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November 11th, 2019
We do not have a system for identifying good questions and bad questions. Neither do we have a process for making bad questions better.
We are somewhat plagued by questions. Far more than we might observe in other species.
What penguin or tortoise is so concerned with the meaning of life that they develop ulcers? None.
And yet we are primarily driven by questions of one sort or another. Without being all that conscious about it, poorly formed questions can drive us in unproductive directions or perpetuate self-sabotaging behavior for years.
This happens because of two reasons, one which stems from the other.
First, it’s an unanswerable question.
And because we never achieve a satisfying answer, this question gets repeated.
Here’s an example that many, if not all of us have heard in some circumstance, and in some form or another.
Why don’t you act like I want you to?
It’s easy to imagine a confused and frustrated parent saying this to a child. And it’s not unimaginable to hear this between lovers. Certainly it has been said in hushed angry tones between couples in public.
Setting aside all of the problems we might be able to flag for this question, the repetitive nature of such questions – the fact that they are asked over and over to no avail is a very important indication that we might have a bad question.
Another similarly common question that flags the same trouble is:
Why am I so stupid?
Who hasn’t asked this question of themselves? And yet, the obvious issues with this kind of self talk are abundantly clear beyond the fact that people might be chastising themselves with this unanswerable question on a daily basis.
Other repeated questions might be more subtle, but if you find yourself asking the same thing over and over, it’s time to ask another question, namely:
What’s a better, more specific version of this question that I could ask?
This episode references Episode 30: The Only Tool