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Willingness to look stupid (danluu.com)
1859 points by ZephyrBlu on Oct 21, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 777 comments

This has happened to me frequently at my current company. I get pulled into a meeting about something that I have no context on because it touches my area of expertise, and the discussions have apparently been stalling out.

I brace myself to be the idiot. I'm going to waste everyone's time asking questions that everyone knows the answer to, and I just got looped in, so everyone's going to feel like they need to walk through all the super-obvious stuff to satisfy the one guy who didn't do his homework.

So I start asking questions, and slowly begin to realize that nobody in the room has any idea what they are talking about. That there are fundamental misunderstandings and misconceptions about existing systems. And, naturally, it turns out that the questions I have are questions that other people have.

This has happened to me so often now that you would think the sinking feeling I get before I brace myself to look stupid would go away, but it never does.

One of the best people I've ever worked with used this approach. "I'm going to ask stupid questions now." and "Just so I'm understanding the problem, <here's my interpretation of what you just said>." were two phrases she used all the time.

I am surprised at how difficult it has been to emulate her technique. Feeling comfortable asking the obvious questions is one half of the battle, but the other, more difficult half, is knowing what obvious questions to ask. Most of the time when I ask obvious questions, the replies are yes/no. She knew how to ask them in such a way that gets the person talking in greater detail.

It's kind of like being a great interviewer, there's a technique to asking questions in a manner which gets someone talking.

VP in my org does this, and it really disarms the room.

She’s big on that exact phrase of “this could be a really stupid question, but…”

She’s also really good about making sure other people are rewarded for doing the same by reassuring someone asking what might be a dumb question as, “that’s a a great question and I’m sure others were wondering the same…” before responding.

Great leadership, IMO.

In the group where I did my PhD, one of the professors would do this (but without pre-announcing). He would start with really basic questions and gradually build up to more complex questions.

This was great for two reasons: 1. it builds up large common ground for understanding; 2. if someone in a leadership position does this, others will not feel ashamed of asking questions that they think may be basic.

My PhD advisor was great at doing this. Just having him in attendance at colloquium made the talks more informative.

An EVP of Ops of a fortune 500 did this to an entire room of functional experts.

We were there to discuss a technical implementation.

She kicked it off by saying "Let me start by asking a simple question, why do we do this function?"

I am now considered a domain expert. I love this question. It surprises me at how few people start with the why, or even can articulate the why.

The room of experts, were assembled to roll out a new product in their area of functional expertise. None of us had an articulate answer as to the why. She kept on asking. She gently challenged bad answers with a follow up why. Then when everyone gave up, she gave her answer as to the why. It was brilliant.

Always start with the why. Then ask why again. Keep on asking until you understand why.

There is an interrogation technique called Five Whys. I believe it was created by S. Toyoda, and was and very is effective in root cause analysis. The basic idea was to ask a question and follow up with "Why?" until an answer contained an alterable behavior... that answer would usually come with the fifth why. Once in a while I use it in a business meetings, and as long as the person who is being questioned doesn't get defensive or hostile, it is surprisingly effective.

5 Whys is great for getting depth into one causal subtree, but based on a paper I once read, answers can lack breadth when there is more than one cause (which is often the case). It said that "Why" is often best answered with a directed acyclic graph of causal relationships.

(Though when I tried to use a causal DAG for root cause analysis of an incident at my current company, I was told that I was wasting time and no one cares. But I thought the data I found was pretty interesting and worth exploring.)

Similar here. Was pumped in an RCA with "why?" multiple times. The 'root cause' was I fucked up and missed something. But that was because "prod was broken right then, fix ASAP!" and no one else understands the problem, and we're understaffed, and people 'reviewed' the code without understanding what it was doing (or why) and one 'fix' led to another problem, and that 'fix' led to a third, and trying to explain this in an 'RCA' meeting confused the heck out of everyone because there were 3 different days/times people saw the problem, and could not understand it was one original thing that triggered, with cascading problems in the 'fixes', etc.

You keep asking "why?" and only want one 'thing' to be 'actionable'... you will raise my frustration level. The root cause is an emergent property of understaffing, poor communication practices and a belief that everything can be reduced to a jira card providing sufficient context and understanding for a diverse audience with different skills and needs.

In a japanese company that I worked at previously, answering RCA must be clear and in detail way. I got used to it so when I explain something to people, I want them to NOT ask any further question again because I compiled all the information they needed, including prevention. Their next response should be "got it understood" or clarifying their action. Other than that, I think I failed to explain things in a very basic way

> The 'root cause' was I fucked up and missed something.

It's really hard to do RCA when people are blaming themselves. It had to suck to be in that meeting. A really good RCA isn't about finding a single actionable thing, it's about finding our what the root cause of the problem is... which in this case, might have been whatever originally broke production and caused an emergency fix that failed three times.

"It's really hard to do RCA when people are blaming themselves"

Often, the root cause is someone made a mistake. You can say there should have been other systems to prevent/review/etc, but the root cause is a mistake a person made. You can '5 whys' it to death, but I made a mistake (or... someone did).

"whatever originally broke production" - in this case, I made a mistake. That mistake wasn't caught until production. Then the fixes were all broken too.

I don't always blame myself for everything, but if I've made a mistake, I'll own up to it. For me, it helps me be aware of what I can do to avoid those in the future. This may or may not be some rca-checklist other people can refer to, because... it's not 'actionable' to anyone but me.

Regarding the lack of breadth of a 5 whys analysis, there is a fishbone diagram that can be used before the 5 whys to ensure more breadth.

In manufacturing there is usually 4 big topics (person, machine, material, method), but there are many variations that can be used.

Trees or other visual depictions can be used too.

The point is to have some sort of structure and adapt it to your needs.

If it was just a setup to eventually providing an answer she already had in her pocket, is that the same thing really that's being discussed? Willingness to look stupid and earnestness to find an answer?

Sounds a bit like the Socratic method [1], just used for making sure everyone is aligned with the fundamental goals.

As someone who's recently been put in a position to make sure everyone's aligned (and failing quite a bit at it), it sounds like genius, in my opinion.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method

It doesn't seem like the same thing as asking dumb questions to uncover the truth that nobody has yet synthesized.

When you already (think you) know the answer, then it's a pedagogical technique. That's ok unless you happen to be wrong about the answer.

The Socratic method is where they eventually realize the answer, not one where you make them all feel frustrated before finally revealing it.

Wielded w/o skill, the Socratic Method comes of patronizing and trite.

To stay respectful, it is polite to negotiate with all participants in its use.

To be fair, Socrates' goal was to make them realize they didn't actually have the answer, they only thought they did.

I assume frustration levels for both come down to the soft skills used to run the process.

I like to assume everyone has a positive intent, until proven otherwise.

I always ask people why, because I sometimes learn something new, I often learn about the knowledge level of the other participants, and it anchors everyone to the fundamental problem we are trying to solve.

It may be that along the course of asking why 10 different times from different people she was able to identify the answer. It sounds like she got quite a few fragments of answers first.

sometimes I go straight into technicalities for the sake of time (to colleagues at the same level) and wonder if they actually understood what i said.

I like it when they ask basic questions. at least then I can then explain the basics to them without having to feel like I'm patronizing.

I love these examples, they helped me realize that I'll often preface "this could be a really stupid question" and then ask the question—even though I'm quite confident I already know the answer—because I had sensed that other people in the room might have been feeling lost. I actually do this quite often, even when I'm hearing two people talk with each other but actually talking past each other.

Also, I just took a training and observed the trainer hear a participant say that she felt frustrated with the process, and then the trainer immediately asked the room something like, "How many other people are feeling frustrated as well?" And of course, numerous hands went up, and it seemed to help show the person she wasn't alone.

Long time CTO here. I brazenly and declaratively ask stupid questions and suggest stupid ideas. It usually leads to a break in a logjam, and I recognize that people in the room don’t always feel as free as me to be naive or uninformed. It’s the nature of my job and the coverage I need to manage across the org… devs aren’t as inclined to go this route, but this is also why some of my personality driven PMs are often so successful in a similar vein… they’re not invested in being or looking right, or even smart.

I would honestly take a hefty payout to work for this person.

Yes, thank you, this is very important. Whenever someone says they might be asking a stupid question, I make sure to interrupt and remind that there are no stupid questions, only stupid people asking questions.

fuck that it’s salesmanship, and salesmen make poor leaders.

which as a salesman i’m definitely in position to comment

One thing you learn in sales is the value of open-ended questions. Until you consciously look at it, it's hard to realize how bad the questions we tend to ask are.

Yes/no questions are the worst. But even questions like "What did you do?" aren't great because the answers can often be rather short.

A better question is often posed like "Tell me about X" or "Describe how you did Y".

Of course this isn't universally true, there is value in binary answers.

But often you may find yourself, let's say in a sales context, asking something like "What tool are you using for project management?"

The answer will then be something like, "I'm using Jira".

Instead, if you ask, "Tell me about what you're doing for project management on your team", the answer may be much more detailed.

"We follow the agile methodology and use Jira for our task management. We've got a dedicated project manager on the team who..."

Getting good at asking the right questions is worth the effort.

That depends. Yes/no questions are great when you want to quickly validate something. Open-ended questions are great when you want to get a lot of information. Yes/no are for confirmation, open-ended for exploration. Different goals.

Hmm. Often times, an open ended question results in a much more accurate answer. Humans tend to approximate or even lie to force an answer to fit a limited choice question. Example: you want to know if water is falling out the sky. You ask: Is it raining? Response is no. You walk out the door and are rendered unconscious by golf-ball size hail.

Better to have asked, "what's it like outside?" or, "what's the weather right now?"

I think his response meant in situations where you just need to figure out which project management tool they use so you can log in for the first time, binary questions are the right tool for the job (information gathering). But I mostly agree that, in the big picture, the broad questions are more helpful for solving the complex problem you’re facing.

and nobody is going to say it’s not raining when it’s hailing outside… but I understand if that was just a metaphor. You’re probably asking that question to figure out what kind of clothes to wear, and they would probably infer that. It’s so contextual though.

Again, I think that depends on where you are in the exploration/confirmation spectrum. I don't really think about it when doing it, but usually I use open ended questions for stuff I don't know, and yes/no questions to link things to my existing mental model.

That also depends on the person. With some people open ended questions are great, with others yes/no are better.

I'll also add that yes/no questions are often faster if you get the response you expect.

Maybe appending "... Or something else?" to a limited choices question can avoid the problem GP @indymike mentioned, whilst still generally be quick

Is it raining or something else outdoors?

Do you like Vi or Emacs or something else?

Do you want to hang out for a coffee or something else?

Usually I don't think it's necessary. My yes/no questions are something like "Okay, so we need to put some more info into that file since that's what exported to the billing database, is that correct?". When I don't know something, I try yes/no questions at first. If I get "yes", then it's resolved. If I get a no, I will ask open-ended questions to explore the subect. Once I think I have a correct mental model ready, I will ask yes/no questions to validate it. If I get a no, then it's the cycle again.

For the "Is it raining outside", I honestly don't know anyone that would just tell me "no" when there's hail outside. For the "Do you like Vi or Emacs or something else?", it would be "What text editor/IDE do you use? Why?". "Do you like Vi or Emacs" by itself is not a yes/no question, it's a "what box are you in" question. For "Do you want to hang out for a coffee or something else?", that would be something like "Do you want to hang out at <TIME>?".

An important part for me is that in yes/no questions, no are supposed to be the exception. In my mind, when I ask them, it's not a 50/50 chance. It's more of a 80/20. If it was a 50/50 chance, that means my mental model is not precise enough.

A similar technique is demonstrated in the old Video Arts So You Want To Be A Success at Selling? video series starring John Cleese, in the Part 2 video ("The Presentation") iirc, in a scene where a salesman uses the Five Whys (or what is effectively that, though the term isn't used) to prevent the loss of a customer account.

Reminds me of something from decades ago in India, there was only television channel and it was state run. Early evenings were dedicated to rural areas and farmers there.

Most of them were illiterate and did not understand what plant scientists or professors were talking about re inputs or seeds or Tractors etc needed to modernize Ag.

So the format would be an interview in the middle of a coconut grove or a farm. The interviewer(usually female) would ask a question and the expert would answer. After he finishes answering, she’d turn towards the camera and go like “what you are basically saying is..” or “what he is saying..”..and she’d give the wrong details. Then the expert would interrupt her and explain it again with the correct answer. There were a lot of English words he’d use and she’d break them down in the vernacular and also in the same order as his sentence.

These wrong things repeated by her were obvious misunderstandings anyone unfamiliar with fertilizer application would make…it was probably scripted so that the answer can be ‘corrected’ multiple times and also probably reflected mistaken notions by the viewer. Never once was the viewer(here, it was the illiterate non English speaking village farmer) made to feel dumb but always as though they are learning something valuable and special.

It was like Sesame Street for farming adults. It was awesome and kept me glued to the television screen. I would memorize all the IRRI rice hybrids and probably was the only one in school who knew IR20, IR64 and IR8…and urea application rates for them.

Ask anyone of a certain age who their favourite Sesame Street character is …and you would have cracked effective communication technique for that time period.

This is brilliant. I sometimes produce educational videos to teach kids programming. A recurring challenge we have is pitching the information at a level that’s interesting but not confusing for beginners and kids who are less literate. This format I’d like to try out

I don't like to say "I'm going to ask a stupid question". First of all, it feels disingenuous to me, people who say that never actually think that their questions will be stupid. And the second reason is that I think I might even convince myself that my questions are stupid... I know it sounds silly to some but little things like how you talk about yourself (and your questions) is important.

I often ask these "stupid" questions, though. I usually start with: "it might have been said in other meetings, but just to be sure, what is...", "I might be a bit slow, could you explain X once again just to make sure I understand it", "So just to paraphrase what we've been discussing, X is Y, is that correct?", and sometimes I just ask "what does $acronym stand for and why is it important for us now".

I, too, often find that nobody knows the answers to very basic questions and we are in a meeting of 6-12 people...

> First of all, it feels disingenuous to me, people who say that never actually think that their questions will be stupid.

No, I often legitimately think that my question might (!) be stupid, because I'm aware that I'm coming into the discussion with less domain knowledge and experience than the other people in the room. I still think it's good for everyone (ie, not just me) to explain. (Sometimes it's clear that everything is just out of my league, in which case I shut up and let the meeting go on.)

It's this very awareness of one's own limitations that allows folks to overcome those limitations. If I might add my own (personal, biased, narrow) understanding; the whole concept of "stupid" is like a cognitive filtration mechanism. We filter ideas that others have by calling them "stupid" and then we attempt to avoid being filtered in that way, but that filter is kind of stupid. Unless you already know everything (protip: you don't) you run the risk of filtering based on an incorrect assumption.

Yeah I feel the same way. I never understood the "This may be a stupid question..." framing.

Asking fundamental questions in order to build up to a more complex understanding is the most effective way to learn, I have no hesitation about asking such questions.

One reason for the framing (when used by a senior person or someone in authority) is to give permission to more junior people who may be holding back on their own questions because they are afraid of looking bad.

It can easily backfire. Some one who has an urgent but basic question might refrain from speaking up if, beforehand, a senior prefaces their pointed probing question with "this is a stupid question...".

It's better to just kick things off with naive questions or even use a bit of humor to disarm people, so they don't feel like they have to be "advanced" all the time.

You don't say this is. You say "this may be" a stupid question.

The point is not that anyone with the same question should feel stupid; it's that I don't care if anyone thinks I am.

Depending on who is asking, the intention behind such framing is different. For someone in a leadership position, the point is to open up dialog and make folks comfortable enough to ask questions without them feeling they're at risk of humiliation or judgement. For others it may be to signal politeness and deference to the speaker.

Whatever the case, there are more effective, more genuine phrasings to use than to literally invoke "stupidity".

> more effective, more genuine phrasings

Examples please?

I was thinking about:

"I'd like to ask some things that might be obvious to many of you: ..."

Yeah, to pretend to be "stupid" and basically dismiss your own question is kind of cloying or may be seen as disingenuous or even passive aggressive.

Folks who are good at communicating can always keep everyone feeling engaged and comfortable, while still getting to nitty-gritty WITHOUT resorting to saying stuff like "... this is stupid question, but...".

They're not pretending to be stupid. It's that they think their question might be stemming from not understanding something fundamental that everyone else in the room already knows.

If you think they're being disingenuous because you think they do understand what's going on, then it actually supports why they feel the need to preface their question with that phrase. You expect that they know it, so they make questions around it less jarring by admitting that they probably don't know enough.

In my view, admitting that you "might have a stupid question" is not disingenuous, it's a form of self-depreciation that disarms people and relaxes the room.

It's important to treat yourself with respect, but people also respect when you admit that you don't know something simple.

It's "self deprecation", depreciation is something different.

I'm not sure what kind of audience you think it works on.

I tend to get (particularly from people under 40) one of two inappropriate reactions to reflexive self deprecation - either exaggerated sympathy for my plight, or treating it as an exposed weakness to attack.

It's all about reading the room. If you're talking to a hostile crowd you're not going to expose weakness. I hope that most of these internal alignment meetings are not hostile, and are instead conducted with the intent to best deliver value to the business. In these instances, I have found comments like "I'm sorry to ask a basic question here..." work well to explain that I probably don't have as much domain experience as the others in the room; that I'm not trying to school them on their domain; and that I'm simply trying to gain understanding so that I can contribute.

"I'm sorry to ask a basic question here..."

Sure...but I think that an insight that I've gained is that this is an example of a formula which doesn't really communicate or explain all the things you mention. You aren't sorry, you don't know that your question is basic, and you don't think you're wasting peoples' time.

In effect, it's a "pointer" to a bunch of things, so it only works with people that are conditioned to such things and have them in their memory. One of the things you mention, "not trying to school them" sounds to me like deference, and I don't think deference can be quickly established without a formula. Like a salute, you have to do something arbitrary in a mutually understood way.

"Basic questions" sounds nice :-) more nice than "stupid questions" I think.

(Probably the questions aren't literally stupid, or the person maybe would never have been hired in the first place)

Whoops, yes I meant self-deprecation (I added an 'i' by accident)

Yes, some people will pity you, or treat it as a weakness. But having the courage to admit when you don't know something is a valuable trait that most people (in my experience) respect.

Also if you demonstrate your knowledge in other areas and contribute value to the meeting, people tend to forgive a few stupid questions in another area.

But "courage" is exactly the sort of response that bugs me. It's not courage, or passive-aggressiveness, it's etiquette. Responding with praise, or pity, or a put-down, it's all a failure to appreciate the formula for what I consider basic etiquette.

It's like when I'm having a meeting with my manager and I want to talk, so I start, they stop, I apologize for interrupting, and they say no, no, go on.

I assume there is no emotional drama going on. If they really want to continue talking, they can do so. That's why I apologize and pause. I'm not sorry, but I need to show appropriate deference.

It would be unfortunate if someone was building up resentment because they're not on the same wavelength about appropriate behavior. The purpose of etiquette seems to me to provide a formula to negotiate common situations without having to navigate emotional complexities.

But when different people have different rules, there's not much that can be resolved.

I think some of this might be cultural. For example, I think self-deprecation may be in general more widely appreciated in the UK than the US (though perhaps this is gradually changing).

I’m reminded of Arthur Dent (British) in the Hitchhiker’s Guide telling Zaphod, modestly, “oh, it was nothing” about something great he did, and Zaphod responding along the lines of “oh, it was nothing? In that case forget it then”, which was not at all what Arthur intended.

Well, I'm American, and there were definitely bits in that book that totally failed to translate for me. For instance, "Ford Prefect" seemed like a perfectly normal name - IMO the American edition should've changed it to "Ford Escort".

But being self-deprecating was not one of them. I feel like I'm surrounded by Zaphods, or something, and I'm not sure when it happened.

Yeah, I like this tactic, but I don't think phrasing it with the word "stupid" is helpful.

I prefer to say things like "I'm not fully up to speed on this, so let's go back to basics/fundamentals for a moment", or "sometimes we're so focused on the details that we can't see the wood for the trees - let's take a step back and just run through it at a high level again".

That just sounds like corpratese though, the stupid question is much better in my opinion.

With yours it's to easy for someone to switch off and not hear what you said because they think you're talking bullshit.

In two sentences you managed to cram in 5 idioms/phrases that are basically corporate babble.

They sound like someone avoiding directly admitting that they don't understand something. Unwillingness to look stupid.

Gareth321 here https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=28955167 mentioned "basic" instead of "stupid"

> people who say that never actually think that their questions will be stupid

I use it all the time. Oftentimes they are stupid questions. Sometimes they're not, but generally that's when I'm not sure if it's a stupid question or not. And that's okay—the point is, it's fine to ask stupid questions.

> ...it feels disingenuous to me, people who say that never actually think that their questions will be stupid.

I ask questions that have a decent chance of making me look stupid all the time. Even when the rational part of my brain says "if you have this question, it's likely that other people do too," there's a big part of me that worries, "nah, I'm the odd one out here."

>> First of all, it feels disingenuous to me, people who say that never actually think that their questions will be stupid.

I preface some of my statements with this, and I fully expect them to be stupid. In fact, many of the questions I ask that I don't preface with the above disclaimer are in fact quite stupid.

I prefer using “basic” over “stupid”. A basic question is literally about the basics or fundamentals, while a stupid question implies something is wrong with the asker to even need to pose it.

> "I'm going to ask stupid questions now." and "Just so I'm understanding the problem, <here's my interpretation of what you just said>." were two phrases she used all the time.

This is my approach when getting pulled into something. If I have no idea, I want to get that idea. I'll also use "this may sound stupid, but..."

One of the smartest people I've ever met in business was also this way. He also never nodded his head in agreement unless he actually understood and agreed. If he wasn't sure, he'd pause for a minute and work it out, even if it meant pausing the flow of the meetings. Some people interpreted it has him being "slow" but it really meant he actually understand all of the things he was nodding to.

Whenever new people join the team, I always say, "Please ask stupid questions. I mean questions so stupid that you might think we would question why we hired you, because you think we think you should already know. Ask those types of really stupid basic questions. It will educated you, make us think, and I'm certain at least one other person already on the team doesn't know either."

I usually say, "please ask stupid questions, because if you don't then you'll run off in the wrong direction and work on the wrong thing for a week before the next review, and you'll have wasted a lot of project budget."

At my work, there's a bad combo of senior folks who whip off vague instructions in a single sentence, and junior folks who are afraid to ask questions. I'm in the middle, and I try hard to demonstrate that it's fine to badger the senior folks with questions, and to check in with them constantly. The senior folks like it because it gives them confidence that you're working it out. But some of our straight outta school colleagues just don't do this ("Gotcha. Sounds good!" is a very common email reply from them) and it leads to confusion down the road. After giving them the "ask questions" talk two times, I usually give up on them.

Also, in my position, I often have to review and edit reports that are largely written by electrical engineers and architects, and they all probably think I'm super dumb. I read the reports as the target audience (often non-subject matter experts), and so my comments are things like, "What do you mean by this [basic EE concept]?" I don't preface it with, "I know what this means, but the client might not, please elaborate..."

Please, please keep doing this and encouraging this behavior. The more senior on the ic track you get the harder it is to find time to mentor. The reality is that is a core tenet of our position and we may be staying silent to not smother the room. If you need help and you have a competent senior they should encourage your questions or delegate to an appropriate senior if they are too busy.

> I usually say, "please ask stupid questions, because if you don't then you'll run off in the wrong direction and work on the wrong thing for a week before the next review, and you'll have wasted a lot of project budget."

Does it help?

This sounds like they are expected not to waste time, so it might get even harder to ask a stupid question a minute too late, and especially to ask something tomorrow.

So far it completely depends on the person.

But you’re right that it might not be the best technique. I understand the hesitancy to ask questions after a certain amount of time has passed.

I work as a consultant and our time has to be billed to projects. The onboarding stinks, so the new hires often have no concept of billability/utilization nor project budgets. So I’m trying to drill in those concepts, too.

One of the additional lessons here is “the boss doesn’t always know what they’re talking about.” And that’s another hard one for them to accept. Question authority! If the instructions aren’t clear, then they might be nonsense. Have the guts to challenge the boss. And sometimes the challenge can come in the form of a million stupid questions.

> The onboarding stinks, so the new hires often have no concept of billability/utilization nor project budgets.

As an aside, do you think there is a business opportunity in teaching companies better onboarding? Growing headcount seems like an afterthought most places, and it’s a colossal waste.

The worst example I’ve seen is one company hiring some very expensive onshore consultants to build the basic structure of the application and then quickly hand it off to cheap offshore ones.

What really happened is that the onshore guys created a horrendous mess of untested and undocumented code full of bugs that the offshore ones had no hope of making sense of. And being remote and from a culture of high power distance further exacerbated the problem. It certainly worked out well for the onshore guys who got to bleed the client out of a whole other year’s worth of expensive hours.

The company I work for has 60k employees. I think during the pandemic - which started before I joined - we let go of a ton of office managers and the in-house IT team. So now there is one office manager for each local office, and she had no capacity or skill to answer my semi-technical questions when I joined (“how does the software licensing work?” etc).

So, maybe. It’s risky, like you’ve demonstrated.

> But you’re right that it might not be the best technique. I understand the hesitancy to ask questions after a certain amount of time has passed.

Something like this maybe: go to the new person, in the beginning every day, then once a week, then once a month, and say:

"Can you please ask three (3) basic questions about things you're slightly struggling with, and that you think everyone expects you to know, but that you don't?"

>> Most of the time when I ask obvious questions, the replies are yes/no. She knew how to ask them in such a way that gets the person talking in greater detail.

Dumb question here, but is it as simple as starting your question with "how" or "what" rather than "does"? The former invite explanation and the later looks for a yes/no.

My big thing lately is to not ask rhetorical questions (which can be sarcasm in disguise) as they either cause people to be defensive or simply agree. Either way they do not speak directly about the "obvious" problem.

> Dumb question here, but is it as simple as starting your question with "how" or "what" rather than "does"? The former invite explanation and the later looks for a yes/no.

Yes, this is the 101 of basic interviewing in journalism. Inexperienced reporters often ask too many "does" questions and are puzzled afterwards as to why the interviewee didn't talk much.

"Does" is also used when the journalist aims or pushes for a straightforward, yes-or-no answer. For example to interfere to a politician who is trying to avoid direct answers by trolling the interviewer with some off-topic agenda.

See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Ws

Also, this is a funny proposal with regard to the Five Ws: https://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/additions-to-th...

& "(can you) describe (how) ..." is supposedly helpful too

> Dumb question here, but is it as simple as starting your question with "how" or "what" rather than "does"?

I really appreciate that you used the technique that people were discussing and it still seemed to work here, at least it worked on me. I found myself thinking, "No no, that's not a dumb question at all and I feel grateful that you asked it!"

So, thank you for that meta experience :-)

I've stolen a similar technique from one of my favorite coworkers ever, which is to preface my questions but "This might be a silly question, but...".

I like this because I feel like it kind of de-stigmatizes asking "obvious" questions. If you acknowledge that the the question might be redundant, but ask it anyway, I think it makes the dialog more approachable.

I think the biggest effect it has is that it stops people from thinking "is he stupid?" and getting annoyed at the question.

I've had PMs always lead questions like that, using "this is probably a stupid question..." and alternatives and I came to dread discussions with them, as I knew this meeting would involve loads of wasted time constantly 'excusing' their question instead of just asking it.

Just how long do they draw it out? Phrasing "So, stupid question: [insert question" really shouldn't add that much time, right? Or is the problem that the questions really are stupid?

I have a weird job title but my position is probably closer to your PM, and I also use this strategy, so I'd like to know how to not annoy people!

Sounds as if you're doing it in a good way :-) (I'm not GP)

For me, I think it's about your speed of thinking. If you ask a probing stupid question and get a "yes". If you are quick to reassemble your very low level of understanding into a (wrong) model, you can ask question about this model. "So that means that x goes into y to do z?" which makes you indeed look stupid but it also triggers the person explaining into "ok, this is a full out idiot, I need to go slow and explain in extreme detail". But then I interrupt when it goes to slow with a new pieced-together temporary model from some fact they let out and ask a new maybe less stupid question that makes the explainer go "ok, maybe they understand a bit more" and goes faster/skips details. And then it's like that back and forth until I understand it all and my questions goes into the territory of "yeah, that bit I don't understand either..." which leads us to go on a joint adventure into even greater understanding. A fellowship of the stupid.

My own issue with this method is trying to avoid sounding like I'm vying for brownie points by demonstrating knowledge after asking (what to them might be) a rudimentary question, especially so if my "update" is partially incorrect. It is to the point where I won't show someone I am aware of something simple they have just pointed out to me. Which either is something the author of the blog would condone or I have misconstrued in which instance it is useful to look like you have less understanding than you really do.

this is also part of a coterie of non-threatening communication most women implicitly learn while growing up, to realize desired outcomes without negative pushback.

Am woman, hard agree!


When you active listen, even if the question might feel stupid, the feeling gets lost in the fact hat the other person is receiving your attention. This technique is also teach for other contexts like counseling, or debating using the Socratic method.

Huh, interesting. I've done this pretty much my whole (programming) career. As a non-traditional, I always felt it was a weakness to be "that guy", but it's good to know that it's a common tactic.

Luckily, I've always been around coworkers that never put me down for asking those questions.

Thanks for the suggestions. I'm commenting on this thread so I can save it for future reference.

Perhaps a better approach is to click on "favorite" at the top. I personally find it easier than trying to go through my comments history.

Additionally, if you click the timestamp of a comment, you can “favorite” the individual comment!

It’s embarrassing how long it took me to find that button.

I do this all the time. I'm a non computer engineer who gets pulled into all sorts of computer related things as the contact point with the actual business. Having a good BA and someone who asks stupid questions make such meetings end in positive results much more often.

I also preface with saying I'm going to ask stupid questions and if anyone holds it against me I'm ok with it. If I'm asking a question it's usually because I don't understand a consequent of something someone said that everyone seems to just nod their heads and agree with, and that gives everyone an opportunity to reconsider the fundamentals.

I think I possess this skill (at least partially), and the trick of "knowing what to ask" is to train yourself heuristics that guide you towards questions that reveal outstandingly large amounts of new information. Of course you have limited information, so those determinations about how much information a question's answer would yield are plagued by that. Hence the heuristics.

This is not easy to learn, and great understanding ability is a prerequisite.

> Most of the time when I ask obvious questions, the replies are yes/no.

I guess you might be asking straight up binary questions like - is it happening due to xyz? Maybe, changing the question format to something like - what do you think could be the cause behind _fill the situation here___? Just my humble opinion.

the problem with this approach is that it makes building trust very difficult, as trust is based on a combination of character and competence.

inquisitiveness during problem solving is admirable and good, but in the article many of the applications of 'looking stupid' only serve to render the author untrustworthy.

I know this might come off as adversarial, but might that say more about your metrics for trustworthiness than the party at question? Which bullets from the article would you consider untrustworthy?

Yes, these are two great phrases and methods to vastly improve your communication skills! Many people seem to be OK with leaving a conversation with assumptions instead of assurances.

On my last team I coined the hashtag #StupidQuestionsEncouraged and used my role as a lead to both ask stupid questions and encourage others to do the same.

The top Business Analysts always posses this skill, too.


“Just making sure I understand this correctly… stop me if I’m wrong” has worked wonders for my ability to contribute to a meeting.

> That there are fundamental misunderstandings and misconceptions about existing systems.

This is debugging 101. You have assumptions about how a system works, but the output isn't matching those assumptions. You walk backwards over your assumptions and test them to see if they are true. Eventually you get to the precise place where your assumption is wildly different than the output, and there is your bug.

The more systems (or people) involved, the longer it takes, the more complexity.

Yep, eventually you're asking things like, "does the variable called 'username' contain the username?" Not too long ago I found that 'username', in fact, did not contain the username.

I once had a co-worker at a small company (2 developers, me and him).

In the spirit of doing less work, he proposed to me changing the meaning of "someProperty" to mean something different, without changing the name of that property.

Also, it was a boolean; so he wanted true values to actually represent false, and vice versa.

I politely pushed back on that one.

I work for the government so really know this feeling. I have a funny exemple in mind. Months ago I got pulled into a meeting because 'I know data'. The phrasing alone was a red flag. Lots of high level people in the meeting. Like 10 people, each one payed at least twice as much as me. The goal is to transfer data that is too big for our 'standard pipelines'. They are discussing building a whole new pipeline, contractors would be involved and all. I asked 'stupid questions': "- How big is the data we are discussing ? - '200 Go' - is it recurring ? - No - is it sensitive ? - No - Why don't we buy a 50$ 1to hard drive and transfer the data manually ?"

Last question was followed by the longest silence I ever heard in a meeting... I wasn't invited the next meetings. I heard it took them more than 5 other meetings to reconsider my solution. An intern has finally been sent to buy the hard drive last week.

The problem was throwing the solution at their faces like that. The key to looking stupid is not making others look stupid.

There are ways to create roundabouts so that the solution looks “elegant” but only after “hard thought”.

There’s also the risk that the simple solution has some real limitation (eg. some regulatory issue) then you’ll will indeed look stupid

I wonder if they felt that your idea made them look stupid / incompetent. (Which it seems they were)

Maybe then they didn't want you in the meetings?

(Whilst the idea was good so that's what they did in the end)

(200 Go = GB I suppose)

A lesson I've learned over time is that it's incredibly common for people within a company to have very different mental models of what different terms mean - especially if they work in different teams or departments, but sometimes even people the same team.

My favourite examples are things like "what is a user?" - the marketing department may be counting leads generated, engineers are thinking about records in a database table, some other team may think of users as company or group accounts.

This holds true for all kinds of other things too. You might have a project called "the login optimization project" and find that some people think it's about page load performance while others think it's about increased conversions.

For this reason, I'm always ready to ask the stupid questions.

> "what is a user?"

I have spent far more time than should be necessary aligning on terms like "customer" and "user."

I identify with this situation but my feelings about it are a bit different, although not intentionally. This mirrors my general disconnect with the article.

In this situation I feel some anxiety or hesitation about asking these questions, but I don't feel it as a fear of appearing stupid. Instead the anxiety seems to come from worrying that I am annoying or offending everyone with questions about things that are obvious.

I have no way of knowing which question is going to reveal the problem, so I will need to shotgun questions. I know that some people that I work with get this completely and will cooperate. Others will get defensive or tune out, so I need to find a balance or tone to try to avoid that.

It is similar to when I did tech support as a teenager and someone would call with a problem, wanting a tech sent to their house. I would start asking questions about the problem and they would not want to spend 5 minutes going through a few steps to try to solve it over the phone. I never felt that they thought I was stupid, I just felt they were impatient. Maybe they did think I was stupid, but I was so sure that I could find the answer that I never considered that.

I did support when I was in my late teens and I ALWAYS started at the very bottom, with the questions that seemed obvious, and worked my way up. Most callers thought it was annoying, so I would often prepare them for the silly simple stuff I was about to ask and ask them to humor me. It was especially painful if I was the 3rd person they had talked to.

I guess I still work this way although I've fallen out of the habit of warning people and asking them to humor me.

The "humor me" tier 2 or 3 tech support people are the best. By the time I've called in I've already done the usual stuff, that's why I called, at least they crack me up "what color is the light on the left side" or whatever, not just silence and clacking and background yelling of tier 1 while they "wait for me to power cycle".

Turns out I absolutely cannot do tier 3 support, but I can do 1 and 2 for friends and family and I'm the "whiz" or whatever. Tier three, for me, was basically me in a bad mood talking to me in a bad mood, in order to gatekeep the poor dev/DBA/NOC that had to actually fix things. No thx!

This is a useful skill to employ, though at the same time the frequent need of it is a sign of a dysfunctional system. Not always, but a lot of the time, I think. For one, many of these issues would be avoided if, for example, engineers were included in meetings with decision makers and designers during early phases of development, rather than introduce engineers to effectively tell them what to do now that all the decisions have been made absent any shared knowledge of how things can work under the hood. Not only could this result in reduced time spent, but it could result in less time performing re-iterations once engineering concludes that a request/feature is impractical. Impracticalities or better alternatives should be discovered as early in the process as possible, not later, because inevitably wasted time will be made up for via shortcuts and duct tape. Unless a company really cares about good craftsmanship and not releasing something until it's in an adequate state, quality will almost certainly be sacrificed.

Playing dumb, if you will, has served me well, yet it is also odd to me just how often it needs to be employed in the field of software.

You call it dysfunctional but I think it's just a communication technique to accelerate learning, like the author describes, that can be used in a plethora of situations and not just business meetings.

Oh, I definitely agree. My point, and maybe you still wouldn't agree, is that it can be a good technique to use under ideal or adequate circumstances yet also be a sign of functional weakness if it needs to be used too frequently.

Plenty of otherwise good things can be signs of dysfunction. An example could be a workplace where people are free to chill, do what they want, ride scooters, play games, etc., which can be really healthy and good for creativity, but also may be a sign of weak leadership and nothing actually getting done (wasting time and jeopardizing the future of teams). Having process is usually better than no process at all, but process can also waste time and be counterproductive.

In other words, nothing is necessarily to be viewed as good or bad.

Such behavior can be a good thing, but you could fall in your own bias thinking you know the problem better than them, to finally realize the problem outpace your scope and you are just impacted as anyone in the room.

It happen for me once, and this was an humility lesson.

Now I keep in mind I can feel I understand the problem then realize later I was all wrong too.

For sure! Another comment noted that this might be a sign of a dysfunctional organization, and I think there's a lot of truth there -- where systems have grown to such complexity that people involved in a larger project can't keep the whole thing in their head, and you get groups of people sort of faking it, assuming other people can fill in the details, and not wanting to appear ignorant about areas outside of your expertise.

I've been in other organizations (and even within this one) where my stupid questions revealed nothing new except that I had to go back and do some studying before I could usefully contribute.

I remember when I took a course in General Relativity as an undergraduate; I was much more math/CS focused than most people in the class, who were mostly physics people. And we would get together in study groups, and although I was respected for my general intelligence, it became clear that the questions I was asking were simply not the right ones -- that a physical/geometric intuition was something I did not have. In other words, I was actually the stupid one.

Much later I took a course in differential geometry, and eventually started seeing how it made sense mathematically, but I could never really connect it back to physical intuition. I think the problem that broke me was talking about the behavior of a point mass, and I had literally no idea how to attack that with the tools we had.

Yes, and I would argue this is one of the goals of asking basic questions. Specifically, when asking foundational questions, one of the objectives I keep in mind is to figure out the scope and my ability to understand the scope of the problem. Understand where that boundary exists is useful information.

Personally, I don't really care about this second-order effect that asking such questions might identify others that don't understand the problem correctly. I think it's, as you say, creating its own bias that pollutes your thinking. I've worked with enough experts outside of my own domain expertise, that this is not something that happens often.

Early in my career, I was conscious of asking these questions, so as to not appear like a fool, I thought I was expected to know the answers. I took a remote job a while back and realized that the only way to be successful in my role was to keep asking questions, learning about systems and the product. I did not care if my questions seemed stupid. I just asked away. And, it helped..immensely!

Yes and it feels like the older I get the more I have to be the one that plays this role to ask these basic questions as younger professionals are fearful to look dumb in front of others

The fear of looking stupid is a profound motivator in many professions. If you want to understand why so many of the stories posted about people using this technique are of more senior folks or people with more authority (bosses, mentors, professors, etc), this is why. Being willing to potentially "look stupid" requires enormous self-confidence.

And it may very well be that consequences for looking stupid are worse when you are junior. So it could be a natural progression.

This is me all the time haha sometimes I really am just "stupid" and the only one in the room without a clue, but many many times my stupidity has revealed no one really has any idea what they or the others are talking about.

I'm grateful to my parents or whatever it was that enabled me to not take myself too seriously and not care too much about people thinking I'm stupid, even at work, and even though it may cost me dearly in terms of career progression. (because I do think not all but many people who get ahead do so by very successfully avoiding being perceived as stupid, even if they are)

> you would think the sinking feeling I get before I brace myself to look stupid would go away

I can highly recommend reading, or listening to "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!". Asking "stupid" questions does not automatically make you intelligent, but it is a trait of highly intelligent people, exactly because of the reasons you describe.

We all know the story about how Newton asked why an apple fell to the ground, surely a lot of people would have thought you're a total idiot for asking that, and yet at the same time no-one would have been able to explain why.

The reason stupid questions are uncomfortable is that you're very likely to insinuate other people don't know the answer to a simple question, and we don't like making other people uncomfortable. Which is why you have to be humble when asking them.

> So I start asking questions, and slowly begin to realize that nobody in the room has any idea what they are talking about. That there are fundamental misunderstandings and misconceptions about existing systems. And, naturally, it turns out that the questions I have are questions that other people have.

I've had similar situations, it feels analogous to group based "rubber ducking"... having someone ask the questions perceived to be known or obvious by the existing groups can be extremely beneficial for all kinds of reasons, in the same way that a rubber duck (real or imagined) will get you to re-evaluate all of your assumptions and usually get you to find the assumption that's incorrect or problematic.

Imagine your comment being made in a meeting I got pulled into.

I brace myself. I'm going to waste your time. This is super obvious.

Here it goes: so uh, why do you continue to work with incompetent idiots instead of finding a workplace where people know what they are talking about instead?

Poor communication does not imply everyone involved is incompetent idiots. It's unfortunate, and important to address, but if you quit any project every time there is inadequate communication, you'll never get anything done.

Assumptions are inevitable. They get harder to question the longer they go unquestioned. Newcomers to a group can see them better.

Perhaps cutting people some slack and helping them work better by asking basic questions is a skill we all need to learn.

If you want to cut people slack, go cut them slack. Here's a question: look around you, you think cutting slack is what's needed?

If you think so, alright then. I don't.

If someone asks a simple question, it’s great - because most likely executives will have the exact same question, but depending on your relationship with them, it could go a few ways (or more): 1) they just think you don’t get it because they assume the answer to the basic question and it’s not the assumption you’re operating off of 2) they call you on it during the presentation and make it look like you have failed to explain the fundamentals 3) they wait until after the presentation to ask the question, and others in the room aren’t really sure about it either, because you just assumed everyone knew.

I think it’s OK to ask dumb questions twice. If you don’t get it by the third time (or fail to remember), then we might need to step back and revisit fundamentals, or your mental model might need adjustment so that the information makes sense in context.

I work with good people, and when they screw up, I cut them some slack.

Everyone sometimes screws up. Some more than others. Some distractingly so, and some so often that it's not worth continuing the relationship. But the mere fact that someone at some point screws up does not make them irredeemable. So, yes, I think cutting people slack is important.

This is totally orthogonal to being qualified for a job, or being good, or any other attributes people have that puts them out of their depth. If you work with a bunch of unqualified poseurs, then sure, slack isn't what's missing, and you should quit. But if you find yourself in that situation very often, I'd be asking different questions...

And nobody can know and do every damn thing that's why we have teams and an org. Sometimes you're in the room with experts from different specialties that don't understand each other. Sometimes you're in a team with very disparate domain expertise... Not getting anywhere in meetings is not always the sign of a dysfunctional org or stupid colleagues. It's everyday, everywhere, with everyone.

And. What if it's your customer in the room? Are you firing them for being 'stupid'?

The superclever types that thing their colleagues are stupid are often the most dangerous, as they'll just 'go it alone' and then leave when they fuck up and suddenly everyone is stupid and not grateful.

This happened to me recently,

A team I work with sometimes was blocked on a couple of PRs for about a week. I needed one of the team members for something and their lead wasn't doing much to help remove his roadblocks to helping me so I stepped in asking my really basic questions about what they were trying to achieve.

Within about 30 minutes we released one PR and deleted the other. The one we deleted was blocking the other but there wasn't actally a need for it due to some spec change that happened earlier, just nobody could figure out why it was needed or what needed to be finished before it could ship.

IMO this is the hallmark of a good engineer. One of my absolute favorite engineers/mentors did this. Having just one of these people in the room can be a huge differentiator in problem solving in a group setting.

This is feasible as long as your expertise is recognised in the organisation or you are in a position of power or your organisation is open to this kind of behaviour (quite often it isn’t the case). A junior asking this kind of questions in the wrong organisation may help fixing the problem at hand, assuming they are taken seriously, but they are likely to hinder their career progress if they repeat this behaviour too often. In many many many organisations looking smart is way more important than being smart.

(I’m not saying it’s a good thing)

This is essentially the Socratic method. Arriving at a shared understanding through the asking of questions. I employ this technique regularly and it rarely fails me.

Just to provide additional context...

This works and should be encouraged if you are indeed very smart and very quick, typically introverted and are actually going to be rolling up your sleeves to pitch in.

This approach is painful for everyone else and should be discouraged if you are a very extroverted and very non-technical person with no plan on actually helping out whatsoever with the actual execution on solving the problem at hand and really are only contributing to look smart in front of any leadership who happens to be in the room.

Definitely be aware of the Dunning–Kruger effect - which is a cognitive bias stating that people with low ability at a task overestimate their own ability, and that people with high ability at a task underestimate their own ability.

I do this all the time too and have observed the same results! I ask a lot of dumb questions like "what does XYZ stand for?" and "what was the original problem you were trying to solve by taking this course of action?". Even though I always have that same sinking feeling, usually by the 4th or 5th question I have a very clear idea of what's going on.

This is my life at the moment. Even when I think I may know what is being discussed, experience has shown that a lot of people will try and fake it and being the idiot who doesn’t have a clue and needs it explained is useful for everyone.

I don’t know what it is about the IT trade, but so many people seem to find it difficult to admit that knowing everything is impossible.

> I have no context on because it touches my area of expertise, and the discussions have apparently been stalling out.

> I brace myself to be the idiot.

I don't think not knowing something makes one an idiot. Having hard time understanding something does. I don't think your example applies here.

This is such an eye opening experience, especially when you are new to the corporate world.

It's amazing how frequently fancily dressed, well speaking, high paid people sit in rooms and essentially role play being adults while just having absolutely no clue what is going on.

Probably because of status loss. Do they acknowledge your perceptiveness, intelligence and intellectual honesty after you demonstrate it each time? It would undermine their own status.

->nobody in the room has any idea what they are talking about

I have seen a few people unwilling to admit that they don't know...when they're supposed to know. The easiest way out they come up with is 'we will discuss this offline'.

Being able to say I don't know and I don't understand is incredibly powerful.

Happens to me all the time.

When I was younger, I often met people who seemed kind of dim to me, at first, and later found the majority of them to be orders of magnitude brighter than me. It was not hard to connect the dots, the reason they were so much brighter was (in part) exactly because of what made them initially seem dim.. They asked questions, honestly. Not the showoff kind of question you ask to show how much you know, but real, honest questions that not only showed how little they knew, but importantly, allowed them to actually learn and understand, rather than just nod and not get it.

My intuition has changed from this, I find it that most times, when someone shows genuine interest and asks honest, revealing questions about some new topic, they often excel at many other things (and will likely on the new topic as well).

I'm adapting this myself, being honest, asking honestly, and sometimes looking really stupid (because, in that context, I am!), and I appreciate greatly both the wealth of information that allows me to access, and that almost anybody worth their salt recognizes this trait as well.

Failing an interview due to looking stupid is probably a blessing in disguise, you don't want to be hired by people who can't see this, and you don't want to work next to people who's just pretending to understand, not learning because they can't afford to look stupid when they are (and thus stay stupid, and be much more inclined to try to pass blame to someone else, like you, who look stupid).

This reminds me of the simple brilliance of Socrates. He began from the premise that he knew nothing, and would ask all manner of simple questions building on top of the previous answers. It wasn't long before he uncovered how little everyone else actually knew, but what separated Socrates was his honesty: he knew nothing and admitted it.

Naturally, the established powers and polite society didn't find this to their liking. We all know how his story ended.

  > Naturally, the established powers and polite society didn't find this to their liking. We all know how his story ended.
Socrates was sentenced to death not for exposing how little everyone else knew. The esteemed philosopher was sentenced to death because he was deliberately annoying people - like a fly - with badgering questions that would force the questionee into a corner.

Today we call this method of exposing contradictions in one's mindset the Socratic Method.

> The esteemed philosopher was sentenced to death because he was deliberately annoying people

No. Socrates was executed because he was associated with the worst rulers that the city of Athens had ever known, all former students of his, who notably went on to kill thousands of Athenian citizens (not enemies, strangers, or slaves), following the defeat in the Peloponnesian War.

After the tyrants were killed and democracy was restored, general amnesty law was granted to anyone involved except the Thirty Tyrants themselves and their direct aides. However resentment, understandably, remained.

> There was a lot of bad blood between the people of Athens and Socrates’ followers. That wouldn’t have been enough by itself. But the murder of between 5% and 15% of the citizen population in 404 must have pushed things over the edge. Imagine if Osama bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, and Saddam Hussein had all had the same person as their ethics teacher: would you be very surprised if that person got harsh treatment from a jury? And would you then call that person a martyr?


Well, he was executed because when asked what punishment seemed just to Socrates, he said he should be given free meals (like the Olympic champions), rather than suggesting a fine of 50 minas. So Hemlock it was.

Yeah, there's some people that when faced to what they believe is an injustice go all in and decide the world is entirely unjust and there's no point on defending from anything, because the result is already set. See Galileo for another example.

I guess there's some platonic happiness in thinking you have it all figured out.

> between 5% and 15% of the citizen population in 404...

error 404: population not found

Ah, didn't expect the venerable Meletus to show up in the conversation today. How's the weather in Athens?

> sentenced to death because he was deliberately annoying people

I see you're still certain of Socrates' motives.

When you claimed he was 'corrupting the minds of the youth' and 'denying the gods of the city' you were simply repeating the charges laid at any philosopher who threatens the powers that be.

If anyone asks too many uncomfortable but honest questions these days, in some societies you will still be met with death, though here we have a milder but still harsh punishment known as 'deplatforming'.

But more to the point, if you are so certain of what you know, you could explain it and wouldn't find questions 'annoying'. Frustration justifies the case, because it means you really do know nothing but simply aren't honest enough to admit it.

Actually, I haven't been to Athens since summer 2019. Lovely place, so long as you avoid the touristy places.

Though I do like your form of expressing your frustration about the trial and sentencing of Socrates at myself as though I were his prosecutor, I assure you that I'm an under-50 mortal not born of gods and not atanatos.

  > you could explain it and wouldn't find questions 'annoying'.
A question would not be annoying. Badgering, accusations, and pestering would be. And quite frankly, as we both know, every single one of us has contradictions in their beliefs and their actions. I'm not going to defend mine in public to a beggar following me around with the explicit intention of exposing my contradictions to my peers as a way to demonstrate that I (and for that matter, anybody) am not fit for the office I hold.

Who has been deplatformed for questioning the status quo? Isn’t literally all of BLM challenging the status quo?

blm is the status quo, that’s why speaking against blm gets people deplatformed.

The status quo is qualified immunity.

If blm were the status quo the police would have been defunded.

I think a couple cities did that, and quickly back-tracked because crime shot up.

Thats a robust and well researched opinion you have there.

He's not wrong, many cities defunded their police and then quickly reversed that decision, many adding more funds to their departments.

It was a pretty big event so I know we all remember it as long as you follow current events, but it's easy to find articles mentioning it.




Have you evaluated, or even bothered to seek out, the literature that disagrees with you?

That doesn't make any sense. It's not a philosophical view, it's an event in history and a matter of fact.

Cities defunded police departments, crime went up, some of those same cities then later re-funded those departments, and even increased budgets.

The crime statistics and city council laws passed support these claims, I have not found any claims disputing these facts.

Even the left most leaning sources agree with these claims.

The interpretations, not the facts, are what I’m referencing.

Such as?

Hi, Minneapolitan here. I try not to wade into these sorts of discussions because it is usually unproductive or even counterproductive, but since you have expressed a sincere interest in talking about the facts of the situation, here’s what they actually are here.

The police budget for MPD in 2014 was $145.6M for 850 officers. In 2020, the year you suggest they were defunded, the budget was $181.9M for 770 officers—a 38% increase per officer from 2014 (28.7% after adjusting for inflation)[0]. In fact, that department is ending the current fiscal year $5M under budget[1], and the current mayor has proposed an additional 17% expenditure increase for 2022.[2]

The police in Minneapolis were never defunded. They have more money than ever. Efforts to introduce meaningful reforms (inaccurately called “defunding the police” by some) have also not been abandoned by the city council. We are currently voting on a charter amendment that would replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a new Department of Public Safety. The new department would still include police officers but would be coequal with all other departments in the city (it currently has a unique status where it is controlled exclusively by the mayor), and its focus would be on preventing crime instead of policing people.

On the other hand, other parts of the city budget are underwater due to hundreds of former officers quitting and claiming PTSD[3], and the officers who remain are engaged in an intentional work slowdown[4] while blaming others[5] for what is a largely self-inflicted wound.

What I think the other participant in this discussion was suggesting—and something that I would echo—is that your sources for news don’t seem to be giving you accurate information and you may want to reconsider using them as primary sources, at least on this topic.

[0] https://minneapolismn.opengov.com/transparency

[1] https://twitter.com/lisabendermpls/status/145018398771290931... (This is the Minneapolis city council president)

[2] https://lims.minneapolismn.gov/Download/FileV2/24988/2022-Bu...

[3] https://www.mprnews.org/story/2021/10/06/mpls-police-ptsd-cl...

[4] https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-poli...

[5] https://minnesotareformer.com/2021/10/20/mpd-cop-says-office...

December 2020, the Minneapolis city council voted to defund the police department $8 million for the 2021 budget. [1]

February 2021, the Minneapolis city council voted to add $6.4 million to the police budget. [2]

[1] https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/minneapolis-city-council-v...

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/10/us/minneapolis-police-fun...

[2] https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/minneapolis-to-spend-2464-...

The budget for 2020 was never in question, the riots and defund police movement started in the summer of 2020.

City policies were being discussed late in the year, concerning the 2021 budget.

How precisely did the supposed defunding lead to an increase in crime?

The same way defunding a fire department will lead to an increase in fire damage.

Less resources means slower response times or no response at all.

That wasn't the premise though, the question was whether they defunded and then later refunded when crime was rising.

Above I showed GP that Minneapolis did in fact do this, as did many other cities.

No, it's not. It's a fact. Seeing as how you have the means to comment on Hacker News, you can easily fact-check this for yourself if you're concerned about its validity.

Which cities?

NYC, LA, Oakland, Baltimore, Portland, and Minneapolis at least


> The Democratic mayors of New York City, Baltimore and Los Angeles are among those now backpedaling on their vows

So they didn't actually do anything.

Some cities did defund in their budget, then reversed and refunded.

Some cities backpedalled on their promise to defund and added to the budget instead.

The existence of the latter scenario does not nullify the former.

Add Austin, TX, although there is a ballot initiative to restore the funding being voted on right now.

one example: vaccines are the status quo, I presume you agree on that. Most platforms are removing content that cause "vaccine hesitancy". YouTube has even expanded their this to apply to all vaccines [1]. Furthermore, it seems relevant to point out that dictionaries have updated their definitions of "anti-vaxxer" to include anyone questioning even the government mandates themselves [2], which has opened the door to many cases where people have supported the vaccine, but opposed the mandates, yet still been deplatformed labeled as anti-vaxxer.

[1] https://blog.youtube/news-and-events/managing-harmful-vaccin...

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anti-vaxxer

It must only be pretty extreme cases as Russel Brand and Brett Weinstein still have their videos up.

> dictionaries have updated their definitions of "anti-vaxxer" to include anyone questioning even the government mandates themselves

Merriam Webster has used that definition since they added the term to their dictionary in 2018: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2021/may/17/viral-imag...

So I won’t find anyone complaining about vaccine mandates on social media anymore?

Facts don't care about your feelings and the truth doesn't hurt points of view that are legitimate.

I’m not sure what this has to do with an ancient Athenian philosopher being stoned to death for saying things other people didn’t want to hear, such as “I can’t possibly be both an atheist and worship false gods”.

Care to elaborate?

Just a modern rif on the same statement made above.

Didn't expect a quote from Tom Macdonald when I opened HN this morning.

Here's a gigantic PDF listing ways the truth can hurt all kinds of things: https://www.nickbostrom.com/information-hazards.pdf

What's your point? I didn't say the truth was harmless.

Just that it doesn't hurt points of view that are legitimate.

Illigitimate views and your feelings may still suffer from hearing the truth.

My point is that the facts don't care.

My point is that you can use true facts to give an impression that is false, as documented in the pdf.

Therefore, completely true facts can make you believe a falsehood.

Therefore, the truth can harm a point of view that is legitimate.

Maybe not, but opinions about how we should conduct our societies depend on feelings, and things that appear true but are subtly wrong can cause great harm.

> The esteemed philosopher was sentenced to death because he was deliberately annoying people - like a fly - with badgering questions that would force the questionee into a corner.

It had more to do with revolutions in city just before, when two his students and friends worked with enemy to make dictatorship out of Athens. They killed and tortured quite a lot of people. Then it reversed. Now, he did not participated actively and citizens behavior during above was supposed to be forgiven anyway. It was miscarriage of justice.

But, these events in combination with what his ideas actually were were closer to why they wanted him killed then general "asked too many questions". As far as they were concerned, he was actually dangerous.

The yet other official reason was impiety, which despite sounding ridiculous to us, to them was important too.

Going by Wikipedia, it's not agreed why exactly he was executed, but you don't execute someone for being annoying. The official charges were impiety and "corrupting the youth". Probably some political groups felt threatened by the idea of lots of people turning to a different set of ethics or starting to distrust authority.

> but you don't execute someone for being annoying

Of course you do, you just wait until you have a more ethically "usable" argument than that, you build a solid case, then you have a mock trial and a fully expected conviction.

It was as true 2500 years ago as it is today.

His students and friends took power once before and instituted dictatorship with help of Sparta (enemy city). Killed and tortured opposition, then were taken down in contra revolution.

So yeah, "different set of ethics or starting to distrust authority" but no necessary in a nice way.

I don't remember Plato mentioning that :-)

The Little Schemer is a wonderful book that teaches functional programming and Scheme by just asking the reader questions (aka the Socratic Method). Off putting to me initially, but now I'd love it if more books were like this!

<<It wasn't long before he uncovered how little everyone else actually knew, but what separated Socrates was his honesty <<The esteemed philosopher was sentenced to death because he was deliberately annoying people - like a fly - with badgering questions that would force the questionee into a corner.

The two are not mutually exclusive.

He was put to death for being a thinly veiled Spartan sympathizer. Not quite just for being annoying.

And why do you think people found this so annoying?


And I dunno, ask my wife.

He was certainly very annoying, but his crime was misleading the youth, making them distrust authority.

No. That is a legend promoted by Plato. He was not making the "youth" (in general) distrust authority, he was going around telling the sons of nobility and highest ranking officials that democracy was a stupid idea and that they would be better off seizing power for themselves.

That was his charge. The actual "crime" has been disputed for about two and a half millennia.

I recently learned that there were two other maxims inscribed after the famous “Know thyself” at Delphi:

“Nothing to excess”, and “Certainty brings insanity”.


social reflexes and egos are immense streams of hurdles in the way of knowing

i like the term abandonment these days, drop your assumptions, drop your habits and try to see things as they are

It sounds simple but it really isn't.

When trying to approach sacrosanct 'truths' from a clean slate, I've met torrents of emotional resistance. Yes, from others. But also inside myself. It is quite something.

I wish I could spend my days wandering the marketplaces asking sincere and pointed questions, but I have to get back to work.

of course it's not a thing for daily activities, more about ability to accept it when you face big questions

Socrates was deeply ironic, and usually only played the fool. In very few (maybe all but one) of his dialogues is he actually less informed than the people that he’s talking to.

I don't mean to be that person, but "knowing that you know nothing" is a contradictory statement.

Strictly speaking yes, but I think it is a poetic way of saying that Socrates was better attuned to the limitations of his knowledge, as opposed to most people, who believe they know things they actually don't know (what is the good, etc). As a result, Socrates is actually wiser than most.

Confucius says there are 3 ways to gain wisdom:

Imitation, which is easiest.

Meditation, which is noblest.

Experience, which is bitterest.

Anytime I learn anything new, I imitate until I can’t anymore, then I meditate to understand why I think I can’t imitate anymore, then I experience my meditation, then I go back to mediating based on that experience.

Repeat until you can’t OODA loop effectively anymore.

I don't think Confucius said that.

Sure he did, I think I heard him on tikTok

This article speaks to my soul. All my life I've been told how intelligent I am. It's been such a massive driver for my own insecurities and fear around anything I do, since my identity is tied up so much in being right and not being wrong, in continuing to present this image of infallible intelligence. It's likely also fed into my issues with depression I've had all my life. I can consistently get people to see how intelligent I might be, but it's always such a struggle. It's like walking a tightrope. I hate it.

What helps me is to view intelligence as strictly a matter of brain power. I can use my intelligence to do things that are stupid, unwise, misinformed, harmful, etc.

What I take from the article is that saying stupid things is the best way to avoid doing stupid things.

It definitely gets much easier when you stop worrying about other people think of you.

Read the "Mindset" book by Dweck. Was introduced by our school, and it felt like it was written for me as well.

Whenever I ask questions, I tend to go to the very bottom of it. And I am not satisfied as long as I get a very intuitive and fundamental understanding of the topic. I have seen, however, that this can be tiring. Unless you are having the conversation with someone who has the time, willingness, and the knowledge to satisfy my curiosity, it is pointless to keep probing. People would often be exasperated or would be unable to provide me the intuition. Therefore, these days, I pretty much probe very little and if it seems that my questions won't really be answered, I leave it at that, mentally noting to do some independent research on the internet.

This is especially tough because of how much skill it takes for you the questioner to not make the other person feel stupid when they realize they can't answer your questions.

Yeah, I think the other thing that's made me shy away from it more as I've gotten older is asking the "stupid" question, getting a jargon-laden response, and realizing: this person isn't equipped to communicate the concept. It can be pretty exhausting to be the questioner in that case.

Sometimes there are details one doesn't need to know to make a good decision. All of mathematics is built on this.

However this only works when there is enough knowledge to know why the unimportant details won't matter.

I think people who are afraid to ask questions are conditioned to be that way. It is just easy to keep quiet in a team meeting than risk asking/saying something that might expose one's lack of knowledge on the topic being discussed. People also secretly hope that someone else might ask the same question that they are thinking about, so the other person can take that risk.

The environment largely shapes people's behavior. Of course, we can argue that we should work towards changing the environment for the better, but practically, how much influence does a person (who is not in a position of authority) have? In the end, people simply take the easy way out, which is keep quiet and only speak when they're absolutely sure that whatever they're about to say/ask is fully accurate.

So, there's that saying, "stay quiet and be thought a fool; open your mouth and remove all doubt." In a team meeting, it's easy to feel like you'll not only look foolish because you asked a question that everyone else knows the answer to, but you're also wasting everyone's time.

I certainly remember feeling that way when I was a junior engineer. It was kind of a shock to me when I realized how many others generally had the same questions I did.

>but practically, how much influence does a person (who is not in a position of authority) have?

Surprisingly much, for the kind of people who stay quiet. They underestimate their own potential impact.

You've mistaken "wanting to be right" with wanting to "be correct".

I've never inferred stupidity or lack of intelligence with asking questions. The only thing I've inferred was lack of knowledge. And the best way to get knowledge is to ask. People who ask want to know. They want the information to get to correct.

People who don't ask questions eventually make assumptions that are wrong. Because they're so wrapped up in "looking smart" and they think being "smart" means having all the knowledge. They "want to be right" so they don't look information because looking would expose they don't already have it.

Smart people seek information so they can apply it. Genuinely intelligent people just have faster processors.

There are questions and there are questions. Some questions in meetings are 'smart questions' intended to show you off and boost your stock a little, or move conversation to an area beneficial to you. Some questions are just ridiculous time wasters asked to show that you are there. There is a slim minority that asks questions to actually learn something and from experience I learned that those questions are best asked after the meeting directly to the person.

> the reason they were so much brighter was (in part) exactly because of what made them initially seem dim

The causality also goes the other way. Very smart people see their limitations more clearly and so tend to be humbler about what they know.

They realize they can learn from others and so ask a lot of questions that others might feel foolish asking.

this^. it took a lot of intentional practice for me to shake the fear of looking dumb when in front of peers. however, i've since realized that pretty consistently the people who share this willingness to come off as uninformed are the best people to work with -- they openly admit gaps in their knowledge and are eager to close them.

conversely, when interviewing or evaluating people, if i observe someone pretend s/he knows something, that's often a really bad sign…

If you don’t know the answers to stupid questions you originally don’t understand the topic fully .

> you don't want to be hired by people who can't see this

The issue with this is that you might not even work with this one person declining you.

One way to prove that he truly doesn't mind looking stupid would be to list times when he risked looking stupid... and it turns out he actually was.

It's happened to all of us though we dont like to admit it.

I'm sure it's happened to him too and I looked but I didn't see any of those examples listed.

Giving only examples of when people thought he was dumb and it turned out he wasn't... that's kind of just a roundabout way of humblebragging that you're an unrecognized genius.

Sadly I think this undermines the point of the article which otherwise makes a good point.


There's distance between:

"people think I'm stupid because I'm not scared to show that I don't know about something"

and some of the examples which are more along the lines of

"people think I'm stupid because I act as a self-entitled genius who provides little context or reasoning behind choices and expect everyone to line up behind with no question"

What is the Apple store employee supposed to do to not make someone feel stupid when they ask for the smallest box? What are the chances they're not a clueless customer in need of help and have solid reasons behind?

The boss raises an eyebrow when someome proposes to skip half of the test suite? Means a lack of trust.

The insurance dealer does his job and tries to get a higher premium? Not surprised.

There's quite a bit of narcissism here: "They though I'm stupid but I'm not", " I was right in the end". It's actually arguing how everyone else is dumber in the end.

A more sincere approach would have been to explain how he realized how stupid he actually was and how not being defensive about it helped. But perhaps the author knows better after all.

Yes, he clearly states he thought that the student group that thought he was stupid were stupid. And later that the only people that would think his test thing was stupid would be the incompetent ones.

So his thesis is also that stupid people assume that intelligent people are stupid. He considers himself more intelligent than those people.

I wonder if he would be as willing to look stupid in front of people that he considers as intelligent as him.

It sounded to me like he was saying: I am willing to look stupid to people that I consider inferior (dumber than me).

I read this more as: "stupid is an important step in the process of fostering smart". It's someone's unwillingness to look dumb that stalls them at the gate.

I think this is the impetus behind the whole 'crawl, walk, run' thing. If you're always hot to trot and pushing an image of "I know everything already and I don't need to ask basic questions", you're never going to build the foundations of understanding necessary to construct more complex understandings.

> The insurance dealer does his job and tries to get a higher premium? Not surprised.

This is actually an example of where the author IS stupid. You will often be found "at fault" in cases where you are not actually at fault (the other driver lies better than your truth) and there are many cases (at least in Ontario) where you are legislatively at fault even if you did nothing out of the ordinary (making a left turn while overtaking traffic attempts to pass rather than yield). That the broker was trying to protect them from this isn't even a conflict of interest for the broker.

I wonder how many insurance brokers encounter the "I'm such an amazing driver, I don't really need insurance." macho man ... I'm presuming the broker, at least initially, assumed the author was one of "those drivers" and not "stupid".

I don't think it's about who's at fault, it's about what risks you're willing to tolerate.

Insurance is always a trade-off of EV for tail risk. In exchange for losing money on average (the insurance company has to earn money somehow, after all), you're protected from the worst case scenario. You can think of it like, yourself from parallel universe where you don't get into a crash, pays yourself in the parallel universe where you do get into a crash. And the insurance company skims a little off the top as payment for the service of sending money across parallel universes.

But if you can afford to just eat the cost of a crash, you don't need to pay the insurance company for that service. And maybe you can eat the costs of some crashes but not others: If you crash into a rich guy's car, maybe you can't afford those costs, but damage to your own car is capped at the price of your own car. So that's all Dan's doing: insuring the costs he can't pay (damage to others) but not the ones he can (damage to his own car).

The math isn't affected by his chances of being found at fault, or how good of a driver he is, at all.

It's my understanding that most insurance companies earn most of their money by investing their float, not by paying out less than they bring in from customers.

No, it's the injuries you can't afford. Property damage doesn't add up to much (for some definitions of "much").

In defense of the author, maybe they have a dashcam and that's what increases their confidence.

But that's where I see a problem: this (or another reasonable thing) is not something that would take long to explain.

Looking stupid is a failure of communication. You're right, but you failed to give enough rope for others to follow, and that wastes everyone's time.

The improvement I'd suggest is to dig into why someome thinks you look stupid. You could think "they must be stupid", but that, in itself, is an overly simplistic and inefficient model.

I think you’ve got that backwards - he wanted to only buy coverage for damage he did to other vehicles / people & not to cover his own vehicle.

However, sometimes, for some drivers, fully comprehensive insurance can be cheaper than 3rd party only for arcane internal insurance risk-accounting reasons. So by not letting his agent even look at the whole market he was cutting himself off from the possibility of cheaper insurance.

I am curious to the mechanics of how the accounting situation arises that an insurer would benefit from taking on more liability for less revenue.

The entire business is heavily regulated and based on accurately accounting and pricing risk. It seems suspect that a regulator would allow such an obviously mispriced insurance product.

The explanation I saw was that people who buy comprehensive insurance are by and large regarded as lower risk than 3rd party only buyers & sometimes that weighting can tip the balance to make comprehensive cheaper than 3rd party, if the insurer thinks you’re otherwise a low risk buyer.

All insurers have to go on to gauge your risk are the signals available to them & the type of insurance you’re buying is a signal.

Whether this is still true in the modern world I don’t know - I probably saw this advice ten years or so ago on a well regarded money saving site.

Interesting, I had not thought of that. I have been purchasing auto insurance for over 10 years, and I get prices every couple years. I always buy extremely high liability only insurance because I can easily afford to replace my car if anything should happen to it. I have always found liability only insurance to be much cheaper than comprehensive and collision and liability insurance.

It would greatly surprise me if buying comprehensive insurance itself served that good of a signal to offset comprehensive/collision insurance for say, a $20k to $40k car.

Yes, on the other hand if you own a $5k car then the insurer’s liability is much smaller & there are plenty of older cars on the road driven by older, safer drivers that fit into that category.

This was regarded as a weird corner case even then & was mostly just used as an example of why you should try tweaking various features of the insurance you were after, because the price could sometimes change in ways that might seem counter-intuitive.

That ... still makes no sense. "Discounting insurance for revealed [lower] risk class" doesn't work if the insured can easily fake membership in the lower risk class, which is trivial here -- just ask for comprehensive!

What I think you might be confusing this with, is that one piece of the insurance is cheaper if you bundle it with others. That is, liability-only might be $50, but if you if you get liability + collision, it's $80, which breaks down into $40 for liability and $40 for collision. The insurer is taking more liability -- but also more revenue, so no funny business.

The "high-risk poor" can't "cheat" here because they can't afford the extra $30 to begin with, and "being willing/able to spend $30 just to be safe" is an actionable signal of being low risk.

But you still shouldn't have a scenario where you get strictly greater coverage for strictly less money.

There's also a scenario where only people who don't look at prices buy liability-only, which signals poor decision making or carelessness and justifies higher cost to regulators.

The phrase “not looking at prices” generally means willing to buy the more expensive products or services. If you buy liability only, it means you are looking at prices and coverage.

This makes more sense to me.

They are not taking on more liability.

The insurance company now has no responsibility to repair the insured vehicle so they have less responsibility.

I suspect Collision insurance is very profitable compared to liability.

pja made the claim that in some instances, collision/comprehensive + liability can be cheaper than just liability alone.

I expressed surprise that collision/comprehensive + liability can be cheaper than just liability alone, since, on the face of it, the insurance company seems exposed to more losses due to possibly having to pay the insured for their car damages.

In my comment, I wrote liability referring to the insurer’s liability for paying to fix/replace the insurer’s car, not liability as in auto liability insurance where the insurance company pays others for damage you cause to them.

Possibly willing to buy collision is a proxy for a generally prudent driver.

Also, skipping collision happens most often when driving a really cheap car, which can be a marker for a bad driver.

Actuaries actually have numbers for this things, but I am just speculating.

> Possibly willing to buy collision is a proxy for a generally prudent driver.

It's a proxy for not being able to afford to fix or replace your car at the drop of a hat.

>Also, skipping collision happens most often when driving a really cheap car, which can be a marker for a bad driver.

Once again, just a proxy for money.

> You will often be found "at fault" in cases where you are not actually at fault (the other driver lies better than your truth) and there are many cases

As I understand it, Dan wants to skip on collision / comprehensive, not liability. I can imagine a number of scenarios in which you might not want to bother insuring an asset, even as you insure yourself for damage to others you might be at fault for.

Here in the US, and I assume in Canada as well, there are two main kinds of car insurance:

Liability - that pays for damages/injuries to others

Collision/Comprehensive - that pays for damage to your car

It sounds like the author wanted Liability but didn't want to pay for Collision. If you have significant assets and/or a cheap car, it may be to your advantage not to get the collision. Except he didn't use the customary terms but described them rather elliptically.

In fact, take the money you save on Collision and get more Liability is not a bad idea.

I don't think that's what the author was getting at here - a compelling reason is that the value of the payout to fix your own car x the probability of it happening is lower than the total premium extra. Eg the "Insurance is only worth it for things you can't afford" mentality.

This also checks with the OP in this subthread: The insurance seller will always push for more coverage for self-interested reasons.

That's opposite my experience: I took an appointment a few weeks ago from my insurance agent (Texas) who wanted to review my existing insurance vs my needs. On the call I laid out that same logic -- I can afford repairs to my car out of pocket, so it doesn't make sense to insure it, so maybe I should drop it (just keep liability) -- and she agreed, and was happy to tell me the savings!

(I didn't go through with it on the call and maybe she would have put up resistance then, so who knows.)

Edit: From reading the source, it seems like the author didn't clarify that that was the logic he was using, or that he could afford the damage to his car out of pocket. Insurers are probably accustomed to people overextending themselves and skimping on insurance without being able to afford such things, which is risky and something agents have to head off early on.

Salespeople have different strategies, so you aren't always going to get one who tries to sell you a bunch of stuff you don't need.

Some will try to milk you for all you're worth. Others will try to stick to things that you plausibly need and hope that selling to more people and having a higher renewal rate will make up for the extra amount that they aren't squeezing out of each person.

It may be an unusual preference, but I don't think there's anything wrong with it. Maybe he drives an inexpensive car and can afford to repair/replace it himself, so he doesn't want to pay the premium to insure against that risk.

As with all voluntary insurance, Its the price, stupid.

$100k for coverage on your car? No thanks. $1? Sure. $1 but covers litterally nothing and has a million dollar excess? No thanks.

I had exactly the same impressions as you, and initially I thought that it was my non-native English interpretation (I felt sort of stupid), happy to know I am not the only one considering those examples (more-than-a-little) self-entitling the author as the ultimate genius on earth.

It seems to me like he puts some intentionality in attempting to look stupid and a sort of satisfaction when this happens.

“What is the Apple store employee supposed to do to not make someone feel stupid when they ask for the smallest box?”

Maybe ask the customer, “can I ask why you would like the one with the smallest box?” instead of making assumptions? Although note that this might also be classified as a question where the person asking is admitting they don’t understand why someone would want this aka “looking dumb” in the wording from the article

I don't understand why he was asking for the smallest box, though? Isn't that an inefficient proxy? Wouldn't asking to see the computers have been more accurate?

The author's refusal to explain to the store employee why he wants the smallest box makes me think he actually is stupid, or at least lacks the emotional intelligence to understand that when someone is trying to help you, you should explain your intentions to them. If I worked at the Apple store, and somebody insisted they want the laptop in the 'smallest box' without explaining why, the only reasonable conclusion is that they're experiencing the XY problem. Not to mention that Macbooks of the same form factor all come in boxes of the same size, so there's a million other configuration options he'd need to provide... https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/66377/what-is-the-x...

I think that is the funniest part of this article.

I read his post to the end looking for the answer to why he wanted the smallest box, furiously thinking of why. I could only think of three reasons that I rejected as unlikely. Frustrated, I came here to look at the comments. So many comments about the box. It's like the contents of the briefcase on Pulp Fiction. It's like a McGuffin that forces everyone to talk about his article.

I once give a laptop as a birthday present on a weekend trip with my girlfriend, traveling in a small two-seat convertible. I struggled somewhat to figure out how to pack presents without it being obvious I was bringing presents. Fortunately the laptop box was small enough to fit behind the seat.

I don’t why the author needed a small box, but I did think of my experience when I read his anecdote. I think a large part of his appearing impaired is not even attempting to explain his rationales, suspicions or methods in the moment. His goal seems to be to engineer these awkward interactions, when they could be otherwise lubricated or alleviated. He’s acting as though other people and their understanding are irrelevant to him; they are furniture or fixtures that should trust and obey unquestioningly, which is a bit ironic.

I am really curious what his end goal here was. Apple's boxes are all very small — in what situation would a few centimeters in box size outweigh all other considerations?

I assume it has to do with sneaking the machine in and out of a place. The other alternative is something to do with storage. Maybe it's a backup machine they want hidden somewhere in case the feds seize all his electronics.

That last one makes the most sense, and explains why he didn't divulge it. That way, when the author is raided, they aren't going to ask, "hey, where's that computer that, comes in the smallest box?"

I'm imagining the author has this big book case, and one of the books is hallowed out and has an Apple machine in it. Maybe it's built into a false floor of a cabinet.

But as the employee pointed out, smaller box does not mean smaller machine. And I don't see the point of hiding the machine with the box still around it.

The reason is obscure if nothing else.

Not the OP. In my case the client want many all-in-ones.I proposed a small CPU to fit into the notches on the back of a Specific monitor. I used an Intel Compute stick which only needs power, an HDMI cable and a powered USB hub. This gave me an All in One Computer functionally for less than half the price. It also had the benefit of being up-gradable by swapping out the Compute stick for a newer model. When the client saw it he thought it was an all in one and thankfully appreciated the cleverness. (Financially, I got the contract)

On the other hand, he doesn't spend much time talking about the case that could have him die or the one that could have him go blind. If something like that happened to me, I would probably have a position like the author. There are also a few cases (COVID, air filtration) where people disagreeing with him had relatively serious health consequences.

While this guy is clearly smart, and willingness to ask simple questions is a worthy quality that many people possess, this is an article about what happens when decent intelligence and a good instinct is accompanied by narcissism and delusions of grandeur. Being right about something feels even better if other people thought you were wrong about it.

With his COVID action— people disagreeing with him, at first, wasn't what had serious health consequences. He said he started wearing N95s several days before the initial r0 estimate was even published, and that he based his opinion on SARS-CoV-1 data which many relevant experts didn't think was applicable. There's a reason they didn't jump to the same conclusions he did, and that reason is why they're experts. He essentially won a bet talks about it like he figured out how to beat poker.

And if he recieved a torrent of negative feedback for his penchant for air filtering in 2012, that says a lot more about his friends and family than his very not radical adoption of home air filters less than 10 years ago? The whole sick building/mold aversion/exhaust fumes/smoke/spent cooking fuel/etc realm of AQ concerns has been a publicly accepted health concern waaaaaaaaaaaaaay longer than 2012. Sharper Image was making a mint off of their Ionic Breeze air purifier at least a decade before that.

Like I said, he's obviously a smart guy, but this whole 'they all laughed at me and look at me now!' narrative is just not that impressive.

I agree he's probably a self-entitled know-it-all, but I think at least his conclusion for COVID was spot on. By 2020-01-26 Wuhan (a major Chinese city) was already under lock down, so it was pretty clear CoVID19 was serious. I live in Asia, so I'm not in a position to understand the sentiment in (for example) the US, so the "let's wait until we have more data" attitude is really perplexing to me.

Sure, there was no public data on r0 and no proof that COVID19 was similar to the other SARS viruses. But given only the info of "Wuhan was under lockdown", wouldn't it be indicative of the seriousness and the contagiousness of the virus, at least in the eyes of Chinese government officials?

I always thought the "West" misinterpreted the events in China at their detriment. Perhaps they assumed that it merely reflected the inability of the Chinese government to control a pandemic instead of actual seriousness of the disease?

Anyway I started wearing a surgical mask regularly and made sure I washed hands thoroughly after the Wuhan lockdown was announced. I hate wearing masks but it was less than $1/day and some inconvenience compared with an unknown but potentially scary disease. Not sure how anyone would come to a conclusion that taking precautions could be a bad bet (on a personal level at least).

I agree with you about COVID. In January, we had videos of China blocking roads that led to Wuhan, soldiers in the streets, people disinfecting the streets. At this point, I knew that it was probably going to be serious.

More than that.. by the 26th they had already cancelled Chinese New Year & implemented lockdowns/restrictions outside of Hubei.

He said he was wearing N95 masks for a week before the 26th. Wuhan locked down on the 23rd.

Ebola was a large and growing problem in Africa in 2015 which covered a larger swath of the population, had nearly identical messaging from the Government, and would trigger a lockdown in Sierra Leone. Lots of folks regularly travel between the west coast of Africa and major American cities. I'd argue it would not have been prudent to start wearing Ebola PPE at that point, either. Of course, because it was Africa and not China, it only got marginal news coverage compared to the enormity of the problem on the ground, and much less traction on technology platforms because to this day, 25% of Sierra Leone's population has internet access. Epidemiologists were every bit as concerned about Ebola as they were about COVID before COVID's higher initial R0 number was released.

I'd like to hear the justification for not donning Ebola PPE given what was ostensibly a nearly identical situation that fortunately ended up being handled a whole lot better. Or maybe he did and he left that one off?

> narcissism and delusions of grandeur

I'm not sure why you're painting him as having psychological issues based on a blog post.

> He said he started wearing N95s several days before the initial r0 estimate was even published, and that he based his opinion on SARS-CoV-1 data which many relevant experts didn't think was applicable. There's a reason they didn't jump to the same conclusions he did, and that reason is why they're experts.

The same experts that were telling the public that masks were useless in March 2020. Experts are not always giving the best recommendations for your specific case.

> Like I said, he's obviously a smart guy, but this whole 'they all laughed at me and look at me now!' narrative is just not that impressive.

That's a very uncharitable way of interpreting that blog post. I personally see it as "next time you feel too stupid to do something, think about that blog post and maybe I'll give you the strength needed to do something that will have a good outcome".

I read the article as the author sharing how he was trying to be intelligent instead of appear intelligent. There are a surprising number of people who desire, above all, to be seen as the smartest person in the room.

I was enjoying this article right up until he started shaking his fist at the heavens. As it meandered into rambling he undermined what was shaping up to be a good read. Losing me with foregone conclusion his roommate's hesitance to go all-in on masks was the reason she got, "long-covid".

Seems he glommed onto the mask because it was something an individual can control in the face of an ultimately nihilistic reality, over which one has little influence. Like buying toilet paper despite assurances there is no shortage, myopic assertions on the observable sure seems to make people feel better. Speaking of shortages, the criticisms of n95's stemmed from a legitimate shortfall among medical personnel, despite questionable value to panic-buying consumers. "The Science" I'm sure he cites behind this rationale has been pretty clear regarding how Covid spreads. Prolonged close indoor personal contact. Wearing the n95 at the grocery store or while walking the dog poses little benefit because those situations pose little risk. Given serological investigation puts the rates of asymptomatic infection anywhere between 10 to 40:1, his roomie is more likely to have contracted it from him than from her unwillingness to wear a mask. Possibly while sitting at the dinner table with our author, rolling her eyes as he urgently espoused the virtues of the public N95. We'll never know for certain, but he'll surely continue to conversely reason her disagreement on the matter led to that, "stupid" conclusion.

Given the clarity of hindsight, global epidemiological statistics remaining largely unaffected by public mask policy starts to makes sense. After all if his reasoning behind the mask had an air of truth to it you'd be able to observe at least some impact on infection rates before and after mandates. Yet for the most part communities all followed a the similar bell-shaped trajectory, regardless of policy or political orientation. I see a lot of people pretending this isn't the case, that there isn't two years of data suggesting otherwise, meanwhile the rest are quietly bartering with their gods the others will get over it and move on with their lives. It's really a shame his article blundered into Covid territory, because he was starting to say something worthwhile. Like most conversations Covid, the substance evaporated as we were left with largely emotional appeals. Shame we can't talk about politicized risks pragmatically, trying to fit them into a wider context of facts and numbers. Like, why am I even talking about Covid when upwards of 8M people, largely children under 5, die every year from respiratory diseases caused by pollution? Sure seems the world has other problems. Maybe, like politics and religion, the topic just isn't suited for polite company.

At the point he started wearing masks, there was absolutely no significant knowledge of how SARS-CoV2 spread. In fact, I saw a well-constructed paper a few folks were passing around in February noting that surgical masks were no less effective at protecting health care workers in actual clinical settings than N95s during recent respiratory disease outbreaks. We now know that such is not true for this one, but to claim that your sole ability to power through the haters and champion the truth was the reason you took that path, rather than just having taken a bet, is bizarre.

Agreed—- it somehow ties into the opposite of the ability to fake sincerity: the inability to show sincerity. I am still traumatized by the times the second case happened. The times when people dismissed me because they thought (perhaps rightly?) that I was acting like a self entitled genius.. (and I am inferring, because why would normal intelligent adults say such things??)

Another perhaps relevant thought, which is perhaps crass: If PG or Alan Kay ever claim that they are willing to look stupid, I feel like people would not believe them. On the other hand if Feynman does it, people would feel the sincerity. (At least the version of Feynman Feynman marketed, not the Feynman who couldnt suffer Gellman)

Another thought: maybe its better to be willing to look immature.

Good points, to which I'll add, how the heck is he surrounded by so many people who a) give a shit at all, and b) are so willing to let him know they think he's stupid? No one cares or dares in my case. Maybe it's my "tall privilege" again?

In would say it goes even further than humblebragging, and ventures into narcissism and an inability to handle criticism, explain oneself, or accept help.

If the car insurance salesperson disagrees with you, maybe you should try to understand why? Did you really consider the possible that a tree branch could fall in front of your car or that you could get caught in a hail storm?

If the Apple store employee doesn’t understand why you’re obsessed with box sizes, explain that the MacBook in the smaller box is the one with the features you want and that’s the easiest way to identify it.

If someone gives you a look like “you’re stupid” it’s most likely that they don’t understand your decision not that they think you have an inability to reason. Sometimes you simply need to explain yourself, but it seems the OP has such confidence in their own decisions that they won’t accept any help or input from even the experts. After all as you noted, it appears that the OP has always been right in the end.

maybe a better title is "how to ask questions so I can be smug later". I've done this for sure but I've never advertised it later.

> explain oneself

I hate this, the idea that I should have to explain myself to a random stranger in a shop as if they are entitled to know anything about me. I buy a lot of sweets on Friday for the weekend and regularly the clerk behind the till will make a comment, "Thats a lot of chocolate! Who is going to eat all that! You must be having a party whats the occasion?". In front of a line of customers who are eager to get home I have to explain myself to the clerk "Im depressed!"... and then just stand there awkwardly waiting for them to finish doing their job.

I get it they are just trying to be friendly but I don't want it no one in the queue behind me wants it, no one wants to explain themselves to a stranger we will never meet again, I just want the sweets / laptop please and thank you.

You don't have to, and I personally also find small-talk with strangers rather tedious, but in the specific cases brought up by the author, it sounded like he would've saved himself time by just briefly explaining his reasoning. Which also would've had the nice side-effect of treating his interlocutors as rational human beings worthy of a measure of respect.

> no one wants to explain themselves to a stranger we will never meet again

Even though I, personally, feel the way you do, the above doesn't ring true. Many people crave those small interactions with strangers, and welcome the opportunity to talk about themselves. That's the reason they're a social norm.

I'm in a very similar boat as you two (why does the barista at Starbucks care what my weekend plans are?), but I don't think it's always that people want to talk about themselves, I think they just want to talk to somebody, period. Humans are social creatures and have survived on our ability to form communities, so there is part of us that sometimes just want people to talk to, not necessarily about ourselves. For sure there are narcissists who do only want to talk about themselves, but I wouldn't say that's everyone.

> I hate this, the idea that I should have to explain myself to a random stranger in a shop as if they are entitled to know anything about me.

You sound like someone who has never worked in any customer facing position. Many people come in wanting X. They don’t realize X has many consequences. You know if you just give them X then they’ll come back another day, leave a bad review, or say, “but why didn’t you tell me this?!?!”

I mean, ffs - this happens to me as a customer and I’m thankful. Sometimes there are obscene arcane scenarios that you can’t find out about through regular means that only that service rep will know about. They are mostly fine if you just explain what you’re doing - they’re safe guarding the company’s reputation. They have nothing against you asking for weird shit - they just don’t want your bad shit later.

> no one wants to explain themselves to a stranger we will never meet again

So you walk into the Apple store, walk up to an employee and when confronted with the question "How can I help you today?" what do you do?

Telling them "I would like X", seems like an unneccesary level of "explaining yourself". They should just know and understand exactly what you want from non verbal signals?

Thats not the scenario the scenario in the example was walking up to the staff and asking "I would like X" and then instead of selling you X they ask why you want X and would you not prefer Y?

Very annoying, I want X thats why I asked for it, I dunno if I want Y because I didn't spent time researching it like I did X. I want X not an argument there are lots of other place I can buy X if you are going to be difficult about it.

>humblebragging that you're an unrecognized genius

and this is why this article is popular. Everyone has to deal with looking foolish or telling a doctor they know their body better than them. I think playing it up this way and in this format really sells this idea of being this underappreciated genius in a sea of stupid people, which unfortunately a lot of people relate to, instead of attacking the social and systemic issues this person is actually experiencing. For example, poorly trained and non-empathic nurses or mask disinformation early during covid. Obviously these things are strongly liked to ruthless for-profit healthcare and how the right has politicized covid.

Most of the examples are bizarre. The air filter thing makes no sense. Its extremely rare to develop asthma in your own home because of being near wildfires. So there's no evidence his filters did anything. Also most of these are just being over-sensitive at not looking 100% competent all the time. Being bad or silly at videogames at first? That's a universal experience! Being right at work while others are wrong or lazy sometimes! That too. Doing the right thing when no one else is? That's universal too!

And like you said, they don't list the times they made a big seemingly merit-based action but ended up just being wrong.

This person just sounds socially maladjusted and probably suffers from a certain level of social anxiety. If they think acting normally is constantly making them look stupid, there there's something going on with them mentally that isn't healthy. Worse, it may reveal how they see others who aren't competent in the moment, which is really unfair to them. Does this person see us as stupid when we do everyday things? I suspect they do.

So the real take away here isn't "btw aren't we all geniuses if we're like this," I think he was aiming for intentionally or not, but a lesson on being tolerant of others who may not seem competent in the moment.

Lastly, this obsession with who is and isn't stupid is really unhealthy. I see it in a lot of tech people, and its just an ugly form of toxic masculinity. These people will mock sports people for being traditionally over-competitive, but don't see it in themselves when they do it in regards to smarts.

Agree with everything you said.

The unusual level of hostility the author encountered didn't seem right... Like you said, there's some over-sensitivity, a lot of jumping to conclusions, and hostile thinking from the author himself that led him to believe that so many people thought he stupid. Definitely some social anxiety in there as well, which is fine, but letting that turn into hostility is not.

It's a shame because the articles overall message isn't bad at all. Have the willingness to feel stupid for personal improvement is good advice but he just comes across it the wrong way.

The entire post is peak /r/iamverysmart material and I'm not surprised it is popular here because a lot of the HN crowd fits into that category as well.

This article does not undermine its own point. In fact, very, very few articles ever undermine their own point. In order to undermine your own point it means you've failed to construct a logical chain of thought. But that is what people do all the time in their daily lives. Maybe children would undermine their own points, or someone posting their first ill-thought comment on Facebook. But I think most people will learn how to construct an argument by their second time publishing one.

In this case, the article is not about 'the joys of being too dumb to breathe'. It's about how 1. looking stupid is not the same as being stupid, and 2. looking stupid can be beneficial in the long run. The author does not need to actually be stupid once in order to support this idea.

And I have to worry if you think he's "bragging" about merely looking stupid, as if that weren't bad enough. Maybe if you identify as stupid I could understand the offense.

To the author, Dan Luu: I like your article and I think you're on the right track!

You can construct an argument that we never landed on the moon if you cherry pick your data carefully.

That’s the point being made here: not that his examples are wrong, that they are cherry picked to support his views.

It may be superficially thought provoking, but it is not compelling as a logical argument.

There are tangible downsides to ignoring expert advice; you are not a god. You cannot be an expert at everything.

It is not possible to be an expert at everything.

Therefore, yes, asking questions to understand a topic is good, but no, ignoring the advice of an expert is not good.

The examples given only show examples where the result of ignoring the expert, or third party advice was positive; it can’t possibly be true that this can be the case in all circumstances, except by sheer good luck.

I whole heartedly agree that asking questions is more important than looking smart… but:

> Overall, I view the upsides of being willing to look stupid as much larger than the downsides. When it comes to things that aren't socially judged, like winning a game, understanding something, or being able to build things due to having a good understanding, it's all upside.

You don’t have to look stupid to be able to do all those things, you just have to be humble and work hard.

> ignoring the advice of an expert is not good.

If the person actually is an expert, yes. But actual experts, at least outside hard science domains where we can run controlled experiments to nail down theoretical models to the point where the actually do have high predictive accuracy, are much rarer than most people suppose.

For example, the author says he ignored his doctor's advice; but that only counts as ignoring the advice of an expert if his doctor actually was an expert. Most doctors aren't--in fact, one could argue that no doctors are, since nobody has a really good predictive model for medicine. Many doctors know more than at least a fair number of their patients do, but that's a much lower bar to clear than "actual expert". And given the current state of medicine and the availability of information online, it's pretty easy for a reasonably intelligent person to know more than any of their doctors do about their own particular condition--since they both are more interested in accurate information, and have more time to devote to finding it out.

> You can construct an argument that we never landed on the moon if you cherry pick your data carefully.

This is a really nice, concise way to make the point you are making. Doesn't it seem like this is the central problem with politics today? Everyone has their own data and everyone is logical. You can't have a functional discussion under such scenario. People don't see any problem with their own logic because there isn't any. People can't definitively show a problem with the other's logic because there isn't any.

The article is interesting, but it fails for me to make a convincing case that looking stupid is necessary, most of the time.

Particularly in interviews, what I'd like to read is a reflection not on how to avoid thinking in the way that results in saying or asking things that sound stupid, but how to keep the same internal process without communicating the results in a way that confuses quite so much.

An analogy: a mathematician proves a non-obvious theorem. In their proof, they skip so many steps that it looks like they say intuitively wrong things.

It is NOT that they should stop thinking of these proofs in the same way, it's merely a failure of communication.

Yes. It seems the point of the article is to take revenge at those who might have thought he was stupid (although they didn't say anything at the time) and tell them: "See? I was right all along!"

He sounds more like my mother in law than like a keen philosopher.

Or it is an unwillingness to be vulnerable to the entire internet. Why? Probably fear of being misinterpreted and pilloried by strangers.

It is a justifiable fear. For example, it is easy for people to interpret an imperfect amount of courage as "humble-bragging".

Maybe. He didnt add the caveat "I don't mind looking stupid except when the entire internet can see" though.

I thought it was heavily implied from the way the article started that we'd be reading some embarrassing stories.

I was somewhat disappointed to see that he was presenting himself as just a humble genius who thinks different.

Nowadays it doesn't even end there. You risk getting "cancelled" by social media mobsters.

Yes, every example is "I sounded stupid but I was actually correct". From the title I thought the article was going to be about not being afraid to learn new things.

The examples he lists are not even interesting. The fact that other people make obvious mistakes does not make you a genius.

Absolutely. There's a kernel of wisdom here, but the argument buckles without examples where the OP actually was "stupid" and wasn't proven to be "the smart one" in the end.

Learning isn't a straight path. It's unusual to not veer off and misunderstand something for a while, during which time others might be right to assume you are "stupid".

The willingness to look stupid will sometimes reflect that you are, in fact, actually stupid. A lack of any examples in this category makes this post read more like a humble brag.

> The person who helped me, despite being very polite, also clearly thought I was a bozo and kept explaining things like "the size of the box and the size of the computer aren't the same". Of course I knew that, but I didn't want to say something like "I design CPUs. I understand the difference between the size of the box the computer comes and in the size of the computer and I know it's very unusual to care about the size of the box, but I really want the one that comes in the smallest box". Just saying the last bit without establishing any kind of authority didn't convince the person

This is not "willingness to look stupid", it's obviously the will/need/want to look mysterious to stroke one's ego.

He could have chosen to behave like a good human and say why he wanted a smaller box so no one looks stupid (he to the the employee and the employee to him) and even give some new insights to the employee to help another customer with the same needs.

I can think of examples of stupid things I've done, but I have a hard time thinking of when a willingness to admit I don't know something, was itself a stupid thing to do? Can you give an example? For me, actually being stupid involves something I'm stubbornly wrong about, and willing to look stupid is openness and vulnerability to admit I don't understand something I "should" know.

Yeah or for that matter, what about the times when people wrongly thought he was smart?

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