Question everything.

My son was doing his English homework the other night, and he asked me “What does ‘context’ mean? I’ve never understood that.”

I explained to him that context meant the other words, phrases and sentences around a particular word, phrase or sentence that provide clues to make it easier to understand what it means.

Since a basic understanding of “context” was essential to completing any part of the assignment, I told him, “That’s really a question you should ask your teacher when he gives the assignment. You don’t really understand how to complete it if you don’t know what that word means.”

“I hate asking questions. It makes me feel dumb.”

He’d rather fail to get the assignment done in class, and struggle with it as homework for a half hour, than feel dumb. I’d love to think I’ve outgrown that kind of short-sighted behavior, but if I’m honest, I haven’t.

I get aggravated at the other grown-ups around me because I see them failing to take the action that they clearly need to take because they don’t want the people around them to realize they haven’t got it all figured out yet. Partly, it’s fear of failure, but I think mostly it’s perfectionism. And I’m as guilty of it as anyone.

I don’t ask certain questions. In the poker game of so-called adult life, I don’t want to give away that I don’t already have all the answers. So here it is, displayed for all to see: I don’t have all the answers.

I was always a smart girl. The problem with being “the smart kid” is when you identify with that role. If you have to ask a lot of questions, then maybe you’re not that smart. And if you’re not the smart kid anymore, you’ve lost your ante in that poker game.

Another reason to not ask questions that really need to be asked is because you’re afraid you already know the answer, and it’s an answer you fear. The reality you fear, in your own head, isn’t really a reality until you’ve asked the question and gotten confirmation. You don’t have to take the scary action that the knowledge would require if you pretend you don’t know what’s really going on.

Pretending you don’t know something, when you do, is as short-sighted as pretending you do know something when you don’t.

Sometimes you don’t ask questions because you are so lost, you have no idea where to start. It does you very little good to ask “How do I get to Joe’s Deli in Hoboken?” if you don’t know that you’re currently in Mozambique. In that case, it’s probably better to find a good guide, teacher or mentor who can help you figure out where you are, and then start figuring out where you need to be and how to get there.

Questions are frightening because they reveal so much. They reveal what we know, and what we don’t know. Questions make us vulnerable. And answers can be scary, unreliable or just plain wrong. But that’s how we move forward: in life, in relationships and in business. Inching forward one question at a time.

img courtesy brainloc on sxc

1 Comment


  1. ·

    I remember the first time my eyes were opened to this situation. I was always afraid to ask questions in school as well, fearing the other kids would laugh at me and think I was stupid. Then, when I was a teenager, and Dad and I were building my truck, I remember him telling me that if there was anything at all that I wanted to know or didn’t understand that I need to be sure and ask him, because if I didn’t I would never know the answer, and it’s worse to pretend you know then get stuck in a situation that requires that information, than to admit that you don’t know and ask the question. Simple logic, but that’s when I realized the truth of it. I don’t feel embarassed to ask anymore. It’s easier to ask the question in the first place.

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