Friday of this week (September 29th) marks one of those non-holiday holidays that serve as a unique source of entertainment for a day. Friday is Ask a Stupid Question Day.
According to Wikipedia, the holiday was established in the 1980’s to fight back against the stigma and fear that kept students from asking questions in the classroom. It’s probably where the “There are no stupid questions” trope came from that make us all roll our eyes. As a child in schools in the later half of the 1980’s, I don’t really remember this holiday being observed, but I remember well the jump in pulse that accompanied any thought of asking a question in front of the whole class.
I have left this fear of asking stupid questions entirely behind me as an adult. Part of the reason is because I have been an educator in one form or another for most of my adult life, and I know the value of questions as a chance to dig deeper into any topic being discussed. But I also left it behind for another reason: it’s far more practical and logical that submitting to the fear of being seen as incapable or ignorant. Think of it this way; it makes much more sense to ask for clarification or to make sure you completely understand something before you start. Sure, you risk looking like you aren’t an expert, but there are two important things to remember about that:
- Someone else’s perception of you is controlled by them, and more often than not has more to do with them than with you. Since you have little control over how they perceive you, especially when you are first meeting someone or first starting a job at a new place, it is unproductive to let worry about someone else’s perceptions keep you from getting the information you need.
- It is a lot easier to ask for clarification before you start working on something than to try and clean up the mess you’ll inevitably make by diving head first into a project without all of the facts in place. Why tie yourself into a knot down the line simply because you were scared to ask a question? It is far better to get it right the first time than to have to re-work later.
If you stop and think about it, not asking questions is really the stupid thing to do. It’s when you don’t ask questions that you make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes can be trivial, like filling out an expense report incorrectly or using the wrong size font on a standardized document. But sometimes those mistakes aren’t so trivial, and when that happens it results in a big headache not only for you, but for everyone else.
Take this example I’ve seen far too often: Rather than ask who all within an organization uses a piece of software and how they use it, you are confident you have identified everyone who will be affected by a change to the software and move right on with your project. Then, right as you are getting ready to change over to the new version, you find out that you forgot some stakeholders when they point out that this software is critical for something they do, and cannot be changed. Now not only is your project facing prohibitively expensive delays and possible failure (along with all of the costs of the wasted time and effort to implement the project to this point), you’ve created bad feelings with the forgotten stakeholders, who know they were forgotten and by implication feel that they are unimportant. Wouldn’t it have been far easier to simply ask in the beginning of the project for everyone who uses the software and include them at the beginning?
So this week I issue a challenge to everyone: Ask a Stupid Question! You don’t have to wait until Friday; start asking them whenever they pop into your brain. It doesn’t hurt you, and it can help save you from making a huge mistake down the line.