The Dumbest Person in the Room

My oldest daughter and I have been taking a training class together for some volunteer work we want to do together later in the year.

It was the first time my teenager and I have been classmates.

The class consisted of 20 students, half of which were teenagers, with the other half being people in their 30s and 40s.

As we went through the technical material, I found myself raising my hand every few minutes to ask a question.

Sometimes I didn’t get a concept. Other times the instructor said something on one slide that contradicted a previous slide, and I wasn’t clear which one was right.

Over the eight-hour class, all the students in the class combined asked about 20 questions. I personally asked 16 of them.

To an outside observer, I suspect I might have appeared as the dumbest person in the room.

After all, only someone “dumb” would not get it right away and keep asking questions, right?

This got me thinking about all the seminars, classes, and workshops I’ve been to over the past 20 years. 

I almost always sit in the first row of every class — whether it’s a class of ten people or 1,000 people.

Most of the time, I ask more questions than anybody else in the room.

Yes... I am that guy.

In every classroom that I’m in as a student, I’m often the “dumbest" person in the room.

When I learn new information, I not only learn the new idea but also integrate it with my existing knowledge in real time.

For example, I’ve been taking classes and learning a lot about cooking.

For an entire year, I focused on getting better at cooking meat, and in particular, searing meats at high temperatures (briefly).

One of the concepts I learned was the Maillard reaction. It is what happens to foods (especially meat) when it is cooked at a temperature greater than 285 degrees F / 140 degrees C. 

The food starts to brown visually, and more importantly, creates incredible flavors that aren’t possible at lower temperatures. 

Under that temperature, there is no flavor-enhancing reaction. 

Above the threshold temperature, wonderful flavors emerge.

As I learned this concept, I tried to relate it to my pre-existing knowledge. My first thought is the Maillard reaction has a specific threshold temperature where something happens at the molecular level.

This initially reminded me of the boiling temperature for water -- 212 degrees F / 100 degrees C. At this threshold temperature, water changes quite dramatically.

Above the 212 degrees F / 100 degrees C, water becomes a gas. Below the threshold temperature, it's a liquid. That threshold is a “magic” number of sorts.

However, when you cook food above 285 degrees F / 140 degrees C and then cool it down, the flavor persists. In other words, there is no reversal of the flavor enhancement process as the temperature drops. 

The Maillard reaction is a one-way permanent reaction, whereas heating and then cooling water above and below the boiling point is a two-way fully reversible process.

The reason I ask so many questions is I:

  1. Try to understand and clarify what I’m being taught;
  2. Verify that how I am relating the new knowledge to pre-existing knowledge is correct.

By doing so, I make it much easier for me to retain knowledge long-term. 

When I integrate new information with old, all of the newly acquired knowledge has a natural “home” within my long-term knowledge.

The next time you’re in a formal learning environment, consider being the “dumbest” (but perhaps wisest) person in the room by asking all of your questions. Then take the extra few moments needed to determine how what you’re learning now is related to what you already know.

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