear of speaking up and my ego do play a huge part in my hesitancy, but the best advice I can offer is to take it one thing at a time. Aim to get better at a few things and build from there. A question that works for me is “what are you currently working on that brings you excitement?”. I find that it cuts through the cookie-cutter conversations about what they do for work, or in their free time. It allows the person to share their interests and passion with you. It also gets them excited to share something personal, which is great to help connect with someone.
Even if you take a decade to learn this lesson, that’s no problem. Just take it one step at a time or one pronunciation at a time.
Until next week,
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1 I don’t think schoolwork was an accurate determination of intelligence. She was exceptionally sharp, but the schoolwork was not only uninteresting but irrelevant to her.
2 Perhaps this was just in my school but every time someone wanted the teacher to explain something or if they were asking questions about something, you would always get an unnecessary comment. This, of course, discouraged that student from participating in the future. It was one of the first times I’ve seen “crabs in a bucket” mentality. There seemed to be a strong prejudice against seeing other people attempting to learn or to be successful.
3 This is more for the family that I haven’t seen in years. There just isn’t the same connection with those that you’ve been around. Plus the cultural differences and language barrier play a huge role.