Ask Stupid Questions. Do Better Work.

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"See, when you don’t know, you try desperately to find out. But the minute you think you know, the minute you go – oh, yeah, we’ve been here before, no sense reinventing the wheel – you stop learning, stop questioning, and start believing in your own wisdom, you’re dead. You’re not stupid anymore."
Dan Wieden, Co-Founder, Wieden+Kennedy

Walk in Stupid Every Morning

Mike stepped inside, took off his boots, and shuffled across our wood floor in his wool socks. He walked into our kitchen, set his toolbox on the island, leaned against the counter, and removed his glasses.

Then he turned to my wife and asked, “What’s the problem with the washing machine?”

As my wife described the issue, Mike tipped back his head and closed his eyes. He looked like a sommelier letting the tasting notes of a fine wine wash over him. For several minutes he asked my wife questions and listened.

Pivoting like a marriage counselor, he turned to me and asked, “And what do you notice about the washing machine?”

“This guy is an appliance therapist!” I thought to myself.

He listened to my description with the same curiosity and intention he showed my wife, again closing his eyes and occasionally running his fingers through his grey, bristled hair as he thought.

Then he was done. Mike grabbed his toolbox and disappeared into our laundry room for the better part of two hours, emerging once or twice only to clarify something my wife or I said.

"You can't do sketches enough. Sketch everything and keep your curiosity fresh."
John Singer Sargent

Mike’s brilliant. Having worked on several of our appliances over the years, I now realize that his experience and comprehension of physics and electricity qualify him to teach courses at most any college. 

Which is why the most remarkable thing about Mike is that even though he’s been in countless kitchens and laundry rooms, dealt with the same problems with appliances day after day for more than 40 years, he walks in stupid every time.

Why? Because he genuinely cares — about his craft, about his customers, and about their appliances.

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Learning to be Smart

We all used to be like Mike. As children we brimmed with fascination.

But then we got smart. Our knowledge of the world expanded and our curiosity shrank. Our teachers and bosses rewarded us for knowing (or at least pretending to know). We stopped asking stupid questions.

And we watched as our curious mind, along with our careers and the companies we worked for, calcified.

But I want to be like Mike. Don’t you? I want to walk in stupid every time.

And here’s the good news for others who want to be like Mike:

  1. We can retrain ourselves to ask stupid questions. 
  2. You’re not alone. Curious people find other curious people.
  3. There are leaders and entire companies that value people who ask stupid questions. They’re the ones driving innovation: Tesla, LEGO, Pixar, Patagonia, IDEO, and many others.

“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we're curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
Walt Disney

Learning to be Stupid (Again)

Retrain yourself to walk in stupid. Ask yourself the following stupid question:

How many uses can you think of for a single paperclip? 

We’ve trained ourselves to think of paperclips fulfilling a single function. This exercise challenges us to view the same object in a fresh light. Keep in mind that children typically outperform adults in this exercise.

Drop me a note with any questions or comments you have: andrew@afrobinson.com. And if you haven’t already, sign up for my mailing list to receive the next entry in your inbox.

© Andrew F. Robinson 2017. All rights reserved.

Photo by Anouk Van Houts on Unsplash