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July 18th, 2019
Questions can hone themselves as we rephrase them.
Imagine for a moment a wide net that a fisherman casts out into the water. The net is large and nebulous, like the shape of a summer cloud, designed to cover as much area as possible.
It’s like a probability cloud. The fisherman is taking a chance and making a guess that the fish he wants to catch is somewhere in this big area.
And then the fisherman slowly begins to draw the net in, slowly closing the opening, changing the shape so that the space – that big nebulous area – starts to shrink.
Once drawn closed, the fisherman lifts the net and the net sucks in tightly against the fish caught in the net, outlining it’s form nearly perfectly.
Questions, and the art of forming and reforming questions, matches this process of changing form.
We can take an all too common circumstance and use it as a hypothetical case study for this exercise of question rephrasing.
Let’s say a friend complains and says:
I hate my job.
We can respond:
What do you hate about your job?
I hate the commute and I don’t like any of the people I work with.
So its really a matter of travelling to a certain place everyday and dealing with people you don’t like?
Yes, I suppose so.
Is it possible that you would be happier if you had a much shorter commute and you liked the people you work with?
No, because I think the actual work is boring too.
Why is it boring?
It’s too easy. I get it done quickly and often times I have to wait around for other people to finish their work before I can move forward.
So it’s not just that you don’t like these people, they actually hinder your ability to do work that you find boring?
Would you be content working alone? Or is it necessary to have people around?
The only time I like is when I’m left alone to get work done. Even if I think it’s boring, at least there’s no one around to screw it up.
So it’s possible you’d be comfortable working alone?
At this point, the questions have approached the issue from a few different angles and we have a better read out on the shape of a possible solution. The first question revealed an important aspect of this solution. The commute and the problematic people. So at first a solution seems like a closer version of the job with a different group of people. But rephrasing the question with this as a possible solution uncovers another key fact, namely that the actual work is a problem too. At this point it might seem that we are dealing with a miserable person who complains about everything, but this would be a mistake. This would be similar to being annoyed with a fish because it keeps flopping around spastically on the floor, and wondering why it doesn’t just chill out and accept the situation it is in.
The complaints are clues about the shape of the solution.
Just like a net shaped like a fish is not actually a fish but allows us to reason that there is probably a fish inside the net, so too can questions be formed to eat away superfluous unknown space in order to get closer to a solution, so close in fact that the questions begin to describe the solution.
Clearly, it seems this friend would be happier working alone with some location independence. And clearly they need to find a field that is more difficult. Maybe something that moves quickly and therefore requires a constant level of learning.
It would be easy at this point to suggest something that falls into these parameters. But this is likely to be counter-productive, and it’s a lost opportunity to practice the art of the question. We still lack a ton of information about this friend. It could be easy to suggest something like freelance web designer, but this could easily be way off the mark and easily shut down. Still, even this would give us more useful information if we don’t take the shutdown personally. Beyond this, however, we can do better by delving further into that which we do not understand.
We might ask questions that delve into our friend’s past, even asking them what they wanted to be when they were a child, and discovering how that narrative changed over the years.
This is one of the virtues of conversation: each person discovers aspects of their own thought they were not conscious of. We seem to have the notion that thoughts are like sentences and paragraphs in a book. But in reality they are hazy, emotional concepts that don’t always have words and descriptions attached to them. This is why writing, or more casually, journaling can be so useful. As a practice, writing forces us to make these fleeting ethereal concepts concrete in the real world. Between writing and thought, we can see how conversation is a limp and lazy middle ground. Unless the conversation is recorded and is reviewed, we are only left with the emotional illusion of achievement and the satisfaction therein. But writing on the other hand, is something we can review, disagree with and fine tune. It’s extremely difficult to be analytical about our own speech, let alone our own thoughts simply because our memory of such things is so poor.
What’s notable about the little conversation of questions above, is that we can apply this same tightening of questions to ourselves. That little dialogue can be held by a single person. But this is a difficult to pull off in the way that no one wants to do their taxes. It takes a little work to be so incisive and honest about one’s situation.
Questions are useful, not just as a tool to hone themselves. Questions can be a tool with which we use to hone ourselves and who we are in the world.