On each of the new projects I have worked on over the last several years, I have practiced a philosophy that I feel has led me to great success. I’ve labeled this philosophy as “being dumb.” I should start by saying that I have a very self-deprecating sense of humor, so when I say “dumb,” I do not actually mean “dumb.” What I actually mean to say is that I attempt to think like a beginner, which is something that has unfortunately been conflated with being dumb much of the time.
I think of a moment in the 1994 comedy “Dumb & Dumber,” when Jim Carrey’s character first learns of the moon landing 30 years after it happened, the excitement that he then displays is a joy to watch. Imagine if you had the chance to approach each new opportunity as a means to learn with the same exuberance? In this article, I will explain 5 ways in which “being dumb” has helped me to become more successful on the projects for which I have worked.
1) Ask All the Dumb Questions
It becomes easy to fear losing face by asking dumb questions. Whether we’re asking a stakeholder, a peer, or whoever, I sometimes want to stifle the impulse to ask. Yet, I have found that so long as the question is constructive or has sincerity, it is ALWAYS worth being asked, and what I learn from it is often critical.
2) Approach New Things in a Dumb Way
Every new project is always a bit scary at first after realizing how much I do not know about the context for which the project sits. The chance to approach projects without any prior knowledge of often leads me to create things that are truly disruptive, as I do not have a pocketful of ideas that have worked in the past. What starts out as initial anxiety or fear turns out as an exciting opportunity to learn something for the first time.
3) Be the Dumbest Person in the Room
I have the benefit of working with some of the smartest, most skilled people I have had the pleasure to meet. It is not hard to often feel like the dumbest person in the room. I’ve found no matter the situation, by placing myself in a position of deference with my team members or clients, it empowers them to do what they need to do in the best way. My team members, regardless if they are my subordinates or in a different discipline, more often than not know what they need to do better than I do, so enabling them to just do their job is best.
4) See With “Dumb” Eyes
I will start this one by saying that I do not actually think this means “dumb,” eyes, but the things I make have unexpected entry points and contexts that I am not always able to see coming. I have to remind myself to see something as I have never seen it before. I have enough experience and knowledge that it can inhibit me from seeing why designing something a certain way may prove challenging for my intended audience. I then remind myself to practice a high degree of empathy for my users in order to see how they see it. Coupling that with an eye for design helps ensure that my edge cases are addressed in the best way.
5) Challenge Others With Your Dumb Ideas
As I become more aware of the impact my design solutions have on those around me in terms of resources and time, it sometimes makes me wary of reaching too far. There is the possibility that my dumb idea could solve the problem in the best way. So, I have decided to just put my idea out there. If it is feasible then we have created the optimal solution, and if it is not, I learn the reasons why.
In summary, practicing those five methods with every new project that I get the chance to work on has been invaluable to me. To paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki-Roshi, who brought Zen-Buddhism to the United States, he once said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
Whether you want to approach projects like a beginner or tap into your own self-deprecating sense of humor, on your next project, try to be a little bit dumb, a little bit of the time.