It was one of those ephiphanic moments that become etched in one's brain. I can still remember the scene -- the parking lot of the auto parts store, my father's 1968 blue-green Chevy, the blue sky and cumulous clouds. It was, perhaps, the most important event in my life -- it was when I learned to ask stupid questions. Since then, I have learned that the smartest people are never embarrassed when they ask stupid questions.
It was the middle of the summer. My father came out of the house and asked if I wanted to go to the auto parts store with him. I wasn't doing anything special, so I agreed to go. We entered the store and walked up to the counter. The person behind the counter looked only a little older than I was. My father looked at him, pointed at something on the counter, and asked if they were brake pads. I was stunned, stunned and embarrassed. My father was a car mechanic in World War II. He knew that they were brake pads. I didn't know much about cars, but even I knew they were brake pads. (I'd swear that it said "brake pads" on the package.) As a teenager, I didn't want to be associated with anyone who was stupid, especially if it appeared that it might be a member of my own family. Attempting to give the impression that we had come in together by accident, I walked away from the counter and started browsing.
While I "browsed," I watched my father talking to the guy behind the counter. The conversation took a few minutes, after which my father bought something and left the store, apparently sensing my desire not to be associated with him. A few seconds later, I too left. I caught up to him in the parking lot, facing that Chevy and beautiful blue sky.
"How," I asked, "could you ask such a stupid question?"
He smiled and said, "I didn't know the person behind the counter, so I asked him some questions. The first might have been silly, but then I asked him some harder ones. Since he got those right, I asked a few still tougher ones. When he got those right, I figured I could trust him, so I asked him what I needed to know." It was very clear that my father did not care if the person behind the counter thought he was stupid.
The moment stuck, and I began to watch my teachers. The smartest ones almost always asked "stupid" questions. Most were so simple, so "stupid," that I have forgotten them. I will, however, always remember George Gibian, Distinguished Professor of Russian Literature at Cornell University. It was the beginning of a semester, and the Russian lit department office was crowded with students. Professor Gibian came out of his office, looked at us, put his hands on both sides of his mouth, wiggled his forefingers, and said, "What does a mouse do when it goes like that?" A student reminded him that the word he was looking for was "tvigat'." He smiled, said "Thanks," and went back into his office. The new students, who didn't know who he was, looked at others in the room with an expression of "Who is that dumb cluck?" Those of us who knew him simply smiled.
Like all of us, Gibian had forgotten -- or didn't know -- some simple information. He needed it, so he asked. That is how he got to be a Distinguished Professor of Russian Literature. I don't mean to suggest that he didn't work hard, or that he wasn't intelligent in other ways, but I do mean that he probably would not have achieved the success he did if he had been unwilling to ask those "stupid" questions. No one can know everything, and we all forget things. Ask.
I have, of course, been on the other side of the teacher's desk for a couple of decades. Some students think I know a lot, but if I'm "smart," it is not necessarily in terms of IQ. I simply learned from my father, from Gibian, and from dozens of others -- "Don't worry if people will think you are stupid. If you need to know something, ask." I ask lots of stupid questions.
I have asked you to read this little essay because it may describe the most important difference between students who do very well and those who do not. In discussing things with students out of class, we frequently stumble over things that I think they should have asked in class. When I ask why they didn't ask, the usual response is that they were afraid that their classmates would think that they were stupid. Please remember, the smartest people ask the stupid questions. Doing so gives you the information you need to succeed at whatever you are working on. Not doing so leaves you lost and confused.