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March 7th, 2020
Any new obstacle or confusing result must call up the question of scope. If all the pieces involved are fairly familiar then perhaps it’s a small local issue, like understanding a nuance of dialect: in this town pop means soda, and in this other town next to it, pop has a violent meaning. But walk into a third town and suddenly no one seems to be speaking the same language? The comparison here is one of size. Figuring out the meaning of ‘pop’ is small and quick. Figuring out a new language? Not so fast.
This example using languages makes the scope of the confusion easy to see. But when we have our head buried in a project, it’s not necessarily so easy to know if you are looking at a small stumbling block, or if you’ve suddenly discovered a giant hole in your understanding. Even the small stumbling block is a hole in understanding, but again, it’s a matter of size.
The questions that we explore upon realizing there’s a hole in our understanding determine how fast we make progress. Those initial questions can be either about size or shape, and it makes a big difference which one’s we pursue first.
Think of echolocation. Like how a submarine locates other submarines with a ping, or bats as they fly through the air, or dolphins, and even whales. In all of these examples, a sound is produced for a call and response. The response is the same sound bounced back off of the object they are trying to get a sense of. Depending on how long the sound takes to get back gives a clue about how far away the object is.
Electron microscopes function in a similar way. An extremely tiny object is bombarded with electrons from all around, and these electrons then bounce off of the tiny object and the angle produced by the bounce is recorded by the electron microscope. Each little bounce marks a plane in space, and when all of these tiny planes in space are put together, we get a complete image of the tiny object.
Think of each sound used by a bat to echolocate as a question. And each response is not an answer, but a clue about what the answer might look like. Same with each electron in the electron microscope. Each electron shot at the tiny object is a small question, and the response is a clue. It’s important not to think of these responses as answers because our goal is to figure out what the object is. A single question almost never achieves this unless the hole in our understanding is very small. Often we have a big question, something vague like: What am I looking at here? And it spawns an entire race of smaller and smaller questions that poke at the shape and size of the unknown.
So which should we start with, size or shape? And what does this have to do with the sort of questions we ask?
Think of it this way: If the ‘unknown’ you are looking for is the Titanic at the bottom of the ocean, would you use an electron microscope to find it?
Think about how ridiculous this would be. Electron microscopes are used to gain a very clear picture of incredibly tiny objects. Even if we were to somehow build an electron microscope big enough to fit the Titanic inside of it, the thing would require an absolutely stupendous amount of electron bombardment in order to get a complete picture. Instead we used a much larger form of echolocation to find the titanic.
But when we are buried in a project and we come across an unexpected result, we often poke at it as though we were using an electron microscope to get a sense of the shape of the titanic. This can quickly become demoralizing because if you were to take an insanely small portion of the titanic and look at it, you’d have absolutely no idea you were looking at a giant sunken ship.
This is why it’s important to form questions that give you an idea as to the size of the gap in your knowledge first. Then query for shape.
Zooming out a little and asking question the get’s you an equally confusing result probably indicates the the unknown is still quite a bit bigger than you think it is. Zoom out more until you get a response that makes some sense. And then start zooming in a little in order to get an idea of the shape of your unknown.
So much time is wasted in these tiny dead ends, asking the wrong sort of question for the type of situation. We have to remember the incredible breadth that our mind is capable of. We don’t need to physically back away from a thing in order to get a better sense of what we are looking at. We can change the size of our mind, and likewise the size of our questions.
Our mind is constantly shape shifting, and by being a little more mindful about this process we can zero in more quickly on that vague unknown that is holding us back.