Saturday, August 10, 2013

Asking the Right Questions

Something I notice is that if you phrase questions the right way, people's answers change.

If you ask somebody, "hey, what should I practice first?" they will often give you conventional wisdom.  The same wisdom that many people are following and using to achieve limited results.  You will rarely get a new or unique answer, even if you ask really strong players or coaches.  And you generally want new information, because your old information clearly isn't serving you all that well.  Don't ask common questions.  You will get answers you already have.

Instead, find a new way to phrase things that will yield better answers.  If you ask somebody, "what should I start practicing?" then they will probably give you a stock answer, the same you would find from anybody else.  Instead, try asking somebody, "if you could start over again, what would you practice first?"

People do not receive this question often.  So the result is they will actually think about it.  They will look back on the things that gave them the most mileage, the things they relied on the most throughout their career.  They will draw upon their actual memories and experience to give you their answer, because the question is uncommon.  Without a stock answer in place, they will actually think.

Thinking is a process of asking questions and answering them.  "What do I see?"  "How do I feel about this?"  "Is this likely to succeed?"  This is also why being a good teacher involves asking students interesting questions; if all you do is give them facts and answers, you have skipped the more important part of the thinking process, which is the generation and analysis of questions.  Give people strange questions and allow them to answer them.  You'll learn a lot from it.  Sometimes, so will they.  It's why many teachers claim they learn a lot from students and children; that's because questions force you to think, and learning rarely takes place without either of them.

And on the subject of children: one of those things that people talk a lot about is the natural capacity for children to learn.  Which is funny, because in a lot of ways, kids are actually pretty dumb.  They spend years immersed in a language before learning how to speak it well; they do it automatically, which is impressive, but it still takes a long time.  They do very stupid things that get themselves into trouble.  They hold ridiculous beliefs about the world that are extremely silly.  The advantage that children have is that their minds hunger for information about their environment so they can survive it.  They are perpetually curious, and insatiable about asking questions.  They want to know, because the world is strange and dangerous, and knowledge is a human's armor.

And because they are young and lack experience, they have no idea which questions even make sense.  So you will get normal questions like "where do babies come from?" and weird questions like "if milk comes from cows, does that mean there is a cow in our fridge?"  This curiosity is drilled out of them over time through several factors.  Sometimes it's parents instructing them to keep quiet, and obey the traditions of their elders.  Sometimes it's a school system that instructs them to wait until they're done being force-fed information before asking anything.  Sometimes it's their own peers, and the fear of looking ignorant and foolish.  A combination of those three will knock the curiosity out of anybody.  The art of asking questions, especially the strange and ridiculous ones, often fades.

I've said it before; we possess many skills that we don't even recognize as trainable abilities.  They can be habits of thought, things we've rehearsed so many times that they're executed without knowing.  If you develop a tendency for asking unusual questions and getting strange answers, and it remains with you as you grow, you will refine the skill.  Over time, your questions aren't just strange and nonsensical, they're strange but brilliant.

I notice that when I play certain types of games, the ones I have the most experience with, I tend to figure things out much faster than other people.  I ask questions like, "would this work after this?  How does this interact with that?"  A lot of it isn't creativity or originality; it's me seeing patterns most people aren't familiar with, which just looks like ingenuity to the right audience.  You can always look smart and skillful if you only talk about subjects you're versed in, or participate in activities you're trained in.

So when I tell you, "hey, just ask different questions," I understand it's tricky.  It's not something you just do out of nowhere, it's a skill you cultivate over a long period of time.  I grew up in environments that encouraged and rewarded strange ideas; closed system games with rules to exploit, fantasy and science-fiction books that constantly asked what-ifs, and friends who liked to joke and banter about weird stuff.  A lot of people tell me I'm creative and witty, and I certainly hope I am, because I've practiced it since I was young.  But it's not a magical part of my personality that just happens to be.

Again, finding unusual questions to ask can be hard.  Especially if you're always trying to hit home-run questions every time, since many questions give you silly or unhelpful answers.  Sometimes you don't get answers at all.  But if you keep asking, you get better at it.

Thanks for reading.