I try my best to never assume anything. This, of course, is impractical and rarely fully implemented at the pace of the real world. As humans, our instinct is to judge. Biologically, our gut prompts us to make decisions quickly. We adopt a broad set of contextual heuristics that we use to efficiently categorize and process foreign concepts.
This grouping takes places any time we meet a new person, enter a new environment, attempt to learn a new trade, etc.
Of course, it is really hard to enter a foreign interaction/setting and resist the urge to judge. It is hard to not assume things.
I think the most common example of this in practice relates to the interactions we have when we meet someone for the first time. We tend to judge others by their appearances (their race, what clothes they wear, their gender, etc.), in addition to how they act, how they speak, and what they say.
As the old mantra goes, it is probably best to flat out “avoid judging books by their covers.” But, as I have written before, I do not think “all judgement is bad.” Indeed, it is human nature to judge. Rather, I think that unfair judgement is bad. We should do our best to observe the truth and make decisions on that without skewing the results.
So is this a contradiction? Can we avoid judging while still ascertaining the truth?
I think the answer is to avoid making assumptions wherever possible. I add the addendum – wherever possible – because I do believe there are many circumstances, especially in the high-speed environment of a startup, where you do have to go with your gut. You do need some irrational conviction in an idea that you are really passionate about. And there are times where you just have to go for it – pursue your vision, take the leap of faith, etc. You do have to assume you know the outcome of a situation when reality says that you often really do not.
Those circumstances aside, I think, really, you should give your best effort to uncover the truth.
And that includes asking questions. Even obvious questions. Because the quicker you can understand context, the better. The quicker you understand the whole picture, the better decisions you can make.
I think generally, with some very real exceptions, more information leads to better decisions. The assumption here is that you can do a good job filtering and finding the truth. That being said, if you have complete information, you will find better answers.
So why does this matter?
I think we assume so many things in our daily lives…that we often glaze over the obvious questions. Further…it is not just the obvious questions…it is the semi-obvious questions that plague us.
These are the items that are *assumed* to be obviously understood by all participating parties but are clearly not.
It is like when you join a new company. You have to race quickly to try and understand complete context. This is the only way, as an intern even, that you will be able to contribute meaningfully to the team – if you make decisions without information you will likely get them wrong. This is often really hard, but still possible.
And it is really only possible if you come in without bad assumptions. Or if you have assumptions, to be clear that you are willing to divorce them to learn the truth.
You have surely been in a situation where people are referencing something you know you should know but you still do not. You could have avoided this problem by asking a question a few weeks ago, but now you will look silly not having asked it earlier.
The same is true in the opposite scenario.
You have someone new on your team and you are making references to things they likely do not understand. Lots of people will nod, pretending to accept information like they already know it. There is a high chance they do not.
That is why acronyms suck. That is why holding on to too much undocumented tribal knowledge can be so dangerous to companies. As you scale, it becomes increasingly harder for people to onboard. There is more information for people to process and gain proper context on.
I think this problem is rooted in assumptions.
So this essay is really a note to self – avoid assuming things when the truth is possible to ascertain.
Ironically, this may sound obvious to most people. I think it is…but in practice it is really hard to actually do. Most people are afraid of asking questions. So we assume things.
Sometimes this does not matter.
But sometimes it does.
It can be hard to realize this value until you mess up. Until you mess up big time.
You assume something would be done by someone else until they do not do it.
I have learned this lesson over and over across tons of experiences – even from years back. I still make this mistake.
I think experienced product people, especially, are not afraid to ask obvious questions. They do not bother you, they do not ask the same question over and over.
Rather, they ask once. Learn the truth. And then make a decision.
A bad product person, or just bad learner in general, will not ask up front. Or they will ask a bad question without really understanding the answer. They will then act. They will mess up. Then they will ask again. The cycle repeats until they finally get to the root answer.
This could all be avoided by talking to the right person at the right time.
This simple example demonstrates why communication skills are so critically important throughout one’s career. Sometimes an email, a note, or a quick conversation can make a massive difference.
Also published on Medium.