This line, which I’m swiping from Izzy Rabi’s mom, is something l’d like to write on billboards, bumper stickers and a hundred other places, as persistent reminders to all of us, that we should ask something interesting every day.
Notice that I’m not saying “Ask the hard questions,” or “ask a smart question,” only that we each ask at least one interesting question each day. If we did, I think we’d be much improved creatures after only a year or so.
So, what to we stand to lose from doing this?
Here the passage where I discovered this little gem of an idea. It was a remembrance of Izzy (Isidor Isaac) Rabi, the great physicist:
My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school: So? Did you learn anything today? But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference — asking good questions — made me become a scientist.
Asking interesting questions also made Rabi (pronounced Robby) a better man than he would otherwise have been. It upgraded those around him as well.
Precisely What Kinds of Questions?
Picking which questions to ask is an obvious hurdle to cross, especially since so much of modern life involves surface concerns, and self-generated questions are the fruit of our interior. (All the more reason to ask them!)
A first necessity, however, is to define what we should not ask. And that part is very clear:
Whatever images of you people carry around in their heads, ideas associated with them are the ones you must avoid.
We all carry around images of our friends, neighbors, coworkers and so on; they allow us to predicts how they will act in all the most common circumstances. These images form a large part of what we mean when we say we know someone.
The bad part of this arises when we’d like to change someone’s mind about something we care about. Because you’ve interacted on such subjects before, whatever image they hold about you and your unshared beliefs… That’s what they’re prepared to defend against.
And so it’s worse than useless to push whatever people think of as your ideology: it’s what they’re primed to push back against. When asking your interesting questions, then, you must avoid this. If they think of you as a libertarian, don’t ask libertarian questions. If they see you as a Bitcoiner, don’t ask Bitcoin questions, and so on.
Now, just to prime your imagination, here are some questions that strike me as interesting:
- Excluding family, friends and historical figures, with whom would you most like to share a private dinner?
- If you had to spend a month anywhere, alone, where would you go?
- If you had to spend a month in the distant past, where would you go?
- If you had to spend a month in the 20th century, where would you go?
- If private space travel was safe and affordable, would you go?
- What was the most satisfying moment you ever experienced?
- If you had more money than you’d ever need, what would you do?
- Imagine you were a hundred years old; looking back, of what would you be most proud?
- Two centuries from now, what thing that’s common to us will appear ridiculous?
- What habit or style from the old days would you like to see come back?
Try to stay with serious subjects and serious answers. Comedy has it’s place, but not here; in response to these kinds of questions, jokes are often evasions. If someone starts joking in that way, try to redirect them by saying that you’d like to know what they really think, then immediately add something like, “Joe gave an interesting answer, saying that…”
By doing that, you’ll be giving the joke-teller a chance to react to what Joe said, rather than demanding that they draw from themselves. Most people, tragically, are afraid to draw directly from themselves. This model may give them a less painful way to start.
Please start asking.