The best advice I never follow

I’ve received a lot of advice over the years, some good, some bad. Parents, professors, Uber drivers – it seems like everyone has something to offer. The best advice I’ve ever received came from a professor on the first day of my undergraduate Galois theory course. Instead of starting the class talking about the syllabus or jumping right into lecture, she first gave us an important bit of advice:

Don’t be afraid to ask silly questions.

Never before had anyone explicitly told me that it was okay to ask “dumb” or “obvious” questions, and truthfully the advice was revelatory for me. The problem, however, is that I rarely follow this advice. I’m an anxious person, and for some reason I have this notion in my head that if I ask a silly or dumb question, I’m irreparably sullying my reputation. Of course, this isn’t true – nobody’s keeping score. I’m just a graduate student trying to learn as much as possible before I’m set loose onto the world, and it’s in my best interest to ask these sorts of “silly” questions, because often these questions aren’t silly at all.

Reflecting further, I think we could expand on my professor’s advice a bit:

Don’t be afraid to look silly.

Graduate school is hard. Taking classes is hard. Doing research is hard. Making sure you pick the right advisor and trying to find some semblance of work-life balance – it’s all hard. But there’s one difficulty I encounter on a daily basis that I never took into consideration prior to starting graduate school: I’m always afraid of looking silly, of embarrassing myself. Maybe I ask a question during a talk that has an “obvious” answer, or maybe I’m the one giving a talk and I make a big error that everyone catches before I do, or maybe a student asks me a question in office hours and I have no idea how to answer them. But what good is advice if you don’t follow it? So I guess I’m dedicating this year to getting over my fear of looking like a fool. Perhaps I’ll set up that logic seminar I’ve been wanting to organize but haven’t out of nervousness, or perhaps I’ll give a talk outside my department for the first time in my academic career. If there are things in graduate school you haven’t done because you’re afraid of embarrassing yourself or looking dumb, maybe it’s time to reconsider – after all, no one’s keeping score.

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