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building towards the tough questions

“It is easier to judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.” –Pierre-Marc-Gaston, duc de Lévis

When we think about knowledge, it’s easy to think that it’s all about having lots of correct answers. The most knowledgable person in the world is the person who can answer all the questions correctly, right? They’ve got the facts and figures locked away in their head and all you have to do is ask them the question and they’ll tell you the right answer.

This doesn’t make for an interesting person. In fact, misapplied this makes for a very arrogant person who believes they’re experts at everything.

Most of us were raised with this perception. School taught us that the way to be successful was to memorize all the right facts. Study the manual. Cram it all into your brain so that when the questions are asked on the exam you’ll be able to bubble in all the correct answers. This cookie-cutter methodology of teaching does little to energize creative minds for the problems of tomorrow. To add insult to injury, many teachers now hand out practice exams so that students will be able to take a near identical test to the one they’re about to take beforehand. Usually it’s the exam from the same unit of the previous year. The teacher has given you an easy formula. You can follow the steps, study the exam materials you’ve been given, and get that shiny letter grade you wanted.

This is broken thinking. Our model of school and learning has taught us that there’s a manual that exists somewhere that can tell us exactly what to do. Someone at the top knows exactly what we must do, what knowledge we must gain, and as long as we follow their exact instructions, we’ll eventually arrive somewhere useful. This does not reflect reality. When we approach knowledge like this, we’re choosing to follow someone else’s model of the world. We’re telling ourselves that some distant authority’s viewpoint on how we should live is exactly the thing we want to strive for. If we just stuff the right facts and figures into our head from the manual, we’ll get somewhere meaningful, right?

But meaningful work is not about simple questions and simple answers. Putting something in a text book doesn’t mean you read the entire book looking to memorize facts. The better approach is to read through the text and continue to ask questions.

I remember when I first started taking High School Calculus. I struggled a lot with the concept of derivatives. When my teacher taught the introductory lesson, she put an equation on the board, and told us, “Ok class, today we’re going to learn how to find the derivative of this equation.” She then walked us through the steps to solve it as she drew each one on the white-board. I would imagine that your high school math experience might have looked like quite similar.

I found myself asking questions like, “What exactly are derivatives? Why are they useful? What can I do with them? How do they apply to me?” These are less straightforward questions to answer. Are derivatives themselves the entire point, or are these a tool that’s going to help me solve some larger question?

The problems of today and tomorrow aren’t written in a text book. No one has the answers, yet. It’s not a real problem if the answer is immediately at hand.

We are people who are building the technologies of tomorrow. We’re building the systems that our society stands upon, and with that comes the responsibility and the willingness to ask the tough questions. We have to courageously approach the hard unanswered questions and start exploring and building in hopes of finding the answers. It won’t always be easy, but it’s the opportunity that we’ve been presented with.

The question I have for you is, what steps are you going to take to answer the hard questions? Are you going to ask hard questions? Are you going to get discouraged and give up when the correct answers don’t immediately present themselves? Remember that the most important questions in life are always the ones that lead to more questions. Easy answers to easy questions are behind you. Let that pattern die with your elementary education. It’s time to start approaching the unknown. It’s time to move towards the waters that might stay murky for a long time. When things get rough, just remember that murky waters are usually where the best treasure is, even if it takes a long time to dig it up.



about the author

Blake Smith is a Principal Software Engineer and leads the Infrastructure group at at Sprout Social.

Blake Smith

create. code. learn.