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July 1st, 2020
The realm of possible answers can be unfathomably large. But it all depends on the question, of course. What is the meaning of life? Is obnoxiously unanswerable. One may certainly say there are answers, but such answers fail to preclude other answers, making the subject and discussion often unproductive and forever open-ended. What day is tomorrow? Though, that has an answer. And one reason why this second question is so much easier is because the scope is easy to refine. For one thing, there are only 7 possible answers, and then adding the consideration of what day is today not only eliminates an answer but the dependable order of the scope serves up the solution as the next option.
Solving a problem requires an ability to understand where to look for an answer. Or put another way, we can solve problems faster if we know where not to look. This is often what experience in a given field equips a person with: having seen similar issues, their perspective isn’t so much oriented towards where to look as it is aware of useless rabbit holes where a novice might spend a great deal of time finding their way to a dead end. The expert zeroes in with a finer scope, a smaller field of possible solutions.
Something similar happens in writing. Of all possible and conceivable sentences that could follow this one, how is the next one found? A possible sentence is: cold rain withered the resolve of the man’s courage. That is a valid sentence, but in the context of what is being spoken about here, it’s completely disjointed. It is as though we briefly glimpse and completely different world, like that from the pages of a novel. Scope and context are functionally the same here. Each new sentence seeks to answer the question of what the next sentence will be while remaining relevant to the context. We might drill down on this notion and wonder if a repetitive poem, or the chorus of a song is somehow more evocative of it’s own context and scope. Hard to say for sure, but it seems as though the answer might be yes. For something like a story, or an essay, even a mere winding ponderance as this doesn’t just stay in it’s own context but expands it’s context as each sentence achieves two things simultaneously: each sentence refers to the previous context, but also expands that context by saying something new.
How does this relate to solving problems other than how to fill up the infinite abyss of a blank page? Even experts don’t have all the answers, but they often have better heuristics for solving problems that are within their scope of concentration. Implicit in that sentence is the notion that such experts don’t have an exhaustive knowledge or understanding of that context. Our knowledge, understanding and experience in any realm is a patchwork at best. Having a sense of where a solution might reside is a bit like an expert approaching a rock they’ve walked by many times and finally turning that rock over to see what’s underneath. Clues in the larger context point at that rock, but even the expert isn’t sure what’s underneath until it’s turned. A novice, on the other hand might turn over hundreds of other rocks, looking for the answer, being without the familiarity of context and scope that someone like an expert might have.
This process of familiarizing our self with the context, and then closing the scope down to a narrower portion of that context can be vastly more efficient with the right rhythm of questions. Following the question of what day is tomorrow? with the question what day is today? is a simple example. Imagine if otherwise the follow up question had been what day was it 48 days ago? This question, while it has a definite answer, doesn’t really help us determine what day tomorrow is. It might with a few more questions, but it’s certainly not the most efficient leap between questions.
How fast we can iterate through possible questions to investigate, and more importantly, our ability to assess questions as more or less effective determines to a great deal our speed when navigating new territory. This is learning: a rubric for forming questions that we ask ourselves. We learn faster when this rubric is efficient and robust, and we hit more frustration when this rubric is untrained and disjointed. It’s worth it to wonder:
how good are you at asking the right question?