Feynman and Dumb Questions

Oct, 29 2020
3 Minutes
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: ‘Is a cathode plus or minus? Is an an-ion this way, or that way?’

-Richard Feynman, Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman

I love this quote because it hits upon some of my favorite themes:

  • Go slow, then go fast
  • Understand the fundamentals

But my favorite aspect of this quote is Feynman's willingness to look dumb. Here, he is probing for seemingly obvious facts, and if this was your first encounter with him, you might start to think this Mr. Feynman wasn't all he's been cracked up to be.

Yet sure enough, Feynman's mastery of the basics paid dividends:

[L]ater, 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 the mess of all these equations?"

The Willingness to Look Dumb

The advice here is not "be willing to look dumb".

Rather, you should think of "the willingness to look dumb" as a wager - and like all speculative endeavors with probabilistic returns, there's a chance that you will come out on top, and one where you might tank your confidence into ruin.

Feynman's willingness to look dumb, I believe, was a bet. One that he felt comfortable taking for the following reasons:

  • A previously high level of intellectual confidence (such a small wager was relatively inconsequential)
  • He knew that his typical ROI from clarifying the basics was positive

The fact that Feyman himself called these "dumb questions" shows how self aware he was. This is not the case of a socially unaware genius just bulldozing his way through life. This was someone who felt the sting of social cues.

Yet he did it anyways. And he did it repeatedly.

When to Look Dumb

Imagine that confidence can be banked (think of it as a bank account). And then imagine that "dumb" questions have a price, which is paid in a small amount of confidence.

When we ask dumb questions, we take a withdrawl from that confidence bank account.

If we have a lot of confidence, then this price is trivial. Go ahead, and ask your dumb questions.

But if you do not have a lot of confidence, you can't be so nonchalant. You must determine if this question will genereate a positive yield.

So let's walk through how we can think about this.

First, let's consider the cost:

  • Will these people remember that I asked this question in 1 month?
  • Will this question disrupt the flow of conversation for everyone for more than 30 seconds?

If the answer is yes to either of these, then this question is relatively expensive. Think twice.

Now, let's consider the benefits:

  • Is this question a clarifying question?
  • Is this question relatively fundamental?
  • Does the answer to this question help you participate in the conversation? That is to say, does the conversation build on top of this?

If you answered yes to any of these, then there's a good chance that the ROI from asking the question will at the very least lead you to break even. In each of these, you will use the knowledge gained a few times in the future.

Here are some more considerations:

  • Are you actively curious about the answer?
  • Will you use the answer to build up a mental model of how something works?

If you answered yes here, asking a dumb question is almost always a good idea. You're capturing your own intellectual momentum. The answer will help you understand something better than a Google search because you're emotionally involved.

Strike when the iron is hot.


Dumb questions can be mortifying to ask. You are trading vulnerability in the present for an unproven potential return in the future.

But building up a practice of asking questions will slowly build up your confidence. Not only that, but asking these uncomfortable questions can actually deepen your understanding.

Hell, even questions that don't make any sense can generate positive results. Consider this quote from Randall Munroe (of xkcd):

They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to thoroughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.

(That's in his foreword to his book "What if?")

A lot of us don't ask enough questions because we're too risk averse. I hope this post helps you think through the issue a little more clearly - and to start asking more questions.