There once was a man whose lifelong dream was to sail the Mediterranean Sea on a massive cruise ship. He spent years pinching pennies until he saved enough to buy himself a ticket. When it came to saving money, this man was an expert. To avoid spending too much on his cruise, he packed enough beans and crackers to keep himself fed and he only left his cabin to go sightseeing. He longed to eat the ship’s fine dining and attend the illustrious performances, but he was very disciplined, and he didn’t want to spend his money.
On the last day of the cruise, a crew member offered to reserve a table for the man at the farewell dinner. The man politely declined and proudly declared that he had rationed his food, so he didn’t have to spend a cent the whole trip. It was at the point that the man learned that all food and entertainment was included in the price of his ticket. Suddenly, his ability to save money didn’t seem so valuable.
As I heard this story for the first time, I wondered how many times I caused my own stress, worry, envy and pain simply because I thought I knew better and wasn’t willing to ask for help. A little while ago, Dr. Jacob wrote an article on this same concept; “Knowing When You Don’t Know”. You would think that after working with Dr. Jacob for 6 years, I would be an expert knowing when I don’t know and asking for help, but recently I’ve realized I still have a lot to learn.
In this blog, I want to share an experience that made me feel just like the man on the cruise – I thought I was the expert, but I ended up causing more pain.
A few weeks ago, I was about to head home from a group activity with my friends, when one of them got into a car accident as she was leaving. She identified that it was not her fault and the other driver hit her while speeding. Frightened, her first reaction was to come and tell me. I jumped at the opportunity to help my friend and solve her problem. As soon as I approached the scene, everything started happing so fast. First, I wanted to make sure everyone was safe, then I had to help move the vehicles to make way for traffic. After that, things started slowing down and I felt really good about myself because I thought I did a good thing.
Shortly after, the police arrived and told me they couldn’t decide who caused the accident because the vehicles were moved and there was no evidence of the initial crash. I completely forgot to take pictures! For that reason, my friend would have a difficult time proving innocence and would be held responsible for covering the cost of damages if found guilty. I then realized that I might have created a bigger problem.
Later, when I told my mentor (Dr. Dean Kashiwagi) about the incident, he was shocked that I didn’t come to him earlier. Dr. Dean was also at the activity, but it never occurred to me to ask for his help even though he’s very experienced with these types of car accidents and could have solved our problems much quicker.
One week later, the insurance faulted my friend for the accident and I felt even worse. How could I be so prideful and think I knew what to do and not utilize my mentor’s expertise?
What I Learned
After this incident, I vowed that I would not make the same mistake twice. I clearly have limitations. I am unable to tell when I know and don’t know. With that observation, I knew I had to change. First, I needed to humble myself and own up to the idea that I am not an expert. Secondly, I needed to create a new rule (or structure) to keep me from doing anything like this again. New rule:
Before I ever try to help someone, I should pause and see if I immediately know the solution. If I don’t know, or if I ever have to think or make a decision, I should immediately find an expert.
Applying My New Rule
It wasn’t very long before I had to implement the new rule. During lunch at our summer program, one of our students asked me for a spoon. Two minutes prior to this question, another instructor took half of the class to the cafeteria to purchase food. I found myself paused and thinking how I could solve her issue. A little impatient, my student made the comment that finding me a spoon shouldn’t be that hard since I have my PhD (meaning, “I am smart”). In that moment, I realized I needed to snap out of utilizing my expertise to solve her problem and ask the class. Another instructor immediately responded that I should call the other instructor to bring back spoons from the cafeteria. Amazing! Problem solved that fast. It was a solidifying moment for me that my default should be to utilize expertise instead of trying to be the expert.
Though this was one of my most embarrassing moments as an adult, I am grateful for it. I realized that I had to grow. I need to learn more about myself and better understand my strengths and weaknesses. Life is a progression, and everyone is growing. I’m never too old or too smart to ask for help. In fact, as I get older, the more I learn to value asking help from others.
With my new rule, I no longer need to worry about knowing everything or trying to solve everyone’s problems. It is much easier for me now to just point them toward the expert and let them solve their problem. The result: everyone is happy, less stressed, and efficiency and effectiveness are increased.