migrated from blogger – original post dated April 13, 2008

Years ago I worked for a division of Marriott in the customer service department. Our offices sat above a large warehouse and trucks delivered dry and frozen goods to Marriott hotels and other clients (such as Outback Steakhouse) throughout the Bay Area. Vendors were always vying for our attention, and as a result, one day we received a visit from Douwe Egbert and the entire customer service department was taken down to their fancy van to sip coffee and listen to their presentation.

As I sipped my coffee, liberally dosed with creamer and sugar, the representative kept using the term ‘liquid coffee’ over and over. No one said anything and I just sat there confused until about the third or fourth repetition of the phrase. I raised my hand in the middle of his spiel and he stopped and said, “Yes?”

Feeling rather dense I asked, “I’m sorry, but you keep saying ‘liquid coffee’. Coffee in this form IS liquid, so I’m a little confused.”

The rep, bless his soul, looked surprised and rather sheepish. He thanked me for my question and commented that he was very happy I had spoken up. He then explained that he had been using a term that described a process that Douwe Egbert had been a leader in developing. They (Douwe Egbert) distill a condensed extract of coffee, keep it free of air or other agents that cause the bitter aftertaste in coffee, and re-constitute it with water for a fresh tasting coffee, that lasts longer and stores easily. But they were so used to the product, so used to using those suave terms like ‘liquid coffee’ that until I asked my question, this rep had been telling large groups of clients the same thing over and over. How many of them had not bothered to ask for fear of looking stupid?

Later in the day, several of my co-workers came to me and thanked me for asking the question. Each and every one of them admitted that they too had not known what he was talking about, but they had been too embarrassed to ask. It made me wonder just how many of us don’t ask questions, don’t put ourselves out there, for fear of looking ‘dumb’ or ‘asking a stupid question’. How many of us, when given instructions by our boss to do something just nod and then go away and stall on a project, because we don’t know how to do it, but don’t want to appear ignorant by telling the boss we need help?

Like that nice coffee rep, I too experienced an “oh, duh” moment a few years later. As a student of Rockhurst, I was expected to make an end of term presentation in my Theology class. I chose to speak about Joseph Campbell, the author of “The Hero’s Journey” who I had studied in depth a few years prior to the Theology class. I stood up in front of my class and spoke extensively about Campbell and his theories and how they had affected my views on faith and religion.

I finished my speech and I was so pleased with how well I had done, I hadn’t lost my place in my notes or forgotten the different points I wanted to make. That is until someone in the back raised his hand and said, “That was very nice but who is Joseph Campbell?” And right on cue, most of the rest of the class nodded and murmured the same question.

I had assumed, just as the coffee rep had done, that everyone knew about Joseph Campbell. It was a nice wake-up call and it reminded me that you have to lay the groundwork. Introduce a person, speak of their background, define a term, and describe the process it takes to get there. Without groundwork, others have no idea what you do or what you are talking about, and they lose focus on the important part of your message.

I’ve said before in my post “I Get to Be ME” that I was often referred to as the ‘know it all’. And it was at that very job with Marriott that I was labeled such. And while it bothered me to be labeled that way, it mattered far less than my quest for knowledge and willingness to share my knowledge did. I would rather put myself out there and be the ‘know it all’ because I asked or cared enough about my job and my co-workers to share the knowledge than to be the one who sat there quietly and said nothing when I did not understand. Knowledge should be freely given and received on both sides.

Ask and learn. Jump off the cliff and open your eyes to the knowledge, opportunities and life around you. Don’t be afraid, just open your mouth and ASK!