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Outline: Stop nagging people with unnecessary, irrelevant questions. No one has either the time or the patience to do it. Learn how to “desenrascar” and improve your learning skills exponentially with the following pretty straightforward techniques, including Matt Ringel’s famous 15 Minutes Rule.

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Desenrascar is a Portuguese term that means the act of disentangling yourself from a difficult situation using available resources. A desenrascado is someone who knows how and where to find answers to questions that aren’t immediately obvious and is able to execute efficiently, that is, to solve the problem, even when the available resources are scarce.

Desenrascados are not as common as they should be. People working in customer support usually find themselves helping their customers solving problems that could be easily solved by googling those problems before immediately picking up the phone and calling for help.

Students tend to behave in the same way in their classes: at the first sign of confusion, many students almost instantaneously ask for help from the professor or someone sitting next to them.

It was as if they expected every single concept to “click” right away – and when one didn’t, they’d immediately go into panic mode. This is the behaviour
of toddlers. It is not what a student who has made it into college should do and the ones who do it should be punished:

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Examples of stupid questions made by students (source: compilation of comments found on reddit.com):

  1. In class we were discussing the hole in the ozone layer. Some girl blurts out “Oh! That is the hole that the space shuttle flies through, right?”
  2. We had a big presentation near the end of my 4th year of high school. It was one of those, “Things to know before you graduate” type things. One of the topics was choosing your area of study for college/university. One kid said, “I’m not a liberal, and my dad is pretty conservative. Am I still allowed go to school for liberal arts?”
  3. Our 9th grade English teacher was collecting food and stuff to send to Japan after the tsunami, namely rice. A girl raised her hand and asked if it was to soak up all the water. The teacher’s look of disappointment could be felt down to her soul.
  4. “Wait, volcanoes are real? I thought they were made up.” This was a high school freshman…
  5. In my World History class, a student was put on the spot and mumbled out the following question, “wait, did food exist back then?”. My teacher simply said, “Nope. The ancient Greeks used photosynthesis.” I think he probably meant to ask, “did they prepare food back then.” But still, I’ve never seen a guy blush so hard.
  6. We were discussing forest fires that were going on somewhere in the midwest at the time, and a girl asked, “How can the fires keep burning for more than one day? Do they start back up again every morning?” She literally thought that fires only burn in the daytime. This was in a college class.
  7. “Hey teacher, how many seconds are in a meter?”
  8. The following exchange took place in my grade 11 history class. We were discussing Egypt, and one girl actually said: “Egypt really exists? I thought it was just some place from Jimmy Neutron.” Somebody else in the class also spoke up, saying, “What do you mean place, I thought Egypt was a religion.”
  9. I’ll never forget this moment. Now given this was in the eighth grade, but still… a girl asked me how to spell “GPS”. Yes, English is her first language and yes, she still takes crap for it 5 years later.
  10. Girl in my high school earth science class felt compelled to ask this one: “Where does the sun go at night?”

 

So what can you do about it?

The questions aforementioned are extreme examples of people who did not think things through (and some are pure ignorance, sure).

There is a way of avoiding making unnecessary questions to both your peers and teachers that can also help you immensely improving your information retention skills. Let’s talk about the 15-Minute Rule by Matt Ringel:

If you’re stuck on a problem, take a solid 15 minutes to bash your brain against it in whatever manner you see fit. However, if you still don’t have an answer after those 15 minutes, you must ask someone for help.”

This rule is key to learn and gain the respect of your colleagues in the workplace, as you risk annoying the hell out of your boss, co-workers, and anyone else near you if you don’t. You’re being paid to add value to your organization and find solutions, not to waste other people’s time.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean you should ask for help every time you can understand something straight away. If you really can’t solve a problem, then sitting there grinding away on it for too long just wastes your time and the money the company is paying you. Hence the “first try, then ask” mantra. Matt’s post lays out a great framework for applying this:

  1. When you get stuck, push yourself for 15 minutes in order to solve the problem. You are no longer under pressure and this is your opportunity to relax a bit and look at the problem from a different perspective. That will be the last time you try to solve it on your own, so you either end up solving it or quit and ask for someone’s help;
  2. During those 15 minutes, keep track of everything you do, always bearing in mind that someone else will need to know exactly what you don’t know so that they can be helpful. Taking notes when you are looking at the problem one more time may help. The way you take notes is up to you, but make sure everything is crystal clear for someone who never saw the problem before. Consequently, you may eventually figure out what you actually didn’t understand in the beginning and not need help after all. As it is true that you should not ask immediately for help until you are 100% sure you can’t solve the problem on your own, it’s also true that you should not just straight call someone. Take a 10-15 min break, drink some coffee, have a quick snack. Most likely you will see some light in the problem or be back refreshed with another point of view.
  3. After that time, and only after that, if you’re still stuck, you must ask for help. Even though that’s necessary, since you couldn’t figure it out on your own, which is not a big deal since we are humans after all, you won’t learn as much as when you do the breakthrough for yourself. This does not mean that you should never call your colleague, because knowledge sharing is awesome. Ask for advice, it can really change your perspective. But if you do that all the time you can’t solve a problem, then you will never truly know what are your intellectual capabilities and will not be able to develop them as well.

This can be applied not only to a job, but also to classes as well. While you’re not being paid for the work you do in class, the situation is identical to what you face in an intellectually challenging job:

  • You face hard tasks that must be completed, which have answers that are not immediately understandable;
  • You, your peers and your professor have limited time and patience.

If you use the desenrascado mind-set in your classes, you’ll develop a strong learning habit that’ll serve you well as you move forward in life, helping you studying smarter, not harder. You’ll also save your professors’ time and make them like you more.

There’s a specific application of this mind-set – when you have to work through a complex idea one sentence at a time in order to “crack” it. If you really can’t find a solution for a certain problem, it’s time to ask someone for help. However, before you do, ask yourself this question: What is it that I don’t understand?

This means that you should never go to your professor or peer without trying to analyse exhaustively not only the problem itself in all of its components, but most importantly which were your reasoning fallacies that lead to incomprehension.

Rather, when you ask for help, you should be able to show the professor all that you do understand up to an exact point – and even show what you understand afterwards – and pinpoint exactly what in the material you don’t understand.

By doing this, you show the professor that you’ve really wrestled with the problem. Doing this has several benefits:

  1. You save the professor’s time and patience and help them understand the exact context of your problem;
  2. The professor knows that you actually give a shit and will have a much better impression of you;
  3. By fighting tenaciously the problem, you might solve it yourself before you need to annoy anyone.

So don’t forget to use this technique the next time you’re having issues on a problem or reading a difficult textbook. It’s as Sherlock Holmes said to Watson: “You see, but you do not observe.” You might have seen the problem and decided upon its difficulty intuitively, but have you really observed and analysed thoroughly every single detail? Have you figured out exactly what you do and don’t understand about it?

15 minute rule

Why is this important?

Matt listed several reasons why you should care:

  1. Your paid hours are costing someone money.That time you spend trying to learn what you don’t know will cost someone’s time, and time is money. Ultimately, the only person affected can be you, so watch out.
  2. Some of your colleagues will help you because they identify themselves with your situation. People recognize that is normal to have doubts – we are all humans after all. So expecting that people will be willing to help you is not unreasonable. Your peers will know that if you’re there asking for help it’s because you already tried really hard to solve it but unfortunately you didn’t make it, so they will try to extinguish your incomprehension;
  3. You have to build strong relationships with who you work with, so that both parts can benefit from mutual trust and knowledge – a helping hand is always useful. This eventually can turn into a virtuous cycle.

The main benefit of becoming a desenrascado will be that by explicitly taking enough time, everyone saves time. So, be wise when to be stubborn and when to call for help. But, remind always to pause, because that will do wonders.

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