When I first started to attend company briefings, I usually came away feeling more than a little stupid. It always felt like I was accidently sat at the adults table; nodding along like an idiot and desperately hoping no one expected me to speak.
While others asked probing questions on all manner of esoteric accounting adjustments and industry specifics, I had trouble just trying to figure out what, exactly, the company actually did.
More often than not, all I managed to conclude was that congratulations were apparently in order (most questions seemed to start with “great result guys”) and management were somehow on a first name basis with all the brokers. It usually turned out that most of them went to the same private school and would be catching up later for a more thorough debrief.
What was absolutely clear was that I was a total fraud that had no business being in the same room as these high-paid and well-connected geniuses
Eventually, however, it dawned on me that it was all, mostly, bullshit.
Once you stripped away the posturing, it was clear there were no adults in the room. No one really knew what was going on, at least not to the extent they liked to pretend. Few, if any, were interested in the things that actually mattered.
But the real epiphany was that, as Rory Sutherland puts it, to reach intelligent answers, you often need to ask really dumb questions.
In fact, as Carl Sagan said, there really is no such thing as a dumb question.
“There are naïve questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world”
These days, if someone says something I don’t understand (which is often), I’m happy to admit it and ask them to explain further — even if everyone else is likely to think I’m an idiot. Frankly, that’s probably the general consensus already, so what is there to lose?
More likely, if I’m struggling to comprehend something, someone else probably is too, and will be glad the question was asked.
Here’s the thing; you will always not understand something at first. But if you keep asking questions — even ones that seem “dumb” — you’ll eventually know the answers.
And if I don’t get there, well, I’m humble enough to admit it and will stay in my lane. (No amount of patient explanation will help me get my head around quantum electrodynamics.)
Enter the obligatory Buffett quote:
The other useful thing about “dumb” questions is that they can help illuminate a lot about the person they are put to.
If someone is disdainful of the question, or condescending in their answer, it can suggest a pretentiousness or arrogance that can be somewhat of a red-flag. It’s not a quality you like to see in a true leader.
Moreover, if someone can’t explain something — even something that is reasonably complex — clearly, directly and without jargon, they probably don’t understand it either.
So, don’t be afraid of asking dumb questions. When it comes to investing, they are far less costly than dumb mistakes.
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