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Are you asking questions that matter?

I had a conversation with a friend recently about how schools don’t lead people to ask themselves questions. Later, in a different conversation with two students, they told me they chose a high school with a general program because they didn’t know what to do. Four years later, when it’s time to choose a university, they still don’t know what they want to do.

Way to go, education.

We are used to things being thrust onto us. Instructions, rules, conventions, they are all imposed on us from the outside. We are led to expect someone to tell us what to do, what to wear, or even find the purpose of life for us. But that we need to find for ourselves. And we can do that by asking ourselves questions like:

What do I want to do? What do I enjoy? What do I want to do more of? How do I do something? Why am I doing this and not that?

Questions make us think. They generate options. Options offer us choices and choices generate self-motivation and make us feel in control.

Why don’t we ask ourselves important questions more often then?

They aren’t easy. What is my purpose in life? is not the easiest question to answer, but by avoiding the question altogether, we invite others define it for us and perhaps trick us into thinking that the new high-tech toy will do it.

Moreover, from a psychological standpoint, we like to avoid hard questions by substituting them with simpler questions. In the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahnemann describes this tendency of our mind called the question substitution.

Question substitution:

Hard question → Easier question

Let me show you some examples.

Will this candidate win the election?How do I feel about this candidate? What do I want to do? → What do I feel like doing now? How will I feel a year from now? → How am I feeling now? How competent is this person?→ How do I like this person?

Without our permission, the fast and automatic part of our mind avoids answering hard questions by choosing simpler ones to save us energy.

But we need to ask ourselves hard questions and not let this trick lead us astray because the answers to those questions matter.

How to ask?

My way of asking hard questions is taking a blank page, writing the question in the middle (for brainstorming) or on the top (for exploring my thoughts in longhand), and putting down answers or clues to answers.

Writing the question down forces me to focus more and think. The written question anchors my mind and doesn’t let it drift away too much.

The answers don’t need to be perfect. They hardly ever are. They can change over the course of ones life or day, depending on the kind of question and circumstances, but it is important to ask hard questions regardless because they help us clarify our thinking and get to know ourselves better.

Other people recognize the power of asking questions as well.

Tony Robbins emphasizes and repeats that if you change the questions you ask yourself, you can change the direction of your life.

Kevin Kelly in his book The Inevitable writes about how answers have become plentiful, cheap, and easy to get with search engines like Google, but questions are increasingly more valuable.

“Computers are useless, they only give you answers.”

  • Pablo Picasso

But what makes a good, valuable question? Here is an excerpt from the book:

A good question is like the one Albert Einstein asked himself as a small boy — “What would you see if you were traveling on a beam of light?” That question launched the theory of relativity, E=MC2, and the atomic age. A good question is not concerned with a correct answer. A good question cannot be answered immediately. A good question challenges existing answers. A good question is one you badly want answered once you hear it, but had no inkling you cared before it was asked. A good question creates new territory of thinking. A good question reframes its own answers. A good question is the seed of innovation in science, technology, art, politics, and business. A good question is a probe, a what-if scenario. A good question skirts on the edge of what is known and not known, neither silly nor obvious. A good question cannot be predicted. A good question will be the sign of an educated mind. A good question is one that generates many other good questions. A good question may be the last job a machine will learn to do. A good question is what humans are for.

A good question helps us understand ourselves better.

What is the important question you need to ask yourself today?