When You Don't Have the Answer...

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Author/Entrepreneur Derek Sivers writes that being a "very slow thinker" can make one look stupid to others:

Image via Wikipedia.
I'm a disappointing person to try to debate or attack. I just have nothing to say in the moment, except maybe, "Good point." Then a few days later, after thinking about it a lot, I have a response.

This probably makes me look stupid in the moment, but I don't mind. I'm not trying to win any debates.

In fact, I'll tell you a secret. For most of those interviews at sivers.org/i, they sent me their questions a week in advance. I'd spend hours writing down answers from different perspectives, before choosing the most interesting one. Then once we were in a live conversation, I'd try to make it sound spontaneous. [bold added, links omitted]
While I haven't compared my own thinking speed with his, I know exactly what he means: Admit that you need more information or time to answer a question, and sometimes, people will assume you're an idiot. I found this to be especially true in the military, but that was long ago: I have probably since learned how to handle the situation better, such as by saying something like, "I don't have the answer now, but I'll get back to you later." Sivers is right to point out that it's fine to say something like that up front, and I appreciate his point that it would be a good thing if more people would do this, rather than needlessly endure unearned embarrassment.

That said, making such an admission requires confidence. Part of that comes from knowing what one's purpose is and is not. And part comes from the practice of resisting pressure from others to spout out an answer one isn't sure of.

-- CAV

P.S. This is related to one of many excellent points Alex Eptsein makes in the second lecture of his excellent Human Flourishing Project: There is indeed no need to have an opinion about any claim to knowledge one has immediately upon hearing it.


John Shepard said...

Related, Gus, you might appreciate this 3-minute clip (from Harry Binswanger's 2018 course Logic: The Method of Reason) on Richard Feynman's need for examples in order to think in principle. (Binswanger makes the point that to think in principle means that one has to think in examples.)


"Some people think in the beginning that I'm kind of slow and I don't understand the problem because I ask a lot of these dumb questions . . . . But later, when the guy's in the middle of a bunch of equations, he'll say something and I'll say, 'Wait a minute. There's an error. That can't be right.' The guy looks at his equations and sure enough after a while he finds the mistake and wonders how the hell did this guy who hardly understood at the beginning find that mistake in this mess of all those equations.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the comment. That issue is indeed related.

Jennifer Snow said...

I have what I think might be a similar but related problem, where my brain processes certain things at wildly *different* speeds. Physical tasks, for instance, I am so, so, SO super-slow at. I CAN learn to do physical things, but it takes me SO much more repetition and practice to pick them up than just about everyone else that I meet.

The weird part about this is that I have really fast reaction speed, but due to my terminal physical awkwardness it's pretty much guaranteed that my reaction will be completely counter-productive. So, when most everyone around me isn't even aware that something's incoming, I quickly and immediately dodge DIRECTLY into the path of the oncoming ball.

Whatever timing setting my brain operates on never seems to quite match up with the task I have at hand.

Gus Van Horn said...

This reminds me a little of someone I know: She was riding on a motorcycle with her fiance and caused him to give up motorcycling with her -- by leaning the wrong way during a sharp curve.

I think many, if not most people, have areas that present them with above average difficulties. The fortunate ones find out what these are at low cost.