Arts, On Campus, Column

Remember To Ask The Stupid Questions

Be curious. Be nice. Be relentless.

On Tuesday evening, journalist Gareth Cook offered these words of advice to my magazine journalism class, after one student asked for the qualities that magazine and newspaper editors look for in potential writers. Cook, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his reporting on stem cell research, has written for publications such as The New York Times Magazine, the Boston Globe Ideas section, and He also serves as the series editor of The Best American Infographics, which was the basis for his lecture in Devlin on Tuesday night. Needless to say, this man had a resume that I could only dream of achieving. Luckily, Cook was able to speak with my class before the lecture, to give a background of his experience and answer any questions we had.

Sitting among other aspiring journalists, I found myself taking copious notes—his tips for writing a magazine story, how to actually find a story, and why we should always ask the “stupid questions.”

Hold up. We are constantly told that there are no stupid questions, yet here was an acclaimed journalist admitting that there are stupid questions—and that we shouldn’t be afraid to ask them. In Cook’s opinion, these types of questions may have seemingly obvious answers—those to which you thought you already knew the response. Asking the “stupid questions,” Cook argued, will always help you learn something.

For some reason, the first stupid question that came to my mind was: am I meant to be a journalist?

The question isn’t necessarily a stupid one—I’m a senior who’s trying to figure out what I want to do with my life, so questioning my career path isn’t exactly strange. What was strange to me, however, was that I still don’t know the answer to this question, despite the fact that journalism has been such an important part of my life for the past few years. From joining The Heights my freshman year, to my two summer journalism internships, the answer to this question should be pretty clear: I’m meant to be a journalist, because that’s what I’ve been preparing myself to do. Yes, people change career paths all the time, and Cook himself had no intentions of being a journalist in college (he studied international relations and mathematical physics at Brown). Despite all of these stories, I cannot imagine myself doing a 180 and completely changing my future plans. I still have a lingering feeling, however, that maybe there’s something out there that I would be better at—and maybe I’m not, after all, meant to be a journalist.

So, I put myself up to Cook’s hiring test. Am I curious? I would say so. I love being in classrooms, hearing people tell their stories, and searching random facts on the Internet. Am I nice? I’m known to be sassy on occasion (meriting the nickname “Lil’ Sassquatch” my freshman year), but I generally consider myself a nice person who’s easy to work with.

Am I relentless? It’s not a word that I would normally use to describe myself, but there are definitely some situations in which I would consider myself relentless. For example, when trying to get an interview for a story, or memorizing everything I possibly can for an exam. There are other times, however, that I could be more relentless. After receiving plenty of rejections from summer internships and programs, it was hard to get myself to keep applying, and to have faith that something would work out. Even in my daily life, I could probably be a bit more relentless—setting aside time to explore Boston has always been a struggle, and sometimes I give up after trying to set up coffee dates with friends week after week. It’s easy for me to be relentless in the short-term, but not so much in the long-term.

When thinking back on my years at Boston College, it’s no wonder I have difficulty with long-term goals. I’ve been constantly trained to meet deadlines, and live week by week—telling myself that “one day” I’ll do all the things on my BC bucket list. I might be relentless in my work ethic, but I could use some of that drive in other areas of my life. Even though it may not be one of my natural qualities, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth developing.

I was born with curiosity and kindness, but maybe I have to teach myself how to be relentless—and that’s okay. You don’t have to be born with the skills for your dream job—Cook himself went from zero journalism experience to Pulitzer Prize-winning status. It’s about the learning process, which doesn’t have to end once we leave our classrooms at BC.

And remember: always be curious. Be kind. Try to be relentless. And don’t forget to ask the stupid questions.

Featured Image by Huifeng Qian / Heights Staff

"Michelle Tomassi is a senior at Boston College and a former editor for The Heights. She can often be found people-watching in the Chocolate Bar, so stop by and visit her (and maybe even share a big cookie)."

October 23, 2014

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Remember To Ask The Stupid Questions”

  1. This article hit two main points for me. First is to always ask
    stupid questions and second is to be relentless. I am afraid to ask the stupid
    questions for fear of being thought of as, well, stupid. I was speaking with
    one of my professors recently and I told him that sometimes I have questions
    during the lecture but I’m afraid to ask. I don’t want my classmates to think I
    don’t understand the material that they all do. He said that if I am confused
    then there is probably someone else who has questions as well so I should ask
    the question. Even after his encouragement, I am still struggling with asking
    those ‘stupid’ questions. I wish I weren’t but I am going to continue to try to
    ask those stupid questions not just in class but in life as well. The other
    thing that I liked was the point of relentlessness. I think long term goals are
    difficult at this point in my life. Obviously one is to graduate from BC but I do
    that by meeting short term goals. I study for a test that is in a few days, do
    homework each night and when finals come, I study for those for a couple of
    weeks. There is not something that is very consistent throughout the entire
    semester let alone multiple years. I want to make more long term goals and I
    want to achieve them over time. I think that long term goals are met in small
    amounts but I have loads of short term goals and only one long term goal. This
    article brought to the forefront of my mind some things that I need to think about
    and improve upon. I like reflecting on these self-improvements and self-accomplishments
    so I really enjoyed this article!

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