The basic principles of Stack Overflow are to:

  • ask and get answers, and
  • read and answer questions.

I'm good at asking, but when it comes to answering questions I feel like a fool because I lack the skills and/or knowledge. Unfortunately I feel constrained to answer questions because otherwise I feel as if I am cheating on the principles of the site.

To make a long story short, I feel like a dumbass and get proven to be one by not being able to answer questions. There must be a way out of that psychological struggle.

  • For those interested, here is his SO account stackoverflow.com/users/137939/pr0wl Aug 7, 2009 at 15:55
  • 2
    Grats, you got yourself a question with more upvotes than answers! That's a great start to join the community. Very often giving good answers in here, just like anywhere else, is more about having the skills to blend in and use words rather than being the upmost expert on the subject. ;)
    – cregox
    Dec 7, 2010 at 16:08
  • You're not cheating the principles of the site, don't worry. A good number of users never ask any questions, either (EGO!!)
    – bobobobo
    May 1, 2012 at 2:44

8 Answers 8


The flip side of tinkertim's answer is that if people did not expect to get good answers, they would not come to the site to ask questions.

I would recommend starting small, choosing one specific tag where you are confident about your knowledge and posting reasonable answers that add something to the discussion even if your answer is not the first one or the most perfect.

To this date, my highest scoring answer is a quick analogy which I thought was clever but I did not expect that people would like it that much.

I certainly did not put as much effort in to that answer as I did into discovering the details of accessing a PowerPoint document using Perl's Win32::OLE.

So, try your hand at a few questions in an area you know, put effort into your answers, don't post answers just to fish for votes and know that the site could not exist without a steady supply of both good questions and good answers.

  • +2 if I could, a very interesting flip side to what I was thinking.
    – user50049
    Dec 4, 2009 at 15:41

Hang in there.

You'll come across a question that you will be able to answer. And then, then the fun starts.

And then the cursing about not being the Fastest Gun in the West. And at other times, you'll beam in that glow when you are the quickest draw and answer.

Bide your time, you'll find the questions you can answer.


It's very hard to tell how valuable good questions are to the Stack Overflow community. This is because you can not document a negative - you can not hope to know how many people had your question and found valuable answers without having to ask.

There is no chicken / egg contemplation here, Stack Overflow is fueled by questions. If there were no questions there would be no answers.

I know that you feel like you want / should participate on both ends of the spectrum, however you should realize that quality, well articulated questions are worth twice their weight in gold.

In my opinion, the 'one way' effect is attributed only to people who constantly search Stack Overflow to get what they need, but do not participate in either fashion. Really, please don't feel like a leech for asking good questions, they make the site work.


I can relate to that. However, people visiting the site in the future with the same question as yours will be very grateful that you did ask, and there'll be some good answers. It's worth asking just for them.


The one thing that makes SO stand out is the fact that people can vote on your Questions and not just Answers. So by asking a lot of questions that people like, you can also gain reputation.

I am sure a analysis of the data dump will show a lot of people are only asking questions that have a rep over a 1000 and hardly if ever answer questions.

  • "vote on your Questions and not just Answers" - good point.
    – pr0wl
    Aug 7, 2009 at 13:46
  • 2
    There's reasons why we vote on questions, and why we have badges for good questioners. They're valuable. Aug 7, 2009 at 13:51

The way out of your psychological struggle, as you put it, is to realize that (so far) although possible to do there is no "score" based on:

Days or times logged in vs questions asked / questions answered/ searches performed (and or results read)

If the good folks running Stack Overflow believed that was important, and somehow was contributing to the success of the site, it would be getting tracked and prominently displayed with the user name like reputation, badges, etc. Since there is no Q/A ratio, etc., there should be no struggle.

Sometimes a good question contributes a lot more than providing many answers.

In fact, it's usually harder to pose a question than answering, much like the example I like to use with libraries and web searches. All the information is out there, if you know what you are looking for and how to look for it.

Since you are on subject of feelings, there have been times that I tried to find the answer to a SO question myself by doing a search on Google/Dogpile/etc. and, sure enough, the answer is out there.

I believe SO is used by some/many/most as a shortcut way of receiving an answer quicker than a search. On the bright side, this accumulates a whole bunch of direct Q and A threads which is what makes SO successful to the good folks running Stack Overflow.

So you see, there is nothing to feel bad about.


That's ok. Some people aren't very good at asking questions. For example, Jon Skeet has been here twice as long as you have but he's asked approximately the same number of questions.


Both asking good questions and answering well are valuable things on SO, and you shouldn't feel bad because you only do one of them well. The SO vision includes not only people who know stuff helping people who don't, but building up a knowledge base, and questions are a vital part of that.

In general, if you don't think you can come up with a helpful answer, don't try. Perhaps comment on the answers that are already there, if you have something to say. If you try to answer a question and fail badly, you're not really helping. Remember, also, that all of us were ignorant and intimidated once, and that's no disgrace.

But don't feel bad because you only do some useful things really well.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .