There was a great tech talk at my internship today from Malina Hills, one of the VPs at Aerospace. I’ll skip to the end and give you some of the points she made.

Her career wasn’t compete randomness, she definitely had autonomy in how hard she worked and how many friends she made. Her advice for succeeding in a technical field included:

  • Grow deep technical roots early
  • Keep learning
  • Work hard and practice
  • Make friends
  • Follow your values (she gave the example of Aerospace’s values)

I asked her what she regretted most in her career, and her answer was repeating the same mistakes rather than learning from them the first time. Later she added to her answer, saying that she regrets not asking more questions, and possibly not taking more initiative in planning her career, despite her success.

That’s what sparked this post today.

If there’s anything I regret in my short life it’s my repeated failure to ask for help. Once I had the label “gifted” or “smart”, I wanted to maintain that label by continuing to appear smart. In psychology, this is called a fixed mindset, and it’s a fairly common affliction for us “gifted” millenials.

My advice? Scrap that ego. Let go of looking smart. Embrace being ignorant–not by maintaining your ignorance, but by allowing yourself to ask the stupid questions “smart” you would fail to ask.

I remember the boys I went to middle school and high school with (always boys… although I’m guilty of this too) who would act so shocked that somebody didn’t know something. They’d mock you in chorus if you mispronounced something or used the wrong word.

Now people are realizing how incredibly harmful this attitude is. We’re not all born with deep esoteric knowledge of every subject. Every single person who is now an expert started out as a novice. What causes the differing levels of knowledge is exposure to that information.

Hacker School (now known as the Recurse Center) has a section in their user’s manual discouraging the expression, “Well actually, …” The problem with this expression is that it stops being a helpful correction and starts becoming a competition. Reduce the occurrence of the word “actually” in your day to day speech. It’s really easy to switch your “Yes, but…“s to “Yes, and…“s.

On the other hand, you yourself should learn to handle knowledge gaps.

It’s okay not to know something. It’s more than okay. Once you learn that thing, your brain forms neural pathways. If, for example, you learn something that’s incorrect, it’s not easy to form new neural pathways to correct that error. So learning something for the first time gives you an opportunity to learn it right.

Eliminate that ego. If you need to be coddled all the time, if you need to feel smart and attractive and popular all the time, you become less interesting. Grow thicker skin and throw out that ego. If you’re always the smartest person in the room, you’re never going to learn anything. Be the person in the room looking to learn the most. Be a learner.

Admit when you don’t know something. If I were giving a tech talk on this topic with lots of time to spare, I’d have every member of my audience say something about their current job that they didn’t really understand. Admitting you don’t know something allows you to formulate the question to find out how to learn that thing. Once you have that question in your mind the path to learning it becomes clear (or, at the very least, you can google the question).

If you can’t find your answer after googling around a bit, ASK SOMEBODY. This will literally save your life. Let me explain.

Learning on my own was depressing. It seemed like everyone else knew the answers and I didn’t. I was completely isolated. I had no friends who could relate to what I was going through. Social isolation, zero feedback, nothing to show for my hard work, plus other brain chemistry issues. It wasn’t pretty.

Once I started working with other software developers, things changed drastically. Suddenly an all-day research problem could be answered in a few minutes. My productivity tripled in a few months.

It’s amazing how much time you save by leveraging your human resources. (Yes, I said human resources. It’s not jargon, it’s an actual applicable tool that happens to exist in the form of bony meat bags.)

Computers are really fast, but they’re pretty dumb. Humans are really slow, but we’re super smart. So while Google can give you millions of search results in the span of milliseconds, it can’t tell you what search terms to use. That comes from human knowledge. Even Google’s search suggestions are just leveraging tons of user data. It’s the people searching the right terms that give you those search suggestions to point you in the right direction.

That’s the difference between data and knowledge.

So when the suggested search terms don’t help, ask somebody. They might not know the answer. Then you get to do real research–with like books and stuff. But if they do know the answer they’ll most definitely point you in the right direction, because they were there once. They had to learn it too. They weren’t born with that knowledge.

Also, people appreciate humility. And people love helping you. It makes them feel smart! I guess you’d know a few things about feeling smart. So give them that awesome high of helpful interaction! Learners can be givers too.

It’s easy with our “I’m the center of the world” human perspective to put how we’re feeling above what everyone else is feeling. I would argue that the world would be a much better place if everyone put more effort into empathizing with others.

Give up being a smartypants. Embrace being a learner.