How to Ask Questions Better | Tim Ferriss

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Five tips for asking better questions

Posted in: May 6th, 2010

Now that I am committed to living on a farm which is sort of the anti-New York City, visiting New York City no longer brings up flashbacks to a really, really difficult lifestyle. Instead, New York fills my head with ideas.

The first one is a billboard I saw as soon as I got off the plane:A good question is the new answer.

That rings true to me. I have been writing about asking questions for a long time. It’s the best way to have a meaningful conversation and it’s the best way to rope in a mentor or look like a star performer. People spend more time thinking about answers than questions, but it’s the questions that make you look smart.

1. Good questions require creative thinking.
This has always been true, I think. Good questions are fundamentally creative. But today, when all facts are available to all people, it’s the questions that have become most important. To get to the answer, you have to ask the right question in a search bar. But also, to differentiate yourself in the workplace, you need to focus on questions, since answers are a commodity.

2. When you’re lost, look for questions, not answers.
As my career shifts, I find that the key to keeping the shift moving in a productive way is to ask good questions. It’s ironic, because one of the most frequent questions I get from people is “what’s the best way to make a career change?”

And the answer is to ask much more insightful questions than that one. For example, I know I want to write about the farm, but I’m not sure how to do it. So I’ve been asking questions about how photos fit into blogs and what is the intersection of farming, family, and business?

3. Think of your career path as a question path.
I am also spending time redecorating the farm house. Actually, to call it redecorating is a stretch, since the farmer moved in twenty years ago when the couple living there died, and did not do one, single thing to redecorate. So the house is a time capsule from the 1940’s when it was designed.

Anyway, I wouldn’t say redecorating is a career change, but maybe just a vocation vacation. Do you know that term? You try out a career for a few weeks? That’s what I’ve been doing.

And I realized that I’d only want to be an interior designer for my own house. But I like learning about interior design. And I am realizing that any career shift is about learning and exploring until you land in the right spot.

Questions I am asking lately:

What is Steampunk Style? (Turns out I adore it.) Here’s an example from the movie The Golden Compass:

golden compass as steampunk style

How to create a space that has texture? I took three conference calls while I was wandering through ABC Home. I thought that if I spend time there, I will somehow learn from being surrounded by examples, like this one:

I Love ABC Home

Some of you will ask what these questions have to do with career change. But a career is not a history of how you make money. A career is a learning path. It’s what direction you take in your personal learning.

4. Asking good questions takes work – that you have to do yourself.
This struck me during my New York trip as well, because one of my best friends is Lisa Nielsen, who leads New York City Public School technology initiatives and writes a blog about education reform. She is a big advocate of me homeschooling my kids. She says that kids don’t need to learn subjects. Kids need to learn how to ask questions about things that are passionate about. And that’s no small task: First, you have to learn how to find your passions. Then you have to learn how to ask questions. Most adults can’t do either thing well, which is a good argument for taking kids out of school, I have to admit.

5. Field other peoples’ questions to get better at asking questions.
Finally, the last thing I did in New York is visit Seth Godin’s office, to interview him. You can watch the video here. But before you look, let me tell you that the biggest criticism of the interview is that my commentary about peoples’ questions was obnoxious.

This is true. I am becoming increasingly impatient with questions that reflect poor self-knowledge. And with questions that reflect a penchant for finding roadblocks instead of finding ways to soar. Neither of these bad question types seem genuine, or useful. (Here are some examples of questions like that.)

No one complained about Seth during the webinar though, because he had a better approach to the questions. He tells people what they are really asking. So the webinar is really a webinar on, among other things, how to ask a good question.

The webinar also served as a good lesson for me. Instead of complaining about the questions I get, I should answer the question by sharpening the question. People almost always know the answer to the real question but the real answer is often scary. So we conjure up an ancillary question to distract us from reality.

I also need to be more kind about peoples’ questions, by helping them figure out what their real question is. And the process helps me do it with my life, too.

Video: 08 common Interview question and answers - Job Interview Skills

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