I’ve recently come up with this principle I call, always ask.
Think to a time when someone dropped something in conversation you didn’t know or didn’t understand.
Maybe a technical concept. An inside joke. A pop culture reference.
Did you pass it off as if you did understand? Or did you ask them to explain?
Unfortunately, I usually tend to pass it off. I let them keep talking, or worse, I pretend to know what they just referenced.
This is the easy way out.
Most of my life, I didn’t really “get” music. That is, I didn’t get the music my friends listened to.
I did like music. I was really into Tamil (Indian) music and I’d spend hours listening. But I never knew what American music was.
Over time though, I learned to fake it really well. I never wanted to straight up ask what song was playing, because I didn’t want to reveal how uncultured I was.
Earlier this year, I stopped faking it. I asked, “Hey, what song is this? And who is this by?”
In that moment, I did a brave thing. In asking, I admitted to not knowing something. Which is not the easy course of action.
But always asking has its rewards!
At work, my mentor drops acronyms and libraries I don’t know all the time, often in the same sentence. I can either ask, or piece together what he was saying after he leaves. The latter takes much longer.
Often, I have to clarify each term he says, because I only fuzzily understand what he means. That isn’t enough.
It was the same in my AI class: I’d have formulas to code with many variables. It’s not enough to fuzzily understand each variable. So I asked the TA exactly what each one is, and it saved a lot of time.
In my life, a common use case for this principle is when talking to a person about sports. I don’t know anything about any sport.
I have two options.
One, let the person go on about sports. Since I don’t understand what they’re saying, they’ll appear to drone on and on to me. My eyes will glaze over, I won’t be really listening anymore, and they’ll notice.
Two, ask them about the sport. Be honest that I don’t know the sport, but engage them in their interest. They’ll be excited to get to talk about and I’ll get to learn more about sports, and be more in the know in the future.
Clearly, the second option is better, while maybe more uncomfortable.
Imposter syndrome naturally follows from not asking. I feel like an imposter because I faked I knew something when I didn’t.
If I am honest and I ask, I’m not an imposter. I’m honest that I don’t know, and people are OK with it.
I really do want to ask right away when I don’t know something. The worst thing that can happen is when I don’t. Then I stop being able to ask questions. I feel like I’m supposed to know this and that and I don’t, which is stressful.
If I always ask, I repeatedly put myself out there. I become comfortable with having limited knowledge. That’s a big part of combatting imposter syndrome: being comfortable with my skill and knowledge, while others have differing skill and knowledge.
For me, conversation is about exploration, because conversation doesn’t let me stick to the topic of my choice. It jumps from place to place. It forces me to encounter things I wasn’t looking for, that I don’t know about.
I believe that’s the beauty of it. And so, if I’m not talking and asking about things I don’t know, I’d be missing the point of conversation.