On Exposing Ignorance
At a former job, I was faced with a dilemma on a project I was leading; I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt like an imposter and didn’t feel I belonged with the other engineers. Psychologists coincidentally call it imposter syndrome, and it affected my work performance. I knew what the end product was supposed to look like, but after many failed starts, I was losing hope I could finish this project. Instead of asking for help, I mocked a plan and tried to go with that. By the end of the week, my boss came up to me to see what kind of progress I was making. I told her everything was going well when really, I had a hard time conceiving a solution. I talked her away by telling her I was working on process A, B, and C, but really I had no idea what I was doing. The excuses I made felt like plausible deniability if it came up in my performance review.
Inevitably, the project fell apart. My inability to ask for help cost the company a business deal and bonus upwards of thousands of dollars. Looking in hindsight, I was afraid and didn’t want to appear inferior to my supervisors or engineering peers. I wanted to blame the company. I wanted to blame the other engineers. But in the end, I could only blame myself; I was unable to expose my ignorance.
At some point, we may lie to ourselves and think we already know everything. In my early twenties, I was very arrogant and had a hard time letting others teach me anything new. When someone took the time to explain something to me, I would only grasp about 10% of it and nodded my head in agreement, pretending to absorb everything they just said like a sponge. When someone asked me if I knew about something I didn’t know, I would say, “Yeah, I know what that is” so I wouldn’t be seen as a fool. But I was a fool. I practiced appearing smart and I missed out of great learning opportunities.
Possibly from old wise tales, common sense, or some other form of “modern thinking,” men are supposed to just know how to do something. If you talk to my dad, he will proudly wear this ignorant-free badge with honor. He hated it when others didn’t know what he was talking about and would yell at you if you spoke up that you had no clue what he was talking about. Growing up, I remember he yelled at me when I couldn’t tie my shoes after showing me for the third or fourth time. An accumulation of those experiences led me to stop asking questions, nod, and affirm I knew things I didn’t know. This behavior spilled over to my interaction with friends and schoolmates. One of my best friend in elementary school recalls back in the first grade asking if I knew what a condom was. Having absolutely no idea, I told her I thought it was an animal. Honestly, I don’t remember saying those words, but my friend won’t forget because she found it to be the most ridiculous thing she had ever heard.
Of course, that’s not to say the feeling of linking shame and ignorance is solely for males. It’s a common feeling amongst everyone, man and women and people not on the binary spectrum of gender. There are those like me who were shamed into thinking ignorance was bad. Then there are those like my father who would get angry if someone exposed their ignorance. But what can we do if we find ourselves in this predicament?
During this past summer at Dev Bootcamp, I practiced exposing my ignorance. Being a beginner in Computer Science, I had to figure out the things I didn’t know, and one of the best ways to do that was to ask stupid questions to experts. We had plenty of teachers who we could approach and ask these stupid questions. Slowly, I built a muscle on asking stupid questions, and I learned better questions can come out of those stupid questions. Once I got over the hump of looking like a fool, I finally felt I had permission to be ignorant. I showed myself I could understand something a lot better with these interactions rather than figuring it out by myself.
“As a family therapist I was taught to throw off the notion that I had expert knowledge about other peoples’ lives. To approach people with a “not knowing” stance. This is a hard pill to swallow, whether you’re a newbie therapist or newbie programmer. Your instincts tell you to hide your ignorance, to feign expert knowledge, but this only stunts your growth and inhibits the work you are trying to accomplish. Taking this lesson with me from one career into another has served me well. I’ve actually grown attached to feeling ignorant on a daily basis, it lets me know I’m in the right place. I’m growing.”
Dave Hoover, co-founder of Dev Bootcamp
Indeed, we cower from ignorance because it makes us feel inferior and uncomfortable. But let us suppose you try this out. What’s the worse that could happen? Someone else thinks you’re a fool. Or that same person might take the time to teach you something. And if they do, you need to really listen. Once they’re done talking, you need to repeat what you heard to find holes in your comprehension. You may annoy some people along the way, but working off of assumptions of what you heard produces shoddy work.
After publishing this piece as an email, a friend wrote me back how he has changed his arrogant stance to a not-knowing stance with an interesting result. “So often, I’ve asked someone that is completely ignorant about a subject to hear my plan, allow me to bounce ideas off of, or show my problem and see what they think. People usually deliver better than expected and will often ask a newbie question that illustrates a basic flaw in my process or after listening to me and agreeing, giving me the confidence to keep going and trying… Plus, you get respect for being honest and show respect to the other person by not wasting their time. That honesty and respect is what makes them want to help you with enthusiasm and they will be conscious of what you don’t know and hopefully teach accordingly.”
When I was talking to my dad a few months ago, my dad asked if I knew about this specific type of clamp. Instead of telling him I knew what he was talking about, I said, “I don’t know, can you explain that to me?”. He was frustrated at first, and then in a pissed manner explained it to me. I felt a bit of victory and pride when I said that to him.
Sometimes we are blind to our ignorance. But as Dave Hoover says above, take that “not-knowing” stance and you will find holes in your knowledge. Make that a daily practice. It prepares you to ask for help when you need it the most. Join me on this journey, because chances are, you may also have no clue what you’re doing.
Originally released November 12th, 2014 on The Jear-Bear Letters, which you can subscribe to and find archives of previous letters. The letters are released once a week.