Redefining Stupid

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Published on: August 30, 2016

You’re sitting in a presentation on some technical subject. The presenter assumes a certain level of knowledge, and you’re just not on that level. Everyone else seems to be keeping up, though, and you know it’s something you should know, so you keep quiet and hope for the best because you don’t want to look stupid.

Sound familiar?

Relax, we’ve all been there. Nobody likes that feeling of embarrassment, and it’s hard to say whether that feeling is stronger in a room full of total strangers or in a group of friends and coworkers. Do you want to make a poor first impression, or deal with being teased for a while? Either way, no fun.

Unfortunately this problem can compound itself. You miss one part, so then the next part doesn’t make sense, nor the next, and pretty soon you’re either totally lost or have given up completely.

The first thing I recommend to people in these situations is to stop redefining the word “stupid.” Being unable to perform a specific task or function is not stupid. Stupid is defined as “lacking intelligence or common sense.” Are you able to grasp the task if someone explained it to you? Of course you are. Congratulations, you’re not stupid.

I start some of my technical presentations by holding up a packet of the silica gel manufacturers pack with electronics to absorb moisture. These things are always labeled with some version of “do not eat.”

Mmm, tasty
Mmm, tasty

Not “keep out of reach of children, which should also be a no-brainer, but “do not eat.”

I ask my audience, “Would you eat this?” Of course they wouldn’t. That would be stupid.

And so we have our new—and appropriate by definition—standard of stupidity. People tend to relax and start asking questions after that.

Now that we’ve fixed our definition of stupidity, it’s time for the next step: be an adult.

Nobody is comfortable looking stupid, but our time is valuable. Sitting in a workshop and not taking a thing away from it because we were afraid to ask a question is just silly (because remember, it’s not stupid unless you eat my packet of silica gel). Do what you’ve got to do to understand the material and move on, especially if it’s something that will either help you at work or may be part of a performance evaluation.

Teachers don’t accept giving up from their students, and we shouldn’t accept it from ourselves. If you’re stuck, speak up! Get your answers.

Besides, there’s a good chance someone else in the room has the same question, and they haven’t readjusted their definition of stupidity yet.

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