What Questions Are You Thinking About?

I like Robin Hanson’s advice to frame a conversation this way — it can be a telling litmus test:

I know many folks who consider themselves intellectuals. I guess they think that in part because if you asked them “What have you been up to lately?,” they’d tell you about books, articles, blogs, or twitter feeds that they’ve been reading. Or perhaps TED talks they’ve watched. This is why I prefer the question “What have you been thinking about lately?” And I’ll usually be a bit disappointed if the answer isn’t about a question they’ve been trying to answer.

Yes perhaps if they just mention a topic, that really stands for some questions about that topic. But often people thinking about a topic are mostly trying to find more supporting evidence for things they already believe. Less often are they taking what I consider the most productive intellectual strategy: focus on an important question where you don’t know the answer.

Once you start to think about a question, you’ll probably soon start to break it down into supporting sub-questions. Instead of asking “How can we get world peace?” you might ask “What most goes wrong when the United Nations intervenes?” or “Why do citizens on the losing sides of wars support them?” And hearing about your interesting sub-questions might just make my day. That is why I, like the Harvard admissions dean above, will be especially eager to hear that you’ve been thinking about interesting questions.

5 comments on “What Questions Are You Thinking About?
  • How do I market a product that could (should?) be perceived as a weaker product than most in the category? At least until the target market understands they need it? If the features that make it stronger than the others are tough to locate in the UX? How can I quickly and inexpensively educate the target market that they not only need X, but that they can find it provided they’re willing to dig a bit? And then once they do, how do I incentivize them spread it prior to a UX upgrade? If you only get one chance at converting someone into a customer, and by extension an advocate, should I even be thinking about these questions prior to solving the UX issue?

    This is what keeps me up every night.

  • I think this relates to your earlier blog post about writing things down rather than just reading. People who are thinking about questions are trying to add to understanding or knowledge. Those who merely read/listen are just learning about it and perhaps attempting to promote a particular view. I would also add that discussions among people are only rarely aimed at adding to understanding – usually they are more about either persuading or showing off, and even in a more positive light, they are discussions of what actual thinkers have said rather than original thoughts.

  • Speaking as an obsessive person, I’m constantly entertaining the question, “Why can’t we have sex before supper, instead of after?” I’m sure Noel Coward covered this somewhere, and really, I can’t see that the postprandials have a case.

    It’s so counter-intuitive, and uncomfortable to get sweaty and bump around with a full stomach, the contents of which will, in any household I’m likely to be found in, have a good proportion of beer or wine sloshing about as well.

    Once again, I fear our regressive culture expresses its puritanical hangups in the most tortuous way possible.

      • Thanks for putting up with me, Ben.

        I must confess that sometimes I’m afraid to revisit the comments, because I don’t remember exactly what I wrote.

        It’s convenient to blame it on the postprandial intoxicants.;-)

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