Everyone knows that the best questions are the ones that don’t have an answer. Bad questions are simple to answer. You can google them, or you can read enough books and come to a definitive conclusion. But the really good questions are the ones that are on some level unanswerable.. They’re the ones that get debates started, that get people talking.
Smart people know that other smart people aren’t measured by their ability to answer question; they’re measured by their ability to ask questions that counts. Asking good questions is difficult; it requires you to know the what the substantial parts of a given topic are. You have to know where the tension points are, where you can find the real juicy pieces. If you have a superficial understanding, you’ll just ask a question that will be met with a blank stare and a “Well, obviously…”.
Answering questions is easy because it’s passive. Someone else brings up an idea, and you respond to it. It’s a prompt, like taking the SATs, and you just have to react to it. Depending on the situation, this can be hard enough. But it’s frequently not. We’ve all taken enough tests for a lifetime, thank you very much.
Asking questions, on the other hand, requires you to put in a little more work upfront. You have to set it up, like a hunter loading a trap. You must anticipate the response you’ll get, and you have to know how to follow up. Asking a question is an act of creation. You are birthing an idea into the world, attaching little paper wings to it, and throwing it into the breeze to see how far it flies. And you are putting your ego on the line, too. What if it’s a stupid question? Or suppose it’s not articulate enough? You ramble out some long-winded treatise that is nothing short of brilliant to your ears, only to find you subject staring back blankly. And it’s not condescension this time; it’s utter confusion.
In the words of George and Marty McFly, “I just don’t think I could take that kind of rejection.”
I’ve heard it said that undergrad is about absorbing information, and graduate school is about creating information. Your undergrad is (in theory) all about taking tests and proving that you know the answers. Graduate school is (again, in theory) about regurgitating that same information in novel ways. It’s about finding the good questions and asking yourself for the answers.
I’ve written before about creation and about the need to demonstrate competence and value through something real that other people can see and understand. Asking questions is one way to do that. Luckily, graduate school is not the only way to cultivate that thought process. Questions can be asked any time, of anyone. You can even do this at home, or with your friends.
Start asking people questions. If you don’t already know the person you want to talk to, email them and take them out to coffee or drinks. A funny thing will happen: you will realize that in order to ask the right questions, you have to do a bunch of research. And this research on the questions you want to ask ask will teach you just as much as the answers to the questions themselves. Why? Because this process forces you to answer all the easy questions yourself before you find the juicy ones. I think a big part of it is the social factor. Asking stupid questions wastes the other person’s time and makes you look like an idiot. So by planning a meeting with someone, you’re lighting the fire under your own ass and prompting yourself to do research that you wouldn’t otherwise do.
A genuine interest in other people and in their lives and thoughts will teach you a lot. The people around you are a resource that’s waiting to be tapped into. But you have to ask.