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Smart People Ask Questions

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This is a story about how I learned to cut an onion.

After college, when I finally starting cooking for myself, I decided to add more to my food than just crushed red pepper. So I bought some onions and other stuff and started cutting them up and putting them in my food.

About six months later, I went to my parents’ house one weekend, where I was helping my mom cook. When she saw me cutting the onions, she laughed out loud and said, “What are you doing?”

Indian parents don’t care about being non-judgmental.

Anyway, she was right to ask. She took the knife and showed me the proper way to cut an onion, and I realized I’d been doing it all wrong. The new way was easier and faster. I also realized that–had I not been mocked by my own mom on that fateful Saturday–I probably would be cutting onions the wrong way for the rest of my life.

This happens a lot. I’ve heard middle managers being given a tip by their younger employees–really good advice that would save them a lot of time–but the manager snarled back, “Do you know how long I’ve been doing this?” If I hear another person saying “I’ve been doing this for 15 years” in a condescending tone, I am going to calmly duct-tape my eyes open and then invade a vulture’s nest, sitting patiently until she begins her pecking attack to take me out of my misery.

Please!!! Doing something for a long time doesn’t automatically mean you’re good at it. Now, there is a lot to say about having deep expertise in a certain area: Your intuition is better, you know shortcuts, and you’ve seen many situations before. But if you never learned the right way, there’s a huge opportunity to become better at what you do.

Doing it alone = dumb
Doing it on your own can be expensive and disastrous. Check out what Philip Greenspun had to say:

I once encountered a group of 6 people who called themselves “engineers.” To solve what they thought was a new problem, they were going to build their own little database management system with their own query language that was SQL-like without being SQL. I pointed them to some published research by a gang of PhD computer scientists from IBM Almaden, the same lab that developed the RDBMS and SQL to begin with in the 1970s. The research had been done over a five-year period and yet they hadn’t become aware of it during several months of planning. I pointed them to the SQL-99 standard wherein this IBM research approach of augmenting a standard RDBMS to solve the problem they were attacking was becoming an ISO standard. They ignored it and spent another few months trying to build their enormously complex architecture. Exasperated, I got a kid fresh out of school to code up some Java stored procedures to run inside Oracle. After a week he had his system working and ready for open-source release, something that the team of 6 “engineers” hadn’t been able to accomplish in 6 months of full-time work. Yet they never accepted that they were going about things in the wrong way though eventually they did give up on the project.

As I was thinking about this, I kept coming back to an early small company I co-founded, an online education company called FuzzyOwl (we liked the cute words). The model was basically Google Answers for education: If you were an ambitious high-school student choosing between Harvard and Stanford, we’d connect you to students at all the top colleges. You could price your own question and we, the company, would take a cut.

Well, one of the problems (among many others) was this: People rarely ask questions. We rarely ask others for help–sometimes because we don’t know there’s a better way (how would I have known I was cutting the onion wrongly?)–and sometimes for other reasons like preserving our ego. I’m not the only one to point this out: A survey asked corporate employees what the #1 networking mistake was. Guess what it was? Not asking for help.

People rarely ask for help. For example, in my hometown, my group of friends got a lot of scholarships and college admissions, and it’s a pretty small community. But we can count on one hand the number of times other students have asked us for advice on how to do it themselves–advice we would be happy to give.

People who seek out advice are a good bet. After sitting in on about a billion meetings with real-smart people and fake-smart people, I’ve decided on a pretty good litmus test to tell them apart: If someone asks questions, he’s probably smarter. Why? Because he’s not afraid to admit that he doesn’t know it all, and comfortable enough to ask questions. That alone makes him smarter, plus the actual answer he gets from asking a question.

In other words, if someone actively seeks out advice, I’d be willing to bet that they succeed more often than someone who tries to go at it alone.

K noticed the same thing. She writes:

Yesterday, I offered help in a field that I am an expert in.

The response?
“Why do you think I need help?
I don’t, thank you very much.
I’m handling everything perfectly well on my own.”

I felt like she had slapped me in my face.
And even though she was responding from emotion,
I won’t offer my assistance again.

At one point in my life,
I was the same way.
I couldn’t accept the help I needed.
I tried to struggle through it on my own.

Ironically, the more successful I am,
the more I ask and accept help,
which in turn,
allows me to become more successful.
It’s a circular thing.

The trick is to start the circle
and the way to start it
is to ask for help.

Successful people don’t need to act like they know it. Ironically, the more successful you get, the more questions you have.

Anyway, back to FuzzyOwl. As you can imagine, a company based on answering questions that people don’t ask probably didn’t last for long. We didn’t. But the lesson stuck with me: People rarely ask questions. So I have a simple proposal.

Ask questions, jackasses
Asking questions of the right people does so many things: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, you get your problem solved, and you can potentially learn unexpected cool nuggets. But sometimes it’s not obvious what we should ask questions about.

Start with the obvious. I’m always confused when I meet someone who spends a lot of time doing something but isn’t very good at it. For example, do you know people who never respond to their email? Email, the tool we spend over 6 hours a day on.

I want to take them in a room, shake them upside down, and run off with all the money that falls out of their pockets. But really, whether it’s email, driving, cooking, or whatever, these are things we spend a lot of time on. Wouldn’t it make sense to ask someone for their tips on how to do it better? For many people, it never occurs to ask someone else for a few tips on improvement.

Easy for me to say, right? I didn’t actively ask my mom how to cut an onion. But I should have. Think about the curious friends you have. They’re the ones who are always asking questions: “How did you get your computer to run so fast? How did you get the rain to fly off your windshield without wipers? How do you like your job?”

Some of these questions are more important than others. But being genuinely interested in how others do something can pay off big. As renowned author Jim Collins notes,

One day early in my faculty teaching career — I think it was 1988 or 1989 — [my mentor John] Gardner sat me down. “It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting,” he said. “Why don’t you invest more time being interested?”

If you want to have an interesting dinner conversation, be interested. If you want to have interesting things to write, be interested. If you want to meet interesting people, be interested in the people you meet — their lives, their history, their story. Where are they from? How did they get here? What have they learned? By practicing the art of being interested, the majority of people can become fascinating teachers; nearly everyone has an interesting story to tell.

So think about the things you do a lot. Can they be improved? You won’t know until you ask someone who does it better than you. Pick 5 people and ask them each a question.

Who knows what will happen?

What now? See my other articles on personal entrepreneurship.

Update: Here’s a great essay describing what can happen when people don’t ask questions

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42 Comments

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  1. A few things:
    Not to be cocky but I am that guy that asks questions. I didn’t really realize it until I read this post. I always ask questions.

    I agree with you about helping people. There are many times when I try to help people who are older and they aslways say, “I know, I know.” And I’m like, no you don’t! It’s okay not to know!

    Remember, “A group of professionals built the Titanic and a lone amatuer built the Ark.”

    I like to believe I’m a good writer but this week while I was writing a cover letter I was stuck and wasn’t happy with it. I could have kept it as is but I asked for help. The letter turned out so much better, while keeping the information I wanted on it.

    There is a very valuable lesson to learn here.

    And Ramit, you should watch the Food Network. They have some really cool shows. You might enjoy Good Eats or Unwrapped.

  2. what about the onion? how can you leave the secrete out?

  3. Asking questions is also one of the few ways to change a person’s mind.

    You can’t argue people into submission. All you can do is ask questions that will lead them to change their own minds.

  4. Fabulous post. You’re right that one thing that stops people from asking questions is not even realizing that it’s something they should do. It almost seems like this is ingrained in us by education, where the emphasis is often placed on knowing the answer, not asking an additional question (that’s the teacher’s job, the one who already knows the answer!).

    It’s also linked to self confidence. People who have faith in their own value aren’t afraid to ask for help and seem vulnerable. Those who are insecure don’t want to allow anyone to see that they don’t know everything.

    It constantly amazes me how much other people know, and more importantly, how thrilled they generally are to pass that knowledge on.

  5. But what I really want to know now is, how did your mother say you were supposed to chop an onion? And how were you chopping it at first, when you made her laugh?

  6. So…just how DO you properly cut an onion?

  7. Mmmm. So I am waiting to hear the question from you about why municipal bonds may be superior to CDs. 😉

  8. Cutting an onion this way supposedly prevents the “crying” effect. But link #7 is pretty useful info! Thanks for the great piece.

  9. I love the post. My experience is the same: there is in fact a two-way implication between being smart and asking questions. Willingness to ask questions is a sign of true self-confidence and self-esteem.

    Unfortunately, in the real world of interacting human beings, the person who asserts things confidently is perceived as a knowledgeable leader. Meanwhile, the person who admits even the possibility of ignorance is perceived as weak, stupid, stubborn, incompetent, or a troublemaker. Am I wrong?

    Sure, maybe this is all due to ego, and you may not have an ego, but if you make the mistake of assuming others don’t, then you won’t get far.

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