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Cover image for The key to learning fast is looking dumb

The key to learning fast is looking dumb

sunnyb profile image Sun-Li Beatteay Updated on ・6 min read

A common trait I see in new developers is the fear of looking dumb. I know because I had the same concern. I thought that seeming stupid would cause others to question my capabilities and affect my career progression.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. To explain why, let me tell a quick story.

One of my first tasks as a software engineer was to investigate a bug for an important customer. They were experiencing timeouts from one of our API endpoints and it was impacting their workload. Since I was still new to the company, I wanted to prove to my team that I didn’t need hand-holding. To show them that they had hired the right person.

I spent hours parsing through the source code until I found the root of the problem: an inefficient SQL query. To fix the timeouts, I would need to optimize it. Unfortunately, the query was complex and took some time to understand what it did. But I was determined to fix the issue myself. I wasn’t a SQL expert by any means, but I knew enough. After all, how hard could it be to optimize one SQL query?

Very hard, apparently.

I spent the rest of that day and the next attempting to improve it. I got stuck and beat my head against the wall several times. But eventually, using Stack Overflow and lots of manual testing, I was able to hack together a solution. It was even more complicated than the original, but it did the job. I felt satisfied and elated as I put together my Pull Request and sent it to my teammate to review.

The happy feeling didn’t last long.

Upon opening my Pull Request, my teammate noted that there was a much simpler solution. My face immediately flushed beet red. All that hard work only to end up with egg on my face.

Reluctantly, I asked if he could explain his simpler solution. I worried that he was going to scoff at my ineptitude, but he was more than happy to walk me through it. When we benchmarked it, it executed much faster than my Frankenstein solution.

My teammate was patient and understanding. He even gave me some resources I could use to follow up and learn more. Still, I was embarrassed to have wasted two days of work. What made it worse was I had considered asking for his help several times over those two days. I had decided against it each time because I didn’t want to look dumb. I ended up looking even dumber as a result.

When I expressed this to him, he was sympathetic and said something that stuck with me.

Next time, don’t hesitate to ask about anything you don’t understand — we don’t expect you to know everything. It’s better for me to spend 10 minutes explaining something than to have you running in circles for hours. It’ll save everyone time in the end.

Photo by [Kaleidico](https://unsplash.com/photos/3V8xo5Gbusk?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText) on [Unsplash](https://unsplash.com/?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText)Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

While this story is specific to me, many new developers are going through similar ordeals. And it’s understandable. When I started my first job, everyone around me seemed like an expert. It was intimidating as hell. I thought the best way to get to their level was to persist and struggle on my own. After all, as a self-taught developer, that’s what I was used to.

The truth is, if you want to get to the level of your peers, you need to ask for their help. If this sounds like obvious advice, it’s because it is. Many of us already know this intuitively. But it’s important to be reminded of it. Common knowledge is rarely turned into common practice.

Have you ever stopped yourself from asking for help? Have you refused to ask for assistance even when the situation kept getting worse? There’s a good chance that you have.

And why did you stop yourself? Maybe it wasn’t a good time to ask. Maybe you didn’t want to be bothersome. Or maybe, if you’re like me, fear played a big factor. However, this fear is holding us from back from an essential part of learning: feedback.

Photo by [Charles 🇵🇭](https://unsplash.com/photos/Lks7vei-eAg?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText) on [Unsplash](https://unsplash.com/search/photos/feedback?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText)Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

Feedback is crucial

In this context, I define feedback as any advice you get from a peer. It can come in the form of a teammate reviewing your code, brainstorming together about a particular bug, or simply asking them, “What does this do?”

While it’s true that self-study is important, it’s only one aspect of learning. Feedback is another vital piece of the puzzle:

It has long been recognized, by researchers and practitioners alike, that feedback plays a decisive role in learning and development […] We learn faster, and much more effectively, when we have a clear sense of how well we are doing, and what we might need to do in order to improve.

And yet, it’s tough to ask for feedback. Receiving negative criticism can feel like a personal insult. You may feel like you “should know this already” and asking for help will be an admission of your naivety. But struggling with a task in isolation leads to stress, and stress makes you stupid.

Being unwilling to look stupid in the short term will only make you appear more foolish in the long run. So instead of ruminating on the momentary unease, focus on your long term goal of mastery. The sting of negative comments are fleeting but the benefits of learning are timeless.

Immediate Results

The best thing about feedback is that the results are immediate. You will instantly know more than you did before. Consistently asking for feedback will make the pace of your learning skyrocket. You’ll find yourself asking questions much more often.

Take it from me. Searching for the phrases What does that do? or What does that mean? in my Slack search reveals the litany of “stupid” questions I’ve asked.

Did I feel dumb asking those questions? Oh yeah. Did I learn a lot because of it? Absolutely.

Asking questions makes you look smarter

If I haven’t convinced you yet, then I’ve saved the best for last. The truth is that asking questions won’t make you stupid. Quite the opposite:

We actually view people who seek our advice as much more competent than people who forego the opportunity to seek advice. This is because being asked for advice is flattering, it feels good. They’re asking for my advice because they think I’m smart and I know the answer. I think they’re smart because I’m going to tell them things that will be useful and help them do the task better.

Asking peers for their input makes them feel important and needed. It turns out, people like to feel that way. And in return, they view you as competent for having the courage to ask. It’s a page straight out of Dale Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People.

Lastly, you will be a godsend to those who are struggling with the same problems. More than once have I asked for help on a specific issue only to have another engineer privately thank me for asking. They had been struggling with the same issue but were too self-conscious to ask. Everybody is a “junior” in something.

In the end, the fear of seeming stupid is exactly that: a baseless fear propped up by insecurity. Not only will asking for feedback and showing vulnerability make you appear more competent, but it will also make you competent.

So the next time you find yourself stuck, do yourself a favor and ask for help. You may feel dumb now but give it time. They’ll be one seeking your advice soon enough.

Discussion

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ollimac73 profile image
Camillo

Ask questions is certainly a great thing, but it’s just the first part...the luck is also finding the person who answers with details, that is willing to spend 10 minutes to pass the right information, and that particularly has the ethic and empathy to take care about knowledge transfer.

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sunnyb profile image
Sun-Li Beatteay Author

That's a good point. Finding those people can definitely be a struggle. I was fortunate enough to get an "onboarding mentor" when I joined the company I work for now. He answered all my questions, no matter how seemingly stupid, and even paired with me for multiple hours each week for the first couple weeks of my onboarding.

Looking back now, I realize how not-normal that is. I wish more companies used a similar Buddy-System for onboarding new engineers.

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koichadev profile image
Khoi Hoang

I definently agree to this post, but unfortunately, I have different experiences. During my time I had an internship. Most of the time I asked for help, the senior developers found it quite annoying and told me to Google harder. Even if I struggled and were Completely stuck. They kept telling me to Google even 4x harder to find the solution. How can a completely newbie, fresh out from the school expect to have any experience?

I felt helpless, insecured and vurnable. Thank God we have Discord today. Without that chat program, I wouldn't even know what to do.

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sunnyb profile image
Sun-Li Beatteay Author

That sucks to hear. I think a lot of it stems from more senior developers forgetting what it's like to be completely new to the tech industry and being stumped by everything. They remember the times they were able to get themselves unstuck via Google and believe that they've been able to do it on their own all the time.

The ironic thing is that the information you find from Google is usually blog posts written by people who took the time to carefully explain their understanding and give back to the community. If every developer's answer was just "Google it" instead of trying to give back, there would be no information for which to "Google".

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koichadev profile image
Khoi Hoang

Thank you for your support! I wish more senior developers would think like you. It would make the world a better place ❤️❤️

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isajal07 profile image
Sajal Shrestha

Hi Sun-Li, During my first web development internship, I felt really dumb at the office. My mentor was right opposite from where my work table was. During the first week or 2, I asked him a lot of questions, days went by and I realized I've been asking too much help, then I stopped asking him and I used to spend hours googling the issues that I was stuck in. A few days later, He came to my table and said, 'Look, man, please don't hesitate to ask me questions. I don't want you getting stuck in the problem for hours or even days. Just ask me. To be honest, I am flattered when you ask me.' And I was really happy to hear that. 😌

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koichadev profile image
Khoi Hoang

Happy to hear you have a fantastic mentor. Wish I also had one as you.

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sunnyb profile image
Sun-Li Beatteay Author

That's awesome! We definitely need more folks like him in the tech industry.

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sylvaingirod profile image
Sylvain GIROD

We should help people to understand that, by asking questions, both the asked and the "teacher" learn.
And the teacher is the one who learns the most, because the amount of knowledge needed to explain something is way bigger than for juste using it.

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sheldonhull profile image
Sheldon

I've run into the exact opposite problem :-( I've offered over and over to help save someone time on areas I've wrestled with or am advanced in. Inevitably I find they go and do their own thing. I partially blame myself for being too enthusiastic and giving too much technical details, but a large portion of it is the culture which has no real technical leads and has lots of silos. This results in a lot of parallel effort on similar tasks. Not sure what else I can do to help that beyond being approachable, offering, and sharing just the asked for minimum to help solve a pain point.

It's really hard to not go into more detail on topics I'm so passionate about and limit my help surely to solving one pain point for someone. I just like to make some inroads on this.

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sunnyb profile image
Sun-Li Beatteay Author

Yeah that's true. People approach problem solving in different ways. I personally like to seek feedback and advice from those who are more senior than me as they tend to have much better insights.

But I've also seen people who prefer to struggle on their own and "carve their own path" so to speak. That's certainly a way to learn as well. What worries me about that is the lack of accountability and feedback. It can lead to entrenched mentalities and bad habits.

In the end, I personally wouldn't worry too much about people not taking your advice. If you're especially advanced in a given field, many people would benefit from your experience. Whether or not they choose to accept your help is up to them.

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bobv profile image
Bob Vargas

Great article! I learned from it a lot. The lesson is "don't pretend you know it all when you don't". Every one started from the egg and sperm.