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Smart People Ask Questions

Ramit Sethi

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.

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  1. avatar

    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. avatar
    Stefan Hayden

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

  3. avatar
    Chris Yeh

    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. avatar

    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. avatar
    Carl Caputo

    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. avatar

    So…just how DO you properly cut an onion?

  7. avatar

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

  8. avatar

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

  9. avatar

    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.

  10. avatar

    Why did your mother assume you weren’t cutting the onion to make onion rings?

    Why did she assume you react to onions fumes the way she does. Why don’t Indian parents care about being non-judgemental? That would seem to be at cross purposes with asking questions?

  11. avatar

    Everything I know, I’ve learned from other people. I either asked a question, or observed how they did it and realized their way was better.

    One of the most challenging things to deal with when introducing LEAN principles in manufacturing and process development is not coming up with a better way, but convincing everyone that the way it’s “always been done” isn’t necessarily the right way.

    Great post!!

  12. avatar

    Ok, I had the onion right, but I remember cooking really tough chicken for a while in college. The “secret” is that you shouldn’t cook frozen chicken. You can with enough heat etc. cook chicken from frozen to done in a pan, but boy, it doesn’t taste that good. Finally one of my friends suggested it would be quicker to thaw the chicken. Thawing it for 10 minutes in the microwave, changed my cooking.

    Ditto with teaching, there is a learning curve and “going it alone” unless you are a real natural will end up in disaster. My first term as an instructor at a big 10 university all of my students flunked the first midterm I wrote, which was based on an intsructors guide. The next time around I begged my felllow instructors for advice and old copies to go off of. My evalutations improved significantly. So, yes Ramit has a point again

  13. avatar

    I recently graduated college. I’d been out of school for a while since I graduated from HS. I was a polisci major and I was always the chick in the back of the class asking questions and “making a nuisance” of myself in class.

    I figured that I’m paying $600 for this damn class, I may as well get my money’s worth.

    Also being an older non-traditional student, I’m in a place where I’m way past all the “I don’t want to seem uncool” BS.

    I think Stravinsky said it best, “I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.”

  14. avatar
    Graham Lathrop

    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?

    Yes and no. The line between asking a bad question and perceived ignorance is fine. Not so much for asking a good question that seeks to understand. Besides anyone who dismisses someone who asks a good question as weak, stupid, stubborn and incompetent is an idiot and doesn’t have a clue anyways.

    Why asking a GOOD question works:

    All humans evaluate all events and all circumstances. Think about how your mind starts working when a new person enters the room….you instantly start making judgments and decision to your minds programmed questions.

    So all evaluations are asking questions and all questions create evaluations.

    You can ask a poor questions or a great question.

    Asking a great question allows you to analyze at a higher level.

    Analyzing at a higher level allows you to exercise better judgment.

    Exercising better judgment allows you to reach a superior decision.

    Decisions create actions…. Furthermore, all business can be defined as decisions in action.

    Decisions set in motion cause and effect.

    Cause and effect end up shaping your direction, your circumstance and your events.

    My 2c.

  15. avatar

    “He who teaches himself hath a fool for a teacher.” — Ben Franklin

  16. avatar

    When I worked at a Help Desk, my supervisor told me, “never listen to what the user says”
    Well, that turned out to be terrible advice.
    Users know more than one may think, and even when they say something totally off the wall, in a dialectical sense it can lead you right to a solution.

  17. avatar

    The higher up the ladder you climb,
    the more questions you ask.
    For example:
    The bulk of a CEO’s job is to ask questions,
    intelligent questions of the right people.

    As a project manager, most of my day is asking questions.
    I get paid good money to ask questions.
    I don’t have to know the answers myself.

    But yes, there is an art to asking the right question of the right person.

  18. avatar
    A reader

    Man, do yourself a favor, and change the blog’s name…

  19. avatar

    So this post demonstrates my intelligence, right?

  20. avatar

    Ramit, is this post about asking questions for clarification, asking for the type of favors that give other people ego trips to get social points (like asking your bf open jars), taking advice humbly or piggybacking on the work of others to save yourself a headache? I’m not clear on where this one is going.

  21. avatar

    Why do you write what you write? Why do people post so many comments? What is prompting me to write this comment? All I can think of is questions now!

  22. avatar

    Thanks for the Rain-X tip so many years ago Ramit! I proudly pass that tip on to everyone when the situation calls for it. (Of course, I never had to ask you… you were always bragging about it!)

  23. avatar
    Ramit Sethi

    I love that stuff. Actually, I found out about it from riding in Jim’s car and asking him why he didn’t have to use his wipers while driving 75mph. So cool.

  24. avatar
    Terry Storch

    Outstanding post!

  25. avatar

    Nice post! I used to work at Buffalo Wild Wings so here’s some cooking tips:

    Sharp knives only for cutting onions. Dull knives rupture more onion cells and cause more crying.

    Tenderize chicken by ‘punching’ it. We literally took the chicken filets wrapped them in paper and pounded them with our fists. Makes them more tender when BBQ’ing them!

    Bon Apetit!

  26. avatar

    america’s test kitchen, man. pretty much every time they cut up an onion, they show you how to do it 🙂

  27. avatar

    That is what I am worst at – asking questions. I am going to start today by asking more questions of people.
    Love your blog.


  28. avatar

    Smart People Ask Questions? No! Asking ‘Smart Question’ makes you ‘Smart People’.

    Don’t you remember any incident either in School or at work where people comment ‘ …asking too many questions..’ or ‘ …showing off..’ or ‘…what a waste of time!!’.

    Whenever my son ask me a question, I encourage him to find the answer by himself (he asks too many silly questions like how to cut onion!!).

    I keep my mouth shut unless I know that someone has the answer to my question; and I want that person to feel good & important.

    Think before you ask!

  29. avatar

    I love this. I teach adults things like computer skills and always encourage them to feel free to ask questions.

    In my last class a gal asked a question prefacing it with ” this is probably a dumb question… I told her there are no dumb questions…

    You point is well taken. I will remember this when I am reluctant to ask a question myself!

  30. avatar

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  32. avatar

    This website is Great! I will recommend you to all my friends. I found so much useful things here. Thank you.

  33. avatar

    ur website is really good from today i decided to ask as many questions as possible

  34. avatar

    I\’m love this great website. Many thanks guyu

  35. avatar

    I ask questions and I am not terribly smart! 🙂

  36. avatar

    Asking questions alone will not make you any smarter. It’s directing quality, probing questions to the right person(s). The thing is, I don’t think there are any schools or books out there that teaches people how to ask quality questions to elicit information.

  37. avatar

    Great article – inspired a posting on my own blog. Really looking forward to your “how to email” articles coming up!



  38. avatar

    Thanks Ramit for this post. I started a new job last month in a different state. I had read your post and decided to jump in and ask questions in this new job. What a difference! I’ve picked up on their software and procedures much faster than I had before (I’m a reasonably quick learner). Asking questions while they showed me instead of just nodding and trying to figure it out on my own has helped tremendously. Comments have been made of how quickly I’ve picked things up and now I made some great contacts with m co-workers. I feel great knowing that I’m adding value ot this company almost immediately.

    I have a copy of your post in my office to serve as a reminder to ask questions. The right questions don’t annoy people, but let them know you’re interested in doing a great job.

  39. avatar

    I am not going to pay someone to answer my questions. Perhaps you should have wondered about that before you went about with such a GRAND ENDEAVOR.

  40. avatar

    Great article. Especially the point about becoming interested.

    The only thing I would add is that I would change the title to “Smart people ask SMART questions.” :0)

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