Don't be afraid to ask the stupid question

Published on 
5 min, 843 words

Ego and the fear of how we appear to others can get in the way sometimes. We don't want to appear stupid so we avoid finding out things we don't know.

In the book Excellent Advice for Living by Kevin Kelly there is a quote:

Don’t be afraid to ask a question that may sound stupid because 99% of the time everyone else is thinking of the same question and is too embarrassed to ask it.

This is so true.

I work with a team of excellent Scala engineers. I have a lot of software development experience but none in Scala. This means that I have to look at the problems and changes from a much higher level and I am not influenced by the code and the actual implementation.

I will often qualify a question I ask as potentially being a stupid one, which is actually quite liberating. It means I can ask anything and it doesn't matter if it is something I should already know or that doesn't make sense. Often this will lead to a discussion and something new will be learnt - or we may have overlooked something.

My favourite example of this was by the scientist Richard Feynman. He accidentally identified a major flaw in the design of a nuclear plant just by not being afraid to ask the stupid question.

I took mechanical drawing when I was in school, but I am not good at reading blueprints. So they start to explain it to me, because they think I am a genius. Now, one of the things they had to avoid in the plant was accumulation. So they had problems like when there's an evaporator working, which is trying to accumulate the stuff, if the valve gets stuck or something like that and too much stuff accumulates, it'll explode. So they explained to me that this plant is designed so that if any one valve gets stuck nothing will happen. It needs at least two valves everywhere.

Then they explain how it works. The carbon tetrachloride comes in here, the uranium nitrate from here comes in here, it goes up and down, it goes up through the floor, comes up through the pipes, coming up from the second floor, bluuuuurp - going through the stack of blueprints, down-up-down-up, talking very fast, explaining the very, very complicated chemical plant.

I'm completely dazed. Worse, I don't know what the symbols on the blueprint mean! There is some kind of a thing that at first I think is a window. It's a square with a little cross in the middle, all over the damn place. I think it's a window, but no, it can't be a window, because it isn't always at the edge. I want to ask them what it is.

You must have been in a situation like this when you didn't ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they've been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they'll say, “What are you wasting my time all this time for?"

I don't know what to do. (You are not going to believe this story, but I swear it's absolutely true - it's such sensational luck.) I thought, what am I going to do? I got an idea. Maybe it's a valve? So, in order to find out whether it's a valve or not, I take my finger and I put it down on one of the mysterious little crosses in the middle of one of the blueprints on page number 3, and I say, “What happens if this valve gets stuck?" figuring they're going to say, “That's not a valve, sir, that's a window."

So one looks at the other and says, “Well, if that valve gets stuck -- " and he goes up and down on the blueprint, up and down, the other guy up and down, back and forth, back and forth, and they both look at each other and they tchk, tchk, tchk, and they turn around to me and they open their mouths like astonished fish and say, “You're absolutely right, sir."

So they rolled up the blueprints and away they went and we walked out. And Mr. Zumwalt, who had been following me all the way through, said, “You're a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you went through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90-207 the next morning, “ he says, “but what you have just done is so fantastic I want to know how, how do you do that?"

I told him you try to find out whether it's a valve or not.

If a nobel prize winning scientist is not afraid to ask the stupid question, then why should we?


Excellent Advice for Living

Los Alamos From Below: Reminiscences 1943-1945, by Richard Feynman

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