on feeling stupid

I started reading a book last week on the train. As you do. My journey took two and three quarter hours and, in that time, I read one and a half chapters. I am normally a fast reader and so this was very slow going for me. What’s more, not only was I slow, but I didn’t entirely understand what I was reading. And because of that, I felt stupid. 

I’m writing this because I want you to know that most of us have the experience of reading a book that make us feel a bit dim, a book that we struggle to make sense of. This is not just something that happens during the PhD. It keeps going… 

So why was this happening to me? Well, let’s take the book I’m reading as an example. I had read the two separate social theories that the author was bringing together. I understood one of them pretty well and had used it extensively in my own work. The other theory I’d used a little bit and while I’m not entirely comfortable with it, I have written with it and I have taught about it. So if I knew the two source theories, the book should have been a doddle.  But it wasn’t. That’s because the book brought the two theories together in a way that was very unfamiliar to me.

This wasn’t the first book that the author had written on the topic. This was the most recent in a series of papers and books that established their particular line of argument. So in beginning with the latest book, rather than at the beginning of the writings, I was entering a world of the writer’s thinking that was now relatively advanced. Ideas that they might have taken 8000 words to explain in an early paper were now a couple of tightly argued pages – or even less. I was trying to get into, and onto, a scholarly agenda which had taken the author some ten years to build up.

However, even though it took me a long time to read relatively few words, I still didn’t grasp all of them. My strategy however was not to slow down until everything was completely crystal clear. I didn’t stop on each page until I felt I had understood every last point. I tried to get just enough understanding from each page to keep moving on.

14566402108_f8fb9e5bd6_zWhy? Well, this was a book where the author introduced all the elements of the framework in the first two chapters; the rest of the book unpacked the framework elaborating each key element in more detail. As I struggled through the first chapters, one of the things that I held onto, while also feeling pretty dull witted, was that the ideas that I only dimly grasped would probably become much clearer by the end of the eight chapters.

Furthermore, because this was an academic book, I knew that there would be some repetition of key ideas. I thought it was pretty likely that the author would continue to sum up the various moves of the argument, providing potted summaries at strategic intervals, and at the end of each chapter.

Nevertheless,  and now three chapters in, I still don’t get it all, but I get the general drift.

So why am I persisting? Well, it’s because the topic the book addresses is something that is germane to a bit of research I’m doing. The author claims, as far as I can tell from the introduction, to be offering a way to get through some of the murky conceptual territory I’m encountering. So I owe it to my research project to give the book a go. My existing theoretical resources aren’t up to the job, as my several attempts at writing have demonstrated. I need to try to find something that will help me get through the impasse even if the reading simply sparks off a new train of thought of my own.

As scholars we don’t ever stop doing hard thinking work. While you and I can probably all point to some people who’ve been dining out for years on the same bit of initial PhD thinking, the scholars that we admire have continued to grapple with difficult ideas. 

That feeling of being as thick as, of wading through treacle, of just not seeing where this is going, that almost being there but not quite, that understanding just out of reach, that almost formed sentence on the edge of your tongue… this is what most of us keep doing throughout our academic careers.That almost-but-not-there is actually our thinking being pushed. Being stuck and feeling stupid is entirely necessary if we are to continue to grow and make meaningful contributions to scholarly conversations. 

Vygotsky, the Russian pedagogical theorist, had a name for this not knowing state, the zone of proximal development (ZPD). He said that our learning is likely to be at its greatest when we are working at the outer limits of what we can think and do. The ZPD is not a comfort zone. It’s likely to be quite discomforting. But is is a place where we can learn a lot*.

The major difference between more experienced academics and doctoral researchers is not that we are more clever. We are just more experienced at being out of our depth, more accustomed to feeling stupid. We’ve had to work through the I-don’t-get-this to the now-I-understand before. We know that getting-through will probably be what happens if we hang in there and don’t give up. Even when, as is the case for me with this book, the text isn’t that well written and I could easily give up on the grounds that it’s obscure. Less than sparkling writing doesn’t mean that the ideas in the book aren’t worth the effort.

I’m kept going by the thought that not-knowing is a necessary precursor to knowing-a-bit. Not-knowing is not a reason to fret.  Rather, it’s a time when you need to have some good strategies to carry you along so you don’t get stalled

During my PhD I used to write down key words so I could remember them. I found myself on the train doing something almost the same with this difficult book so I could remember the strange acronyms used by the author. And having examined the structure of the book to know what it offered, understanding that I could expect meta commentary and signposting, and writing a list of acronyms and their meanings, these strategies meant that I could read on, albeit slowly and without complete understanding.

So here’s to feeling a bit on the dense side. It’s all good. Stupid is good.

Bring on the next train journey. I still have five chapters to go.


  • Vygostky argued that learning in the ZPD generally required some strategic assistance from a teacher. This may not be available to us as adult researchers. However, talking over a tricky text is always a good idea, as is having our own repertoire of reading strategies.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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6 Responses to on feeling stupid

  1. Lizzie Ette says:

    I SO identified with the feeling in this post! I am currently writing up (only) a Masters dissertation based on findings from a small grounded theory based study and have had to tolerate that feeling of dim-witedness throughout the entire process, but have learned so much from it! I also now, after reading your post, have made the connection between ‘out of comfort zone’ and ZPD – I will think of you and Vygotsky every time I see that drawing of ‘where the magic happens’!! Thanks, I really enjoy your posts Pat!


  2. Mariette says:

    This makes so much sense, I know the feeling all too well, thanks for sharing and contextualizing 🙂


  3. Janice Miller-Young says:

    Thank you for this highly useful blog which makes the messiness of the research process visible!


  4. Pat, Thanks for sharing your experience. I have been reading about the concept of liminality and your post reminded me of the work of Meyer and Land (2005). The authors use the term to describe a space of transformation in learning in which the learner moves from one state of understanding to another. This change is often accompanied, they say, by a change in practice and can be disconcerting or uncomfortable. Some of what you wrote reminds me of that space in which you are somewhere in-between old understandings and new ones. It is indeed uncomfortable and we jump too quickly to the ‘feel stupid’ mode.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Kasia says:

    Yep, wish I’d realised this a LONG time ago – thanks so much Pat


  6. Helen Fitt says:

    Hi Pat,

    I hope you might like to know that I have just forwarded a link to this blog post to a second year undergraduate class who are grappling with learning their own critical reading skills.

    I’ve been trying to encourage them to recognise struggle as an important part of learning and one that indicates growth rather than stupidity (I have been influenced quite a lot by Carol Dweck).

    I have been emphasising that even their Professors struggle (even though the students may not see it). Your post is brilliant support to that idea, and I will keep it in my ‘useful things for teaching’ folder for future classes.

    Thanks for sharing,


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