The Answer’s Easy, but What’s the Question?

When I was a kid, we had to learn to use the encyclopedia to look up information. The school library had a couple of sets and it seemed like a vast world of knowledge. Of course, sometimes I’d want to look up something and it wouldn’t be in the encyclopedia. But in most cases, if the teachers asked a question, you could go look up the answer and get a big pat on the back. This was a huge step forward from early schools which just had a chalkboard and the teacher as a source of knowledge, or the medieval monasteries and libraries with their hand-copied scrolls.

Fast forward to college. People weren’t really sure about this whole “internet” thing yet. There was no Google. But there was a LexisNexis account we could use. This let me write papers with better research than I could have done in 10x the time at the library because there’s simply no way a person can search text as fast as a computer. Not only that, I could write better papers than many of my more library-savvy friends, because they were spending 90% of their time on something a computer could do in seconds. I was spending my time reading, digesting, looking up new articles based on what I’d read in a previous paper, and writing my paper. I didn’t realize it then, but this was a more insightful window into the power of computers to not only make people more productive, but to change the nature of work itself than my more theoretical programming exercises in my computer science classes.

Fast forward to today. Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn and other tools that live in the cloud and in our pockets provide a dizzying array of information within seconds. (When my kids stump me with a question, we go to Wikipedia, which I then try to explain in kid-friendly form. Just saying, “I don’t know” doesn’t get you off the hook.) We can (hopefully) save 30 minutes of exposition at the start of a sales meeting with 5 minutes on LinkedIn and the prospect’s website.

Answers are a commodity.

Answers are still important– the world runs on commodities, after all. But you don’t get a big pat on the back for having information that’s 2 seconds away.

Now, organizing the information (and turning it off, as Maura Thomas discusses attention management and Jill Konrath talks about eliminating distractions on Sales for Nerds) is more important. Information is so pervasive that it often clogs our minds and makes it hard to think. For most of history, people had so little information and now we have too much but it often doesn’t improve our lives or even makes our lives worse (there’s probably an analogy to our food supply here, but that’s another topic).

What determines the information we seek and the ways we organize it? When the answers are commodities, the questions are the important part. The questions about the questions (“What questions should I ask?” “Who should I ask?”).

I had a great conversation with Brennan Dunn recently (another Sales for Nerds interview– check it out here— there’s a lot of great stuff from Brennan, but this issue is perhaps the most fundamental). Brennan is perhaps most famous for his DoubleYourFreelancing course, but he also wrote a project management app called PlanScope, and has done other interesting things over his career. But what jumped out to me was that he switched from pursuing an electrical engineering major to studying classics. Sure, he can write code, which is really helpful. But he spent a lot of time reading Socratic dialogues, thinking about asking questions in a way that helps people not only provide answers but understand themselves better.

We joke in the interview about how everyone should drop their engineering courses and switch to ancient greek if they really want to understand the future. Sure, it’s a joke, but there’s something in there, especially as computers get better and better at providing answers and (in a very good development) billions of people around the globe have access to those answers. We need to be good at asking the right questions, at work (writing good marketing materials and compelling proposals is a matter of asking the right questions), at home, in our communities and politics, and of ourselves.

Before the computers get better at that, too. So, what are your best questions?

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