25. Big Bird had it right

There’s no such thing as a stupid question.[1]” Big Bird[2]

The problem

An earlier post discussed reluctance to seek help, advice, and feedback, especially when to do so we appear ignorant. In Think Like a Freak, Levitt and Dubner[3] state “I don’t know” are the “three hardest words in the English language. People in general have issues with admitting ignorance. As children we have a voracious appetite for knowledge and no reluctance to ask for it. Why do many[4] of us lose this, and why is its loss so pronounced in academics?

  • Some elders, parents, and educators teach us never to admit ignorance[5]
  • Fear
  • Perceived or genuine intimidation by ones higher in the institutional or professional hierarchy; high Power Distance Index
  • Embarrassment; reluctance to “look stupid”; insecurity; shame
  • Reluctance to “bother” those with knowledge and expertise to share
  • Various emotional ‘triggers’[6]
  • Threat to self-image and stature

Let’s explore the last a little bit. As academics we strive to become the authority or the leader in something. This is the foundation of our professional reputation and identity, professional advancement, and ability to attract the best colleagues, trainees, and funding and other resources essential to our academic productivity. Admissions of ignorance seemingly pose a grave risk to this foundation.

Unfortunately, there is an even graver risk to this foundation: failure to advance. As fields move forward, authorities and leaders must advance with them or get left behind.

Typically our colleagues (be they already in our circle of professional acquaintances, outside it, our trainees, or higher-ups in our institutional or professional hierachies) are the solution for failure to advance. Moreover, most of us are eager to share our knowledge and expertise with colleagues needing it, and derive great satisfaction from helping others in this way. Even if we can’t, we typically know of colleagues who can and will. But the transmission of knowledge and expertise is utterly defeated if the ones needing to learn can’t bring themselves to say: “I don’t know. Will you teach me or show me how?”


The first step of twelve-step programs is to concede there’s a problem.[7] [But see WWKD’s comment at the end of http://wp.me/p5LUkN-26.}

After that, for those who cannot admit ignorance to more knowledgeable colleagues, knowledge and expertise is available in other ways. These days short courses and training seminars are available on practically every topic, academic and otherwise, as are professional coaches and tutors. In biomedical research in particular, many vendors of equipment or reagents offer infomercials on their products and even personalized training. Most states require a certain number of continuing medical education credits for renewal of medical licensure.[8]

But what about those for whom these work-arounds are insufficient, who must implicitly or explicitly admit ignorance to colleagues in order to advance?

Some prior posts

3. Why it’s easy to commit to faculty development activities, and difficult to follow through on these commitments [Happy New Year!]

3.5 Devices that help us keep commitments [A Bestiary of Commitment Devices]

4. Why we are averse to feedback and what to do about it [Difficult Conversations]

7. Fear of interaction with others impedes faculty development. It can be countered. [The Only Thing We Have To Fear]

14. Judicious application of forcing functions can yield faculty development [Almost The End of Civilization As We Know It]

23. Do we need ‘career resource management?  [Fly the intimidating skies: ‘The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes’ applied to faculty career development in academic health centers]

may contain helpful advice, as will future ones.

Email may have its problems, but often is less intimidating to the sender than requests via telephone or in person.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be self-administered, can be effective in overcoming avoidance. It involves graded exposure to anxiety-provoking situations. Indeed, we have used this effectively in junior faculty, assigning them progressively more anxiety-provoking “asks” in a supportive peer group setting.

When anxiety is overcome, ignorance is admitted, and help is obtained the first time, subsequent admissions of ignorance and requests for help may become progressively easier.

Be a sympathetic colleague. When you see a colleague who is struggling to admit ignorance, share your personal stories and offer to facilitate:

ROBIN: I realize what my research needs is the new quantum technique that Lakisha Jones is using in her lab, but I don’t know the first thing about quantum techniques and would just look stupid. Besides, Professor Jones is world-famous, doesn’t know me, and I hate to bother her.

YOU: Yes, I remember feeling like that once. I know Lakisha well [whether you do or don’t]. How about I sound her out about helping you?


YOU: Professor Jones, I have a junior colleague, Robin Smith, who is very interested in learning the new quantum technique you’re using. Would you be willing to help?

LAKISHA: Who? Oh, never mind. Sure! Ask Robin to get in touch.

Finally, know that we all face this issue. Here are some of UChicago’s finest confronting it:

[1] http://sesamestreet.freeservers.com/bbird_and_snuffy.html

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Bird

[3] Levitt, S.D., Dubner, S.J. 2016. Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain. HarperCollins. http://a.co/cwZS0LL

[4] This tendency varies by gender [Babcock, L., Laschever, S. 2007. Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation–and Positive Strategies for Change, Bantam. http://a.co/8cJvmGc ] and national culture [see ‘The ethnic theory of plane crashes’ , Chapter 7 in Gladwell, M. 2008, Outliers: the story of success. Little, Brown and Company. http://a.co/3yZDwhA ], moreover.

[5] Cohen, Leah Hager 2013. I don’t know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn’t). Riverhead Books. http://a.co/fw9V1kS

[6] Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. Penguin Books. http://www.amazon.com/Difficult-Conversations-Douglas-Stone/dp/0143118447

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelve-step_program

[8] https://www.fsmb.org/Media/Default/PDF/FSMB/Advocacy/GRPOL_CME_Overview_by_State.pdf

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