Dan Luu’s post on looking stupid struck me on a a personal note. Especially as I navigate the university environment.
“The gain from asking a stupid sounding question is small in most particular instances, but the compounding benefit over time is quite large and I've observed that people who are willing to ask dumb questions and think "stupid thoughts" end up understanding things much more deeply over time. Conversely, when I look at people who have a very deep understanding of topics, many of them frequently ask naive sounding questions and continue to apply one of the techniques that got them a deep understanding in the first place.”
As a software developer with 2.5 years of work experience, becoming a first year undergrad in CS was quite the shift in perspective.^{1} I always thought higher education was useless for programmers (which, as a freshman, is true as far as I can tell), but at least I thought the professors disagreed. Imagine my shock when I found out they cared as much as my high school teachers.
If it’s been a while since high school, think back to what they had you do: memorize, memorize, memorize.
🧮 Formulas
🧪 Periodic Table Elements
✍️ Citation Formats
⚰️ When Historical Figures Died
🌱 The Infamous Mitochondria
How much of it stuck? How much did you care? I didn't care one bit, but I passed with flying colours by doing exactly what my teachers wanted me to do: memorize.
I was naive not realizing the greater system at play. Teachers are there to get students to pass above average on exams, not to make them better people (supposedly, that’s up to the parents, people who usually have no prior experience of parenting). But an essence of humanity and knowledge isn’t how much one knows, but rather, how much one wants to know.
My little brother (not to throw him under the bus; he’s only a convenient example), is stellar in Math and wants to be a data scientist. We’re taking the same Linear Algebra class, and I asked him “What does the dot product of two vectors get us? Why is it important and why should I care?” None of those questions he could answer. He could, however, answer the questions that were most important to our prof: “How do you get the dot product of two vectors? How do you use it?”
I never cared what the dot product was, only why it was useful, so I stopped attending his lectures after 3 weeks, because he didn’t tell us why we did anything, only that we did it (also, like every other human, including myself, he talks too slow). To clarify, I’m not restating the classic highschoolstudent argument of “how do we apply the quadratic formula in real life?” but rather, “why does memorizing the quadratic formula make us better learners in trigonometry or in general?”
My favourite example of this is when God says “let there be light” but forgets to elaborate on why light was necessary. This is assuming God is accountable, which based on all tragedies, proves false.
My curiosity drove me to spend extra time reading on the basics of linear algebra, seeking out 3Blue1Brown’s Essence of Linear Algebra series and the BetterExplained Intro to Linear Algebra.
Keep in mind, that my brother is still better at solving linear systems of equations then me, and it shows. But at least now I can say that my understanding is deeper. Students train from an early age to “accept” lessons rather than question them.^{2}
We act like we know things by regurgitating information.
🚦 We know how the traffic signals operate
🌉 We know how the golden gate bridge wires were connected
🗼 We know what the spear on top of the CN tower does
💡 We know how fiber optic cables work
⚡️ We know how to generate electricity from nuclear energy
Only, we (I) don’t really know any of these things. Not until we ask questions: the "stupid", important, and sometimes difficult questions.
I do wonder how the world arrived at its state of acceptance. I’ll never have kids because of how messed up this place is, but also, because of the low percentage of modern adolescents that ask “why.”^{3} It’s devastating to see the lasting effects of curiosity and enjoyment in learning drained from the greater population all the way to sophomores.
I’m lucky to be among those who care, yet I also aspire to put my pride aside and be more like Dan: asking obvious questions to find out that the person who should know the answer... doesn't. I want to confront, debate, contradict, and criticize arguments to disturb my people pleasing persona.
Despite the cards dealt to me being relatively good I still have work to do before I rise at the level of my coworkers/friends or other intellectuals I have yet to meet.

I wasn’t actually looking for the degree or the education, only the shift in perspective with a hint of introspection. So I guess: mission accomplished? ↩

I observe kids who's parents don't let them make mistakes or who make them accept their surroundings without question, as individuals with an inhibited curiosity. Teachers aren't the only ones to blame, its the whole machine. Before writing this, I thought that we have control over the cards we're dealt. My previous statement renders this assumption false. ↩

On the surface, why precedes questions like "what?" and "how?", so it should be the simplest, yet is often the most difficult, to answer. ↩