September 18, 2023
A short bio
My grandmother-in-law is amazing. She studied physics in Spain during the 50s, then she moved to Switzerland to do physics research, and then she moved back to Spain to teach physics and algebra at the university (some of her exercise books are still used today at her university). She also had 4 kids and widowed when she was 40. All of that was during a period when Spain was under a dictatorship, and women weren’t allowed to do a lot of things, e.g.: they needed the approval of a man to open a bank account. So I think it’s safe to say she didn’t have things easy. I truly believe that a movie about her life would be a huge hit.
Since I also studied physics I enjoy a lot talking with her and learning about her experiences. She’s also an avid reader and she always has a lot of book recommendations (which are usually better than the ones pushed to me by typical RecSys). I usually have the opportunity to talk with her once a month, and I always enjoy it.
One might think that, with so much experience and wisdom, this woman would be a person who always has advice or an opinion to share, but instead she never says one word louder than another. She spends her life reading, taking walks near the beach, eating paella on weekends, and spending time with her family. So when she shares a piece of advice you know you have to pay attention. This is the story of the funniest and most practical advice I have ever received from her.
Dumbness as a simplifier
Some weeks ago we were talking about how she manages today’s technology and how isn’t trivial for people from her generation to deal with technologies that are straightforward to younger people. At some point she said
When I don’t want to do something I act like I’m dumb and I ask for help.
And after saying it with a completely straight face we both burst out laughing. She, with tears of laughter in her eyes, told me that she wasn’t joking. “I’ve been doing this all my life and it has always worked.” she explained me. You have probably heard similar advice from other people (e.g.: Willingness to look stupid by Dan Luu, How To Understand Things by Nabeel S. Qureshi, or Don’t be Afraid to be wrong among many others) where they argue that you don’t have to worry about looking dumb and ask questions until you fully understand everything about the topic in question. But she meant a completely different thing, the advice was in the opposite direction. The recommendation is to look dumb to avoid learning about something you are not interested in. It’s saying “I don’t care about this and I don’t want to care”. If you don’t want to do something make another person do it for you, and playing like you’re dumb it’s a great way of doing so. For example, every time she needs to withdraw money from her account she goes to the banker and says something like “Look, I’m an old woman, I barely can see, and I don’t understand how this works. Can you give me money from my account?”. The point is she isn’t interested in learning how the ATM works, and she doesn’t want the banker to explain how it works. She only wants her money, and making herself look dumb is the easiest and quickest way to do so.
The first thought I had was that this approach is only useful for old people, or for people that is not interested in learning new skills, and I don’t consider myself in any of these groups. But she has been doing this all her life, not only now that she’s older, and it’s clear she isn’t the kind of person who lacks curiosity. So what are the benefits of this approach? What am I missing? Here I’ve compiled a list of benefits you get from making yourself dumb about things you don’t want to know about.
- Reduce cognitive load. Actively refusing to acquire knowledge you don’t need frees space on your mind. For example, there was a team at my last job that was in charge of broadcasting some data but not producing it. After some time broadcasting the data, they became the de facto experts on the meaning of this data, which made the team move slower (meetings, questions, etc.) until at some point they decided to act as if they knew nothing about the data meaning and refuse to ask questions about this topic. Instead, they redirected all the questions to the team that was producing the data.
- Things go faster. Like in the example of the ATM you won’t lose time learning things you don’t want to learn. You can use the knowledge of an expert on the topic to accelerate the process.
- You have time to dedicate to other interesting things. Time is limited, and as so it should be optimized and used for things you enjoy.
- It’s extremely easy to do. Since you don’t care about the topic you don’t care about the opinion other people have about you, so you don’t have to pretend to be smart. You only need to say something like “It’s the first time I do X and I’m a little bit confused. Can you help me with X?”
- Maintain focus on your priorities. It’s more or less known that you can only maintain focus on one thing at a time, removing tasks that distract you from your focus improve your probabilities of succeeding. Also, Yak shaving is a real problem and it’s easier to happen at tasks in which you aren’t an expert. Delegate these tasks to experts on the topic and focus on your priorities.
- One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Some people truly enjoy topics that completely bore you. Asking them for help about these things is a gift for them.
After reading this list one could get the impression that this technique is the definitive one to never have to work again in life. However, if I want to be honest with myself and I want to honor the memory of my grandmother-in-law, I cannot finish the post here. Here is a list of situation in which you don’t want to use this approach.
- Sometimes you need to be and look smart. For example, if you are in a professional environment and you are expected to have a certain level of expertise, pretending to be dumb might damage your credibility.
- You are the expert. If you are an expert on the topic it’s probably a better idea to solve your problems yourself. Also, if you’re an expert on a topic you’ll probably enjoy solving the problem, otherwise, you wouldn’t be an expert. This also applies when you have strong requirements about the solution you’re looking for. If you want something well done, do it yourself.
- You can get used to it and stop learning. Learning is an active process in which you force yourself to be in a situation outside your comfort zone. If you always avoid these situations you’ll stop learning, so you need to be careful in which situations you use the approach of acting like a dumb person.
- It can be rude. Asking for the same thing a dozen times could be seen as not polite.
- It’s not always free. A lot of people won’t help you if you don’t pay them, even if you look lost or confused since their income depends on charging you for their services.
- You become too dependent on others. If at some point the person who was helping you is no longer available you’ll have a hard time solving the problem by yourself.