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August 5th, 2020
It’s possible and all too common to waste an enormous amount of time trying to answer a bad question. What’s the meaning of life? Who am I? What’s my passion? These are all bad questions. Why exactly are they bad questions? Very simple: none of them fit the definition of a good question:
A question is an open ended concept that creates forward momentum.
While the above questions are open-ended concepts, they don’t create momentum in any particular direction. They are questions ripe for round-about wondering - rumination that goes nowhere. Such questions can be tempting because they seem to offer such an expanse of possibility. But without constraint, we get lost in such nebulous spaces, and questions - good questions - are the only tool we have to navigate that nebulous space of the unknown.
The first metaquestion - that is, the first question we must ask about our current question is:
Is this a good question or bad question?
This question itself requires a small family of subquestions in order to find its answer. One subquestion that enables a judgement of goodness or badness has to do with action:
Does the question describe an actionable next step that can provoke feedback that can help answer the question?
If the answer is ‘no’, then the question is either a bad one, or simply to large, too vague, and in need of focus. We can also ask:
Does this question circumscribe a single answer or many possible answers?
If a question clearly has a single answer that we can find, then it’s likely a better one. For example: will this business experiment work? That question has a definitive answer, and it’s a decent starting question because it provokes the path for its own answer. Compare that question to What’s the meaning of life? This question might have one answer, but there’s no way to know before hand when equipped just with the question. The business experiment, on the other hand, is either going to work, or not.
We can examine a sort of in-between amalgam of these two questions to get a cleaner sense of good and bad questions relative to the number of possible answers they hint at. We can ask:
What business should I start?
This is a debilitatingly open-ended question. And while it is more specific than what’s the meaning of life?, it circumscribes an area that is simply too large. We have to ask: what would be a better form of this question? Or how can the cloud of possible answers be narrowed in some way? From those subquestions we can wonder:
How many different types of businesses are there, and which might create a lifestyle that seems attractive to me?
This is a far better question because it immediately points to a path of action. We can do something as simple as google that question and see what sort of types have been identified. Furthermore, it has a much smaller number of answers. There are effectively infinite businesses that could be started, but all of them fall into a far smaller number of possible categories.
Notice how this chain of questions has grown more specific with each jump. First we went from something totally open-ended and stagnant, like What’s the meaning of life? To a binary situation: is that question good or bad? From there we can narrow in on better questions merely by assessing the quantity of possible answers.
But this whole process begins with the first metaquestion where we can turn the tool of the question onto itself and bootstrap our mind out of the circular morass caused by a bad question by asking: is this question helping me move in a productive direction?