Schools train us to provide the right answers to predefined questions. Yet anyone with experience from the real world knows that, more often than not, the difficult part is to find the right question.
To make a remarkable contribution, you need to start by asking the right question. I will go further than this: the questions you are asking might define who you are.
What is a good question?
- The great questions are tractable and fruitful. They lead you on a path of discovery. It is easy to ask how to cure cancer, but that’s not a good question because it does not help anyone do medical research.
- Secret questions are the best: if you are the only one with this question in mind, then you may be holding a gold mine. Questions that everyone is having are proportionally worthless. (E.g., see Zero to One by Peter Thiel)
You may think that by studying hard, by learning all the answers, you will get better at asking great questions. I am not sure it works.
In fact, knowing too much can harm you. I would take a B student who has fresh questions as a Ph.D. student over a typical overeager A+ student who frets about getting everything right. It is a poorly held secret that some of the very best researchers and innovators were average students.
Do the following experiment. Pick a scholarly field, any field, then spend two weeks reading everything about it that you can. Next, write down 5 questions. I can almost guarantee you that these 5 questions will be already covered by sources you read. They will be “known” questions.
So to find good questions, you have to maintain some distance from the material. This should be uncontroversial if you consider that I define “good questions” to be “secret” or “highly original”.
Our minds tend to frame everything in terms of the patterns we have learned. Spend two years studying Marxism and every single problem will feel like a Marxist problem to you. It becomes difficult for you to come up with new questions outside of the frame.
Don’t get me wrong: smart people who know more tend to be more creative, everything else being equal… but there is a difference between being knowledgeable and having been locked into a frame of mind.
Yet here is how many researchers work. They survey the best papers from the last major conference or journal issue in their field. Importantly, they make sure to read what everyone is reading and to make sure to make theirs the frame of minds of the best people. They make sure that they can repeat the most popular questions and answers. They look at the papers, look for holes or possibilities for improvement and work from there. What this ensures that there are a few leaders (people writing about genuine novel ideas) followed by a long and nearly endless stream of “me too” papers that offer minor and inconsequential variations.
It is easier to judge these things in retrospect. In computer science, we had the XML craze at the turn of the century. Dozens of XML papers appeared each year at each of the top database conferences. I wrote about the untold story of the death of this idea. How could so many people get so excited at the same time by what was a dead-end?
I believe that people are happy to be handed out questions and will often rush out to provide highly sophisticated thorough answers… whether or not the question is the right one.
My claim is that the people leading are not unnaturally smart, knowledgeable or creative. The people who answer other people’s questions are not dumb or unimaginative. The main difference is one of focus. You either focus on asking good questions or you focus on providing good answers.
The world would be better if we had more people asking better questions.
How might we ask better questions?
- Pay attention to what is around you and violates your worldview. How did Fleming discover penicillin? He noticed that some mold that had invaded his dirty lab appeared to kill bacteria. He asked the right question at that time.
- Be patient. Reportedly, Einstein once stated, “It’s Not That I’m so Smart, It’s Just That I Stay with Problems Longer.” The longer you work on a problem, the more likely you are to find interesting questions. (See Forthmann et al. 2018) The easiest way to miss the great questions is to dismiss the problems as uninteresting and move on too quickly.
- Be physically active, go for a walk. Chaining yourself to a desk is likely counterproductive. I used to think that being an all-out intellectual was the best route, but I now believe that I was grossly mistaken. I personally take a walk outside almost every morning on weekdays. (See Oppezzo and Schwartz, 2014).
- Don’t be too social. Social pressure toward conformity trigger intense instinctive reactions. It is simply hard to go against the herd. Thus you are better off not know too much about where the herd is. In concrete terms, spend entirely days by yourself.
- Ask a lot of questions. If you want to become good at providing the right answers, train yourself to answer lots of questions. If you want to become good at asking questions, ask a lot of them.
- Always question your own thoughts and work.
The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions. (attributed to Levi-Strauss)