Ask Three Before Asking Me

My husband is a high school English teacher. I’ve drawn from his experience in the classroom before, and I’m doing it again.

Pretty much every teenager (myself included) drags themselves through high school believing they’ll never use a tenth of the information being pounded into their heads. And while it’s true that much of your high school experience falls away when you leave it behind, you do learn valuable lessons during those seemingly wasted hours.

Take Algebra, for instance, the class I hated most. And I mean hated. Math and I have never gotten along. I have a twisted sense of logic that doesn’t seem to match anyone else’s. My husband and his brother have tried on numerous occasions to explain to me how a clock can lose time during Einstein relativity experiments and I just can’t wrap my mind around it. (If the same amount of time is passing, and a clock is programmed to measure seconds and minutes at specific predefined rate, how does it register less time passing?! Mind explode!) In Algebra class, I was okay if a teacher handed me an equation and told me to solve it. Eventually, after much growling and hair-pulling and many long hours of shaking my head while I forlornly stared at the numbers and letters, I figured out that much. But give me a word problem and I still, to this day, consistently do them wrong. I set them up backwards, inside out, pretty much every way that’s wrong. It’s like that meme where you have 10 ice cubes and 11 apples and the answer is purple because aliens don’t wear hats. That’s my relationship with math.

Luckily for me, I’ve used exactly zero of the equations I learned in high school Algebra. And since I don’t plan on being a physicist or engineer, I don’t expect to ever dredge them back up from the dark recesses of my mind. Before any teenagers currently undergoing the torture that is Algebra class can celebrate, however, I must sadly inform you that I did learn something from all those hours of trying to find X (<- it's right here). The truth is that Algebra has very little to do with math, unless you want to have one of the aforementioned careers. Algebra is really about problem solving skills. It's the process, the method which is important. Because that kind of critical thinking, that kind of logic, applies to pretty much every real world situation ever. If you can figure out how to find X, you can figure out how to budget your paycheck so it lasts an entire month. If you work in IT, you can use that same logic process to figure out what’s wrong with someone’s computer, or if you’re a programmer which line of code is giving you the issue (especially if you don’t have a debugger that tells you which line of code has the foul up). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, my forlorn friends. Having a mental logic process helps you make decisions, especially in times of stress.

I seriously wish one of my Algebra teachers had told me that while I was struggling not to crumble my Algebra homework and lob it at their heads.

But I digress. My husband has a rule in his classroom; if you don’t know the answer to a question, ask three of your classmates if they know the answer before coming to me. I think it’s an excellent rule.

It may seem like he’s trying to avoid answering a plethora of questions, but I’ve actually experienced a similar policy in the work place. I worked at an over-the-phone helpdesk for a couple years. Anyone with similar experience knows that most companies maintain databases for their service employees. Type in the symptoms of the problem and instantly get a list of possible solutions. These databases exist so that, in theory, any person answering the phone, no matter how new, can solve your problem in about the same amount of time. Like the company’s private Google search engine. If we couldn’t find our answer in the database, we were encouraged to seek the assistance of one of our near-by co-workers to speed the process (before turning to a manager or an expert).

Now I know what you’re asking; what’s the point of the database if it doesn’t hold all of the answers? It would be impossible for any database to contain all the pertinent information related to a single topic of expertise, no matter the subject. Yes, even the almighty Google is sometimes fallible.

The point of the question policy was to make the best use of company resources. Our brains are an amazing file index of everything we’ve ever experienced. Writing it all out doesn’t always work. A database needs to be a quick step-by-step reference. When things get too complex to state easily, you leave them out for the sake of simplifying the process. But one of those tiny details that’s too difficult to explain in a couple sentences can be critical to resolving a rare or obscure issue. Luckily, a couple of key words can easily trigger the memory of the experience and provide an answer faster than trying every step in every search result that doesn’t quite match the problem you’re having.

Knowledge is a company’s most valuable resource, the knowledge built by the people actually doing the company’s work (this is why outsourcing is such a dumb idea). This is why experts get paid the big bucks. They’ve got a storehouse of knowledge locked in their brains and no matter how much of that knowledge you try to suck out and share with other people, you’re never going to get it all.

By telling his students to ask their fellows if one of them has encountered and solved their issue before, he’s teaching his students not only to network, but to use their resources. Of course if their question is word related, and three other students in the class don’t know the answer, my husband’s reaches for the dictionary next. Which is another important lesson; how to find the answers when no one can tell you what to do. Yet another invaluable lesson for everyday life. (By the way, if you ever really need to find something, are totally lost and have exhausted all your resources, ask a Librarian. They’re trained to find things and they’re amazingly awesome at it. True story.)

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