Don’t worry about having good ideas, but about asking good questions

Think about the last good idea you had. Could it have been better if you had taken more time to ask a good question in the first place?

Good ideas, most of the time, come from questions we ask about the world around us. However, most people continue to ask basic or even obvious questions, even when the answers are right in front of them.

Asking obvious questions helps us navigate everyday life, it’s true. Often that’s all we want to know, and that’s okay. “What’s the name of the actor in that movie?”, “What’s the weather forecast for tomorrow?”, or “what’s the address of the Italian restaurant your friend recommended?”. But we also need questions that give us depth. In the book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein explains that the more we know about a subject, the greater our ability to ask good questions because we manage to go beyond the obvious and superficial.

“The problem is not so much to see what nobody has yet seen, as to think what nobody has yet thought concerning that which everybody sees.” — Schopenhauer

I’ve attended meetings where precious time was wasted discussing, in the middle of the pandemic, what was the correct pronunciation of a company’s product name, as if that would make a difference. Priorities were completely neglected, especially at a time of crisis, not to mention the total lack of respect for other people’s time. It is even difficult to disagree with historian Yuval Harari when he says that in the future there will be the “useless class”. In 1996, when asked about the impact of the internet on society, Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, alerted us to this same scenario:

“We live in an information economy, but I don’t believe we live in an information society. People are thinking less than they used to. It’s primarily because of television. People are reading less and they’re certainly thinking less. So, I don’t see most people using the Web to get more information. We’re already in information overload. No matter how much information the Web can dish out, most people get far more information than they can assimilate anyway.”

So what would be a good solution for information overload?

I am fascinated by a concept that has gained strength: curation — whether for content or knowledge — the role of filtering quality content is increasingly essential. In a sea of information and hashtags, curators are a beacon that guides us towards the port of knowledge, shortening distances. The wonderful thing is that, in a way, we can all be curators. Each person becomes a lens through which they can see the world, democratizing and humanizing knowledge.

“It doesn’t matter how smart you are unless you stop and think.” — Thomas Sowell

However, complex as the world is, we will hardly have good ideas if we do not have the ability to look around us and ask ourselves what is happening and better formulate our problems. We still have many miles ahead of us and, for me, it all starts with our education. During my Master’s degree, one of the most curious things I’ve learned was about the “scientific question”. I thought: how is it possible that something as essential as knowing how to ask a good question is not taught in school?

As a teacher, I saw teaching as a whole take one of the biggest hits in history with the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of students and teachers confined to their homes, overnight. The impact was such that it took a few weeks of forced breaks just to understand what was happening. Disoriented by the blow, there were no protocols to follow or references to what could be done in such a situation. Nothing like this appeared in the study handouts, used to “prepare students for the future”.

In this scenario, many schools simply asked themselves “can we keep classes online so we don’t compromise the school year?”. Pay attention to the question: the focus is not on students or teachers, but on saving the assembly line that we call the school year. The first answer, as usual, was enough: a digital reproduction of reality, where the teacher speaks and the students listen, but remotely. The result of this was to be expected: classes that were already discouraging and monotonous, but now with the possibility of the student turn off the camera, deactivate the microphone, and continue to sleep while teachers talks to themselves.

Now, imagine another scenario, where the question was: “how can we take this opportunity to change, work on other student skills and transform classes into a more stimulating environment?”. Changing the focus to the student and learning, the possibilities for solving this issue are completely different. In my opinion, answering this question not only solves the problem but also makes students happy and teachers more motivated. Everyone wins.

Curiosity as your biggest ally

With computers getting better at giving answers, we need people who can ask good questions. Perhaps soon enough, hearing from your son that he wants to be a philosopher will no longer be a reason for professional concern, as computers only answer what they are asked, and Philosophy may turn out to be one of the most needed professions in the near future. With increasingly plural and complex societies, we will have an urgent need to answer philosophical questions, such as morality, conscience, and the meaning of life. I have no doubt that computers will help us find these answers, but it’s up to us to ask good questions.

The world needs more curious people. Curiosity builds knowledge; you need to know a little bit about something to want to learn more. If we are to become a society that believes in creativity as fuel for progress and innovation, we need to cultivate and recognize that as inquiring minds are our most valuable asset. So, how to make more people hungry to learn, question, and create?

Whole lives can be guided by curiosity. The question is tasted, moment by moment. It takes a passionate commitment to fully understand something, to chew it calmly rather than just swallowing it whole.

And here comes the surprise: the answer to a good question can often seem rather obvious. “I can’t believe that nobody thought about this before”, we ask. But it will hardly be obvious to most people, simply because they weren’t thinking about the question.

We have to learn to devote efforts, over a long period of time, to ponder difficult issues and generate alternative solutions to complicated problems. Being able to connect experiences and synthesize new things. In this sense, explore questions such as “what could be?” helps us to think about the future we want, while “what could have been?” provides an understanding so that we do not repeat the same mistakes of the past.

“I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein

Asking questions is a way of thinking. But the next time you ask one, think about what kind of question you are asking. The difference is clear: obvious questions have this immediacy character and usually the first answer satisfies. On the other hand, questions out of curiosity generate new questions when answered; they grow inside your head, insatiable, transforming what it ingests into knowledge and learning.

With all the knowledge we’ve accumulated, the frontiers of the unknown expand to unimaginable places: from galaxies thousands of light-years away to subatomic particles; from questions like “where do we come from?” to “where are we going?”. Now, more than ever, we need all the good questions we can ask if we are to solve our society’s complex problems and build a better future for all.

If we are not able to ask good questions, what can we expect of our good ideas?

P.S.: Are you curious and want to know more? Excellent! Here is a curatorship of content for you to go deeper into the subject.

Books:

Berger, W. (2019). A More Beautiful Question. New York, Bloomsbury Publishing.

Firestein, S. (2012). Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Leslie, I. (2014). Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It. New York, Basic Books.

Nixon, N. (2020). The Creativity Leap: unleash curiosity, improvisation, and intuition at work. Oakland, Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

TEDx:

Steven Johnson — Where good ideas come from?

Mike Vaughan — How to Ask Better Questions

Dan Moulthrop — The Art Of Asking Questions

Giovanni Corazza — Fast Changes require Slow Thinking

This is a translation of the original version available at O Futuro das Coisas (the future of things).

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