In the movie I, Robot, there’s a scene where Dr. Lanning’s holographic image insists Detective Spooner to ask the right questions. “I’m sorry! My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions.” The right question will give Spooner a direction to solve the big puzzle of the movie.
We aren’t very different from Spooner, played by Will Smith. Our thinking is as good as our questions. And the right questions give us directions to solve life’s big puzzles.
Peter Thiel is known for his contrarian thinking. His most famous question is: What important truth do very few people agree with you on?
This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward, but it’s very hard to answer. It forces you to think in a specific direction. If you try to answer it, you’ll have to say something unpopular.
For example, an answer like “There’s no God” is bad because it takes one side of a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: most people believe in X, but the truth is the opposite of X. How you answer this question can tell a lot about you.
Human beings aren’t thoughtless or devoid of opinions. Even those who’ve never spent a single second of their lives thinking about anything can have opinions about everything. We form opinions even if we don’t consciously think about them, albeit these are unstructured and ambiguous. You’ll have a hard time articulating them.
Asking the right questions can help you uncover these automatic thoughts, and bring clarity in your thinking—thereby giving strength to your opinions.
Good questions not only give us directions to think, but also present us with opportunities to consciously form opinions, sort out priorities, and make plans.
Steve Jobs forced himself to think in a particular direction by asking: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I’m about to do?” Whenever the answer was “no” for too many days in a row, he knew he needed to change something.
Good questions not only force us to think clearly, but also help us uncover loopholes in our thinking and decisions. For example, asking “How do you know this is not a bad decision?” can unravel a lot of things.
I often ask myself: “If money wasn’t a constraint; would I still want to do what I’m doing?” The answer is often some variation of: “I would, but I wouldn’t do X, Y, and Z.” This answer not only helps me realise if I value my work, but also forces me to consider which bits I dislike about it.
I heavily encourage you to form your questions, but here are some general ones to help you start thinking in the right direction:
- What’s something you strongly believe that’s very likely to be wrong?
- How much of what you know is shaped by reactions to past mistakes?
- Over the last 10 years, what has become more important to you?
- If each day had only 12 hours, what would you cut out?
- If you keep living the way you do, what will your life look like in 10 years?