The Importance Of Being An Idiot

by Noah Gift

There appears to be a general culture in IT, partly, but not completely, because it is male dominated, that it is bad to say the wrong thing, reveal your weaknesses, or be an "idiot". I have been an Engineer for about 10 years now, and I have felt it from the beginning. When I first started learning Unix/Linux at the beginning of my career, I felt stupid quite a bit, and was afraid to ask questions as there was a culture that scoffed at "stupid questions". Why don't you read the manual, "idiot"?

When I transitioned from working as a sysadmin to working as a Video Engineer in Film and Television, I felt the same way. By that point, I had done enough in my life that I wasn't as deterred to ask stupid questions, but I do remember several times people telling me, you should know this, why are you asking this question?

As I transitioned from working strictly in Film as a Video Engineer/Systems Engineer, to working just as a software engineer, I have often felt the same way. Maybe I shouldn't let someone know that I don't know everything about Python or programming? What if people think I am an "idiot"?

In the movie, "The Edge", there is a great quote that directly applies to any Engineer, "Most people lost in the wild die of shame. They didn't do the one thing that could save their lives --thinking". How many potential skills or dreams die because of our shame? How much quicker could people learn if they were able to act like an idiot at some new skill they are learning, and truly learn it the way a child learns.

Now that I have some perspective from working as a Systems Engineer, a Video Engineer, and a Software Engineer, I will tell you that in each industry, I have had someone tell me that the Engineers in my previous field were "idiots" because they didn't do "X". For example, when I was a Video Engineer I had a couple of people tell me, " see Systems Engineers aren't real Engineers because they can't read a line drawing." When I was a Systems Engineer, I had people tell me that Software Engineer's aren't real Engineers because they don't really understand how equipment works. Since I have been a Software Engineer I have had people tell me that Systems Engineers aren't real Engineers because they can't program.

This situation I have described is a classic case of the "Observer Bias", of course. From Wikipedia, "Observer bias is error introduced into measurement when observers overemphasize behavior they expect to find and fail to notice behavior they do not expect." When you're an engineer in one field you notice that all the people like you are smart and know how to do what you do, but strangely everyone else is an "idiot". This critical scientific fact is the exact reason why all engineers should do something where they feel like an "idiot", as it gives them true perspective and allows them to grow.

My piece of motivational advice is to ignore your inner feeling of shame as an engineer. Attempt to do something new, express a controversial opinion, invent a new technique or technology, learn to program, or learn a new language or skill. Step out of your comfort zone and do some activity where you are perceived as an "idiot". In this sense, it is really important to be an idiot. Being an idiot, means losing the sense of self-criticism that is often found in programmers, sysadmins and engineers and truly learning. Being an idiot is important!


2007-09-15 12:53:14
Are you saying that the Python community makes it hard for you to aask questions?
I don't think that is the case on comp.lang.python - people seem non-judgemental and helpful, they won't expect a level of expertise unless you tell them, so you might ask their.

- Paddy.

Noah Gift
2007-09-15 14:17:23
Paddy/I am being overly philosophical today. I think the Python community is actually very helpful, I agree. I can't even quantify how much I have learned from friends, the local Python User Group I attend, and mailing lists.

I think in general though, all of us engineers, should act more like idiots and ask stupid questions and generally get involved in something where we don't feel comfortable. I am doing that with Ruby right now. I am complete beginner with Ruby, so it makes me less aware of being an idiot :)

My other point is that it is quite common to think everyone is an idiot in another engineering profession. I am sure there are probably 1400 quotes someone could give as reference. What to do about it? Don't worry about it, and try to be that type of an idiot. An idiot that never knows the only true way, an idiot who never seems to be without questions. I aspire to be that idiot!

Noah Gift
2007-09-15 14:56:09
Paddy/On a complete separate note, I like your blog. You have some great Python posts. I will be adding it to my RSS reader. I am starting to like collecting interesting people's blogs. I don't know what I would do without RSS!
Mark Miller
2007-09-15 16:00:54
A saying I heard recently from a software developer is to try and get yourself in a position where "you're the worst musician in the band". This sounds like a suggestion to make yourself a glutton for punishment, but what it really means is "learn from the best".

I've also experienced others bashing me for asking a "stupid question" on internet forums, though rarely in the workplace, and sometimes I asked that question after I had exhausted all sources known to me, but other times I felt it was just easier to ask than to try to find the information myself. Sometimes I was a little lazy.

I think what can happen is that a community starts out in a new field in which they are all new, and all of their questions seem relevant at the time. Gradually with time they become experts, but there are always newbies coming in asking the same old questions they did years ago. They get tired of this, so they act out of annoyance at you. I think what is needed in any technical community is a "beginners" group, where newbies can ask questions when they get lost, and experts who want to help teach the newcomers can join in and do so.

Noah Gift
2007-09-15 16:27:11
Mark/You worded one of the points I was trying to make in a clearer fashion. I have been incredibly lucky to have been the "worst musician in the band", in three different engineering fields. Currently, I am the "worst musician in the band" with Python at my company, but it is an incredibly useful way to learn in the absolute quickest way possible.

It takes guts to do though, as not everyone has the stomach for not being the best. I do hope I can develop a philosophy that will carry with me for the rest of my life that will enable me to be the naive idiot for each thing I learn. I have made mistakes in the past where I pretended I knew more than I did, and each and every time I think back I chide myself at the opportunity lost to learn.

For some reason my life has turned into a vagabond engineer's existence and I have had three completely different engineering experiences in three vastly different worlds. The funniest thing about it though is to be able to compare that by and large most engineers think other engineers are idiots :). I don't think this is even solvable, it is perhaps the definition of an engineer! You think you can do it better.

2007-09-15 18:40:33
In my opinion there is no such thing as a stupid question, but there are lazy questions. Lazy questions are questions which has a clear and obvious answer, but some doesn't bother to look them up. It's more easy to ask someone else rather than doing the research.

A lot of people on IRC tend to feel overwise, using the RTFM answer or making fun of someone asking "the wrong" question. If we instead try to be a bit more compasionate about eachother, in atleast the way we answer, pointing someone in the right direction rather than make fun of him, maybe the feeling of "shame", which in reality is the only stupid thing there is, will disapear.

Noah Gift
2007-09-15 18:55:14
Rico/There a few things I just never got into much and IRC was one of them. I do remember that I had a question on the CentOS IRC channel about 6 months ago though and I had spent something like 19 hours straight trying to get something to compile and I couldn't get trac to work with Python 2.5.1 on CentOS 4.4. I probably would have had better luck just building my own linux distribution than to get it to work with my configuration.

I remember posing the question and one person responded with the whole RTFM song and dance. I remember thinking, I guess I am way to old use IRC anymore, as I want to find out where this person lives, put him over my knee and spank him until he promises to be nice on IRC :)

I agree that being lazy is a different problem. I am lazy sometimes too and should RTFM. Of course, in "Data Crunching" by Greg Wilson he says, "Remember 2 hours of Reading The Manual can save you 5 minutes on Google!".

2007-09-15 19:21:21
When your an engineer in one field you notice that all the people like you are smart and know how to do what you do, but strangely everyone else is an “idiot”.
"When you're an engineer, you notice that all the people in your field are smart, but everyone else is an “idiot."
"When you're an engineer, you're an idiot."
2007-09-16 01:30:50
I too hate answers of RTFM. I can't help thinking that it is rude, and that I have the option of ignoring their posts or pointing to the manual. I might however use "google is your friend" as part of a reply.

Your whole post got me searching for a quote I heard in a biography of Richard Feynman I saw on the telly many years ago. What I found was:

It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.
Richard P. Feynman

- Paddy

2007-09-16 01:36:31
Are you saying that the Python community makes it hard for you to aask questions?
I don't think that is the case on comp.lang.python - people seem non-judgemental and helpful, they won't expect a level of expertise unless you tell them, so you might ask their.

- Paddy.

2007-09-16 03:48:14
A very nice quote Paddy! :-))
George Jempty
2007-09-16 05:15:28
"Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem." (Thomas Szasz)
Noah Gift
2007-09-16 09:23:12
George/Wow, that is a great quote. I completely agree. Perhaps this is why it becomes harder to learn as we age. As our self-esteem grows we feel less willing to injure it.
Noah Gift
2007-09-16 11:01:23
Paddy/That excellent Feynman quote reminds me of a quote I heard from a mentor I had in my twenties.

William Blake-..."If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise."

That is in essence what I am trying to say, but I had to think hard where I had heard that quote. Thanks to your quote, it jarred my memory. By the way, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" is a great book for Feynman fans.

Steve R.
2007-09-16 11:04:20
I think part of this 'shame' in being 'the idiot' derives not only from within, but from without - many people (in my experience in the financial sector) do not listen. They may catch some of the words you are saying, but they are not truly listening - they fix on a particular word or phrase, but don't get the message. The tell-tale of this is when you explain something, and they take one phrase and dissect it or go off on a tangent about it. The cure is, learn to make your point clearly and concisely, be patient with listeners, and make sure that when someone explais something to you, to listen carefully and completely before putting together a reply.

I suspect many 'stupid' questions are seen that was because of our inability to see anothers frame of reference., and we then jump to conclusions about the persons competence.

Noah Gift
2007-09-16 12:46:58
Steve/That is a very insightful point. You are also describing why it is so tough to be a good teacher . The combination of skills that are involved in being a good teacher are very eclectic. A good teacher needs to have a mastery of the subject, be insightful enough to understand a beginner's frame of reference, be patient, and finally they need to be able to articulate all of this clearly.

It sounds equally as complicated, and rare, as the skillset needed by a CEO to run a company, or a founder to create a successful startup.

2007-09-17 06:19:30
If there are no stupid questions, then what kind of questions do stupid people ask? Do they get smart just in time to ask questions?
--Scott Adams

Noah/ Well done with your post! I wholeheartedly agree that the beginner's mind, as I have heard it called, is quite often the best place to be. It is very easy to be married to you own viewpoint, and very difficult to divorce yourself from ego when evaluating what you are doing (the "Observer Bias" that you mentioned). That seems to be the core of this bias for many people; the "I earned my experience" attitude that assumes that anyone without identical experience and knowledge is some rank amateur. I am reminded of a study that I heard of in which peoples' ability to assess their own skills accurately depends on their competence in the field in which they are trying to make that assessment. i.e. the bad driver who thinks that they are really a good driver. Letting go of ego, and assuming "I'm an idiot" is a remarkably freeing tool when I am starting on a new project. Removing preconceptions allows me to think much bigger.


Adam U.
2007-09-17 17:14:54
As a guy attempting to transition from SysAdmin work into software development, I'm pleased to say I'm completely in the "idiot" stage.

I moved back to California -specifically- to be the dumbest guy in a room of smarties. I came prepared to ask dumb questions, be humble and keep my ears and mind open. One of the greatest joys I have is learning from Shannon Behrens, he continues to push me and answers my dumbest questions patiently and completely.

Being the idiot is great since you have so much room to grow, but you do have to be prepared to get knocked down a bit before you're built back up.

Noah Gift
2007-09-17 17:49:50

I agree Shannon is a great teacher. I am incredibly lucky to have met him at PyCon. He has taught me so much stuff in the last year I could write a book just on that! Your lucky to be working with him. What is a great about Shannon is that he will patiently explain something to you without making you feel stupid for asking. That is a very rare skill for an accomplished programer. I think I mentioned in some other post that Shannon is my hero :)

I am also pretty lucky at my work because they have been programming in Python since the late 90's and are very helpful too. You can't put a price on working with smart people who teach you things. Don't tell my boss but I would probably do it for free :)

I would encourage anyone who is interested in learning to program, or switching to some other technical field to just do it. I think the reality of the situation is that it is not really a smarts problem, it is a guts problem. You just have to be persistent and motivated and you can learn anything. Another friend of mine told me, "You can get used to anything including hanging from your just takes time".

So, yes, I think millions of people could be programmers, or Unix Systems Administrators, or "X", just become an idiot first!

2007-09-17 23:21:18
The one thing I have learnt is;
"The Older I get the more ignorant I realise I am."
2007-09-18 00:20:37
It really makes sense.
Thanks a lot.
2007-09-18 03:10:22
I pretty much agree with this article. There are a lot of cocky people around. Sometimes they tell you to RTFM because they don't even know the answer themselves. It is good to ask questions , granted there are some questions that we could do with out, the really really basic ones that can be found everywhere.

I join a club for racing cars. I know nothing about car modifications and I am a complete idiot with them but they don't know anything about Linux,programming, and operating systems. Though they don't make me feel like an idiot as a fellow programmer would in a chatroom or forum.

George Jempty
2007-09-18 04:04:29
Noah, glad you liked the T. Szasz quote. I've always left off the next line cause I like one-line zingers for email sigs. Now though I have another justification; because smart people (like you!) can figure out the next line on their own: "That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily."
Andre Felipe Machado
2007-09-18 07:02:56
At the Debian Project [ ] users and developers community there is a cultural attitude in favor of LEARNING.
If you keep a humble attitude of knowing yourself that there are always things to learn, and show that you are willing to do your homework BEFORE asking, and want to learn and help others, you are welcome and receive answers.
subject = video crash using driver version 1.2.3 with board ACME 321.
"When playing video from this url [...], using Debian version y.z with security updates, X crashes. I searched list archives and internet, read such and such manual and did not find and or understand this problem. Where to look for further info? could you point some url to study?"
95% of times you will receive really FAST answers, pointing to clever solutions, or giving direct answers, or asking for more details.
5% of times you could be redirected to submit a bug report and track your issue from there.
But I never was left without any answer using this approach since 2003.

Debian Project community does accept well people who want to LEARN, but rejects lazy people. Mostly, even the brightest Debian Developer is aware that there are always things to learn and other people that know things he/she does not know and most of them stay humble.


Noah Gift
2007-09-18 07:08:39
Andre/That is a great advertisement for getting involved in Debian development and use. I actually have been meaning to make a debian package of the Python deduplication tool I have been writing, so I should talk to you later :)

I have also noticed that Ubuntu, debian based of course, forums seem to be extremely helpful as well. Hmm, maybe there is a pattern :)

Selena Deckelmann
2007-09-20 07:46:23
Great post. For myself, I find that if I'm afraid to do or say something because I'll look like an idiot, that's a pretty sure sign that I should do it. Standard caveats apply about jumping off cliffs and considering the full moon.

About the culture - there's a fatigue that sets in for those of us that have spent time on "the front lines," answering the same questions over and over. It's no excuse to be a jerk. Like people who work in social services, I think that after a few years of doing that type of work, most people need a long break from it. And your prescription to periodically do something that makes one feel like an idiot, is a perfect restorative.

Not sure you were really saying anything about that issue specifically, I've just seen the need.

Anne Marie
2007-09-20 23:18:24
Thank you for the great article! Helps to realize I'm not the only one that's felt like an idiot at times in this field (IT). I've been pondering lately whether or not to go for a job that would put me in a position where the potential for looking like an idiot would be quite probable, but the opportunity to learn would be fantastic. Knowing that others have benefited from going down that road before me helps much in making the decision to go for it. Thanks again!