A Simply Beautiful Question

For six years, I worked in the United States Congress.

And Congress, like most any large body, trades in its own unique batch of acronyms and idioms. Call Leg Counsel! Did House and Senate SFOPs come in at the same level? Ask CRS about MCC FY2010-14 funding.

Sure, sometime it’s a time saver. But more, it’s a big signifier - your insider status is denoted, in part, by your ability to match jargon for jargon.

But here’s one thing I saw senior staffers in Congress do again and again. In meetings, as Capitol Hill parlance was flying fast and furious, these staffers paused the conversation and asked four simple words: “What does that mean?”

Sure, they had the status to do it; if they didn’t know, likely no one knew. But ego is a mighty force; looking smart is a look many like to wear. These staffers, though, were more interested in being informed than looking informed.

The junior staffers would glance up from their gibberish notes with relief. The people who had been talking would explain the long acronym rope. Or, as sometimes happened, they would fumble in umms and ahhs because they themselves didn’t actually know, or could only explain it as well as they could define the word “it.”

I came to love, “What does that mean?” Came to love how it cut through all the hocus-pocus, how it privileged knowing over the facade of knowing. And I came to love the generosity of it. Because nearly any time someone asks it, there’s someone else wondering the exact same thing.

I use, “What does that mean"?” regularly now. I’d like to use it more. Sometimes I’ve got to assemble courage to ask, because I think I should know, am supposed to know, as though knowing denotes my insider status.

But then I remember that honesty and generosity are more important to me than being seen as in-the-know. Plus anyone who values me because I’m in-the-know isn’t worth my time.

So let’s give ourselves permission to ask, “What does that mean?” Which is really giving ourselves permission to care more about understanding than looking smart.

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