Should I Feel this Stupid?April 8, 2019
Learning new things can be pretty exciting, and lucky for IT Professionals, there is no lack of things to learn. But this exciting world of endless configurations, code snippets, routes, and processes can have a demoralizing effect as well when you’re constantly bombarded with things you don’t know.
Growth Hurts a Little
I’m not immune to the feelings of stupidity. I work with some smart folks in my day job as well as smart customers. I see what people are doing on twitter and realize that no matter what I already know, there is so much more that I could know.
Every time that I start learning a new concept I feel this feeling of dread, where I know I’m going to spend some time feeling like an idiot. Usually my process begins with reading blog posts and documentation online and then trying stuff in my lab. When I inevitably fail, I begin googling or start asking questions from whatever colleague I know who’s done this before.
To me, this is really the most painful part. Admitting to a colleague that you don’t understand something is hard to do, especially if you have to ask multiple questions in sequence which shows that you really don’t understand how it works. I think this is hard to deal with, especially if you’ve achieved a lot in another area where you are considered an authority on a different subject. Now that you’re learning something new, you’re starting at the bottom again.
From time to time I see evidence online that I’m not alone with these thoughts. Take the tweet below from Jeffrey Snover from Microsoft.
First, I hope Mr. Snover doesn’t mind me using his tweet as an example, but I don’t think he’ll take offense to it. If you’re not familiar with Mr. Snover’s work directly, you’ve probably seen or used the results of his career. If you look at Mr. Snover’s linkedin page you’ll see that he’s very credentialed. Distinguished Engineer/Lead Architect for Windows Server, Distinguished Engineer/Lead Architect for Windows Server, Technical Fellow/Chief Architect for Azure Infrastructure and Management Team, and Technical Fellow/Architect for Office 365 Substrate. Oh, I almost forgot, if you google “The Father of PowerShell”, you’ll find his name there too. By all accounts a smart person who has enough confidence in his abilities in the areas he does know, to be self-deprecating on twitter with a tweet like that.
It’s all part of the process…
Feeling stupid isn’t a feeling I’m very comfortable with. In fact that feeling of stupidity is sometimes the very thing that motivates me. I don’t like it and so the only way to fix it is to learn more about that topic so I don’t have to feel that way anymore. But I have to remind myself that this is all part of the process.
Think of learning in terms of exercising. If you haven’t been on a consistent exercise regimen, and then begin training, you’ll probably feel very tired and sore after working out. You might not like this feeling very much, but know that its part of the process of getting fit. Why wouldn’t we consider that feeling stupid is also part of the normal process of learning.
As you exercise more, you can run farther at a time and feel less sore. As you keep studying, you learn more about your subject matter and feel less stupid. The question really comes down to what you’re going to do when you have those feelings.
You’ll inevitably need to learn something that you know nothing about. You’ll probably feel stupid for a little while, or a long while. You might have to admit your ignorance to colleagues to get yourself over some hurdles so you can go tackle the next one. But the growth you’ll gain from admitting that you don’t know something is worth the effort.
Keep trying, admit that you don’t know the material and work to find the right answers. Eventually those skills will become second nature to you and you’ll forget about all the pain it took to get you there.
Your colleagues won’t think you’re stupid for asking questions. Especially if you’re asking the right questions and showing progress. Hopefully you’re in a situation where it’s OK to ask questions and admit your weaknesses.
Limit your Learning in Progress
It’s good to learn new things, but try not to learn too many new things at one time. Think of it this way, what if you try to learn a bunch of new things all at the same time and they all make you feel stupid. The feeling stupid part might be natural, but if every task you attempt makes you feel stupid, then this can have a demoralizing affect.
If every task you start makes you feel stupid, you might just wonder if you ARE stupid. Don’t do this to yourself. Limit your “Learning in Progress” (LIP) to a couple of things at a time. Just as too much Work in Progress (WIP) is bad for completing tasks, too much Learning in Progress can also be bad. Start tackling a subject and when you feel more comfortable with that subject, then you can move on. One thing at a time.
The unfortunate truth is that you probably will feel stupid if you’re doing it right. It’s simply part of the process and if you feel stupid, you’re probably on the right path. That feeling won’t last forever if you’ve got the guts to keep asking the right questions.
Well, until you move on to the next topic you don’t understand at least.