View Full Version : When "Stupid Question" is the Next Action
12-02-2005, 06:19 PM
Existential Angst Alert: Beware.
I recently started a new job which I feel is both over my head and out of my field. Out of my field because I am, as I once posted here, a freewheeling creative type who grew disenchanted with the unpredicatbility of creative income so I decided to get into something more rigidly business-oriented. I'm forcing my square peg into a round hole; I break out in hives when I look at forms and contracts and now my job is 60 percent about looking at forms and contracts. Am I destined to fail? I don't know. Am I destined to be found out as the wrong man for the job? I wonder. And yet, there is a mehtod to my madness and that is I believe that many creative people (apart from a select few who benefit from circumstance) are so ungrounded that whatever their level of talent, they will always teeter on the edge of insolvency because even pure "creative" success today means understanding business and contracts. My heyday of pure creative success was, thus, unmanaged and unplanned so that I whiled away some fat years unprepared for how to navigate the leans ones. So, this is a fascinating process - I am determined to succeed in this diametrically-opposite universe, daunted though I may feel. I suppose I could call this a project; I wouldn't know what to name it. The other aspect -- in over my head -- means that I am terrified of asking for information for fear of revealing my ignorance. So my "next actions" -- find out what term x means, find out how to use database --go unacted upon. If I don't act, I will certainly founder; if I do, I may have a chance of succeeding, but I still have top break through that fear that someone will think, "Does this guy know anything?"
12-02-2005, 09:00 PM
My expeience has been to not hesitate to ask questions - lots of them.
Ask as many of your questions in "low risk" political environments - one-on-one with co-workers, away from upper management, etc.
When you don't ask you don't learn.
When you try to "pretend you know" - it's obvious to people what you know.
Good luck !
12-03-2005, 01:07 AM
So, this is a fascinating process - I am determined to succeed in this diametrically-opposite universe, daunted though I may feel. I suppose I could call this a project; I wouldn't know what to name it.
If you know what your desired successful outcome is and it will take more than one action, it does meet the GTD definition of "project." But I prefer the term "goal" for something this broad and long-term.
The other aspect -- in over my head -- means that I am terrified of asking for information for fear of revealing my ignorance. So my "next actions" -- find out what term x means, find out how to use database --go unacted upon. If I don't act, I will certainly founder; if I do, I may have a chance of succeeding, but I still have top break through that fear that someone will think, "Does this guy know anything?"
Well, they did hire you! Assuming that you didn't lie on your resume or in your interview, they somehow think you can do the job. In fact, if there were any other job candidates, they thought you would be the best person for the job!
I empathize with your situation because I have been in a similar one myself. I was accepted for a position for which my existing knowledge and skills were inadequate, but the decision makers believed I was capable of learning. It was overwhelming to be surrounded by people with so much more knowledge and skill. I found 3 essential sources of information to learn what I needed: 1) people around me who were willing to help; 2) Google had just come on the scene and was a lifesaver; and 3) books which I discovered and ordered on Amazon. For the people who were willing to help me, I expressed gratitude, reciprocated whenever possible, and treated them to dinner (always appreciated). Now I always Google first, then get a book if there's a lot to learn, or ask a local person if there's a small amount to learn or if the person has specific knowledge I can't get elsewhere.
Asking questions is a great way to learn, and your superiors may be expecting you to ask many. But you do have to exercise discernment. It's always annoying when someone asks a question that they could and should learn elsewhere with some research of his own. For example, when teaching a class, I will get 100 emails asking, "Is there a quiz next week?" when the syllabus is online. You do want to avoid asking something you could learn with a little research of your own. But if you don't know, you must find out somehow. I'm also disappointed if I present tough material to the students but no one asks any questions. Fear of looking ignorant is a barrier to learning.
One way of distinguishing whether you should ask or not would be to guess whether the meaning of term x or the usage of the database is general to the overall field or specific to the company. If it's general to the field, you can find out on your own and you should. If it's specific to the company, you can't figure it out on your own; you have to ask. If you're not sure which, you could first find out if there is a general-to-the-field meaning of the term or usage of the database. The key thing is to find good sources of information. Research online, in books, or ask someone safe (who will not get annoyed or regret hiring you). For example, Google "define:term x". If you must work with databases and know nothing about them, it would be a tremendous help to read a good book about using databases. And there's tons of stuff online. Then, after doing the general research, fire away with the specific questions. "Do I understand correctly that term x means general-field-meaning here?" Or, first learn general stuff about databases, then ask, "Am I doing everything correctly to create a new record here?" or "What existing queries should I use to get the data for this form?" (I am NOT an expert on databases, so these examples are for illustration only.)
Above all, do not be intimidated. No one around you was born knowing what they know now. They all had to learn. If you set out to learn more every day, you'll be amazed at what you know in a year, and astonished in five years. Good luck!
12-03-2005, 04:32 AM
Do avoid repeating the same question again and again. Ask once and listen carefully to the answer. If you do not understand the answer - ask for explanation until you clearly understand the whole topic. Make notes in case of not obvious topics. Learn it and do not ask again.
If you are reapeating the same question again and again it means that you are not listening to the answers and you are not learning.
12-03-2005, 09:03 PM
Thanks, gang. Andersons, your clear and cogent thoughts are, as always appreciated. Actually, one of the first things I did at my new desk was Google the definition of my job title (a seemingly amorphous bureacratic appelation that has many people scratching their heads). I was rewarded with a perfectly-presented one page description courtesy of a US Government office that exceeds the actual job description.
Also this weekend I made a resource list of names -- people with whom I've worked in the past, more experienced in the field, who can answer my questions when I've hit a brick wall. If I can dole out the issues to each in succession (assuming I've been unable to come up with an answer through the other channels you recommended) then I hopefully will not have to impose on any of them more than once. (And thus save on dinner tabs in the process. :))
Next action: Find out if there is an association representing my field and join it.
12-04-2005, 07:47 AM
Find out if there is an association representing my field and join it.
Last summer, I wrote a note about how I learned to "become a presenter." Your action item above reminded me of something I've done, and continue to do:
Oh, one more thing, when I decide to "learn something new," I subscribe to at least 5 new magazines for a year...it keeps the information coming in, and keeps me on top of my game.
12-04-2005, 08:47 PM
There is an association representing your field. Trust me. There is an association for *every* field large enough to be defined as a field.
I'm in Washington DC this week, and the "Associations" category in the Yellow Pages runs to nine pages of six point type.
You might also ask your coworkers what associations they belong to and/or what industry publications they read.
12-05-2005, 08:18 AM
One thing to consider is that you may be able to ask more questions when you are new than when you are there for a while (what was your name again?)
I have thought that it would be useful in situations such as yours to hire a mentor to ask questions and tell us what questions we should be asking but are not.
Good luck. Most jobs seem overwhelming at first ... and some remain that way.
12-06-2005, 06:13 AM
It definitely is easier to ask questions when you are new--they understand you don't know everything yet, and expect you to be asking questions. Later, it gets harder--how can you ask what XX is, when they've already been discussing it a week?
Googling a term may not be helpful, because you need to be able to spell it to get a helpful answer. Real life example: in a meeting everyone was talking about measuring the "dilmos." Not knowing what a dilmo was, I wrote it down, to look it up later. The project coordinator, sitting next to me, noticed my note, and whispered "Dim Light Melatonin Onset." Her whisper saved me what would have been a VERY frustrating search.
I can appreciate your fear of being "found out," as I too often leap before I speak in both my career and personal life, and I find myself in roles where people assume I am much smarter/more experienced/better informed than I really am. In my professional life, it is usually taking on a client or a matter that is outside my particular areas of experience. In my personal life, it is usually getting involved in a leadership role for one of the children's activities.
The bad news is that there is simply no substitute for the hard work, research, experience, interviewing, and the "sweat equity" that you must do, in order to succeed in your new role. The suggestions made by others are the same ones I would make ... read books and trade publications, learn the language and lingo, ask tons of questions, and associate yourself will people who have the knowledge and experience you need.
The good news, however, is that you can re-invent and re-define the position, and exceed everyone's expectations (including your own). You have both the benefits and the detriments of having no predetermined/preconceived boundaries or limitations. When you literally start with a clean slate, you can use that creativity in a way that changes, expands, and improves the position in a way that has not been done before.
Two quick examples ...
In professional life, I took on the representation of a labor union in contract negotiations, which is WAY outside the area of my expertise (trial attorney). Not knowing what to do, I immersed myself in labor law (statutes, law review articles, case law, trade journals) in order to "learn the lingo" and the requirements of the area. But then I took it in a new direction ... I treated the contract negotiations like a trial. I did tons of statistical research (comparative wages, benefits, surveys among membership). I brought "evidence" and exhibits in support of my position to the negotiating table. I indexed and cross-referenced important items, and tried to quantified "benefits" and issues in real dollars (like measuring "pain and suffering" in a personal injury action). Everyone was just blown away ... in all of the prior years of negotiating the same contract, no one had did it that way before. I went from being a potential "fraud" who was in over my head, to being the "creative hero" who negotiated the best contract in years, by re-inventing the position.
In my personal life, I grew up in an area where soccer was regarded as a sport for children with overprotective parents. But my children fell in love with the sport, and no other parent stepped up, so I agreed to coach. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Initially, I watched other teams practice and just copied the exact practices, but even I found these routines to be boring and monotonous. So I read a ton of articles and websites on youth soccer, I started watching older teams play, and I listened to the coaching points made by experienced coaches. I attended coaching clinics and earned my youth coaching license. I made it a point to get to know other coaches in the league, and I always asked a ton of questions. Ultimately, I have balanced the requirements of the position (teaching technical and tactical soccer skills, coaching the team) with my own creative approach to coaching soccer (fun, positive, energetic, equal parts competitive AND recreational). I am now so comfortable in my role that most of my children's classmates refer to me as "coach," and all of their parents are shocked when they discover that I never played the game.
Finally, I would add that this website/online community is my most recent "leap and then learn" activity. I have been struggling with productivity, organization, and procrastination at work, I stumbled across this website in my search for a solution, and I just purchased the GTD book yesterday (literally reading Chapter 1). By way of introduction, I am a trial attorney and recent partner in a medium-size law firm in Ohio. Happily married and an active and involved father of three children, I have been struggling to set new career goals, deciding what is the "next step" in my career, and more generally making the transition to management. I have tried the usual suspect (Palm, Franklin Covey Day Planner, Outlook) and the usual approaches ("to do lists" ad naseum, Outlook Tasks, 7 Habits). And I am hopeful that the Getting Things Done approach will be a useful tool ...
Good luck with your new position.
12-06-2005, 11:47 AM
Thanks for the inspiration, QCB, and encouragement. "Learning the lingo" is certainly a project and the first thing I am addressing. As soon as I return to my desk from a meeting, all the terms go into dictionary I am creating in Word and I add definitions if I can glean them quickly, or add actions that will help me understand them. I'm fortunate (so far) in that one of my first assigned projects here involves, as I indicated, inaugurating a new database. Speaking with potential vendors is giving me an opportunity to learn from the salespeople.
Someone on the boards recently recommended I invest 10 bucks in DA's white paper, "Workflow Processing Using Microsoft Outlook," available here on the site. I purchased it yesterday, finished it in a sitting and have my Outlook set up so that it is GTD compliant. It is a hands-on supplement to the book that is getting me up and running. If you use Outlook, I highly recommend it as well. (I'll be getting a Palm to sync with my desktop; previously used paper planner.)
BTW, based on your achievements, you're not exactly a dilletante; once your projects and actions are under control, I expect to see a Nobel in the offing somewhere. :) Or at least a Best Dad award.
12-06-2005, 06:43 PM
Many coworkers and bosses like to make other people look stupid or put people up to doing things they themselves have neither the ability, committment nor guts to do. I would look carefully at my job description and make sure that my boss and boss's boss, agree that it describes my job. I would make sure that I had resources (computer, books, info on a pda, etc) for technical terms I need to know. I would try to become aware of and have a basic knowledge of the key issues in the field currently. I would read the policy and procedures manual if there is one. I would try to determine if I am there to do a defined job of implementing knowlege or skills that already exist or am I there to do something novel? I would identify the ways that I am supposed to contribute to the quality or quantity of the work. I would find out how my performance will be evaluated and by whom.
In so far as day-today work, mainly I would avoid asking a question unless I knew the answer. The rest of the time, I would frame questions in large terms that showed that I was a generally bright person who cared about the outcome of my actions, such as "I see a possible conflict between approach a and approach b, because of .... Do we know what we want to maximize"?
However, if you think you are going to need a lot of guidance, I would establish the image of myself as someone who is always curious and who also seeks to define one's terminology.
12-12-2005, 06:33 AM
Have you ever heard what Dennis has to say about checklists?
Anyway, he says a great time to use checklists is when you start a new job, because you dont yet know what you dont need to know. I have no idea what that means, but if DA said it, its probably true. I would try to figure out what it means if I were you.
Using checklists is a great idea when you start a new job. I've done it and it works. I would think they would be very helpful for someone with a mindset like yours trying to do what you are trying to do.