Have you ever had a question that you refrained from asking because you were afraid you might sound stupid? If you say, “no,” I don’t believe you. Think about this: Every person’s idea of a stupid question is unique; therefore, all current or future questions could be labelled as stupid by someone, somewhere. Clearly, this is impossible, so if we were to be totally logical, we would disregard the whole notion. We tell others that there is no such thing as a stupid question, yet, like crying, the feeling is different when it’s ourselves feeling vulnerable.
Psychologists who study the dynamics of change (or lack of it) say that the fear of looking ignorant becomes increasingly powerful and limiting as most professionals gain expertise in their fields. After all, who wants to deviate from their hard-earned sense of competence? And, yet, the benefits of curiosity and a beginner’s mindset are numerous. Albert Einstein wrote in 1945, “Combinatory play that connects the dots between disparate fields is the essence of true innovation.” So, how can we lessen the hurdle of fear so that people ask the open-minded questions that drive creativity?
One strategy was revealed by the haphazardly planned “Building 20” on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hastily constructed in 1943 to provide temporary laboratories for wartime research, this structure was a hodgepodge of spaces crowding together scientists who would never have shared the same facility in peacetime. Because of its temporary status, there was no regard for building codes. Walls were torn down and holes were punctured as needed, and the confusing and unorganized floorplan forced solitary scientists into unplanned debates and brainstorming sessions with others. The results of this cross-departmental collaboration were unparalleled advances in radar tracking, linguistical theories, as well as the creation of the world’s first atomic clock, atomic particle accelerator, stereo sound speaker, stop-action strobe light photography, single-antenna radar, and use of microwaves, giving Building 20 homage as “The Magic Incubator of MIT.”
How can we erode our fear of looking “stupid” and free our naturally curious minds? While we may not be able to meet others by kicking holes through their office walls or tapping into electricity lines, we can make a decision to learn more about the expertise of others.
Several years ago, I experimented with my own ability to reveal my ignorance through candid questions. I set out in the morning determined to ask every question that came into my mind (time allowing). While discussing my first patient’s chest X-ray, the radiologist used a term that I had heard hundreds of times before but didn’t really understand. I inquired what he meant, and he exclaimed, “Few docs know what that phrase means, yet no one asks.” Throughout the day, I heard this encouraging response again and again. By evening, I felt surprisingly invigorated. Having shed the weight of self-consciousness for one whole day, I realized that its constraints had been far greater than I had known.
Here are some tactics that have worked well for me over the years, even though they quickly earned me the nickname, “The Non-specific Irritant.”
When talking to your colleague, spouse, child, or a stranger, try asking:
- “Why?” five times in a row, gently digging through the layers of their thought processes;
- Why is that important to you?
- How will your finding make a difference? and
- What do you like the best about your work?
Clearly, there are many people who endure and value collaboration between different professions. For myself, a physician who entered architecture and engineering out of concern for the role of buildings in patient infections, I could not have built my company without the undying support of my business mentor and loyal friend Howard McKew, P.E., who also writes for this magazine. My other valued colleagues in interdisciplinary work are Robert Beverly, the previous ES editor, James Siegel, the managing editor who is a writer himself, and the new editor-in-chief, Herb Woerpel. A sincere, thank you to all of you!