The Fear of Looking Dumb

By Milli Thornton

During orientation in the Fear of Writing Online Course there’s a lesson called “A Tip for Avoiding Self-Induced Torture in the Student Forums.” This is where I ask students not to read other students’ assignments before they write their own. Here’s why, in the words of one of the students who did it anyway:

I do have to admit that I have looked at posts prior to writing mine. By doing that, I think I did myself and my fellow students a disservice. I did not allow my imagination to take over. Instead, I felt stifled, stuck within the words of others. I was in a box and could not think outside of that box.

Why would students do this to themselves, even though I warn them ahead of time by quoting the regrets of several bygone students (and with a well-placed graphic of a Renaissance man with a noose around his neck)?

Because they fear looking dumb.

In a panic over not understanding some written directions, instead of getting help from their very own personal course presenter, students will secretly go read the assignments of other students in an attempt to figure it out alone.

After running this course for 10+ years, I did not realize how deep this fear ran until recently, when some of my grad students have been discussing it in a student forum. I was shocked to know they were still subjecting themselves to that self-induced torture—especially because I post all over the place in neon lights that students need to get help if they have a question or problem. And we’re very friendly and approachable when students need help.

It’s our pleasure to help.

But the fear of looking dumb is powerful. So powerful that people will stay alone with it rather than risk exposing the innocent detail that they didn’t understand an assignment. I always feel very sad when I see this.

Next time you’re having fear that you don’t understand something, try reaching out. Naturally, pick your mark. Don’t go to someone who you already know (or suspect) will make you feel stupid. But do take the risk. Staying alone with your questions out of a fear of looking dumb can come with a very high price.

There’s nothing dumb about getting help. Only in cutting yourself off from it.

———Milli Thornton, owner, Fear of Writing Online Course

Milli Thornton is the author of Fear of Writing: for writers & closet writers. She is owner of the Fear of Writing Online Course, where her mission is to put the fun back into writing. Milli also blogs at Milliver’s Travels and she coaches writers at Write More Words.