Atticus Harris

in search of simplicity

Questions vs. Answers

I don’t know what to write. I’ve read too many articles online telling me what’s what. Sometimes it feels like there are all these people out there with answers. Meanwhile here I am, with my doubts and my anxieties, and I’m trying to write some kind of advice for you all? It seems silly. I don’t have all the answers, I’ve just got a lot of questions.

So in honour of my doubt, I decided to look at why having lots of questions might be better than having all the answers.

Last week I posted a Code Of Practice. One of the points in that list suggested you ‘Ask why until it seems stupid, then ask one more time’. This is probably one of the hardest things to do on that list. And naturally, that fact also makes it one of the most important. Many of us are wired to look for answers. And we’re inclined to stop searching when we find one that suits us. That’s because questions and answers fulfil different functions. I think understanding the difference is important to living a life that feels exciting.

What’s the difference between a question and an answer?

My dictionary tells me that a question is ‘used to elicit information’. That’s why they’re so interesting. Because asking questions will often lead to more questions that need to be asked. A question is like a compass in that it sends you in a particular direction. Sometimes you realise that you misunderstood the directions and you have to change course. So you ask a new question instead. With each new question, you find a new rabbit hole to go down.

An answer is something you reply to a question with. An answer is a solution. They feel tidy in a way that questions don’t because they give us a conclusion. We’re often looking for an answer that means we don’t feel the need to ask any more questions. Those kinds of answers draw a line under the mystery of the world. They provide us with something concrete and correct. But answers aren’t always right. Often they’re just opinions. In the end, even the best answers end up being questioned after a while.

Questions give us momentum whereas answers make us static. The problem with remaining still is that it never lasts very long. The world and our perspective are in motion. Having all the answers doesn’t seem so valuable when they all have an expiry date.

Feynman And Living Without Knowing

Richard Feynman was one of the most important physicists of the 20th century. What made him special was the way he explained stuff. He could break down complex ideas so they made sense to people with no scientific background. A good test of how well you understand a subject is to try and explain it to a kid. If you can’t explain something to a five-year-old, you don’t really understand it. Feynman could explain physics to a five-year-old but he also made it interesting at the same time. That’s what made him stand out.

My point is that Feynman ‘got’ physics. He understood, better than anyone, the mechanics of the world. So I was surprised to read the following quote, where he talks about being comfortable with not knowing:

“I’ve learned how to live without knowing. I don’t have to be sure I’m succeeding, and as I said before about science, I think my life is fuller because I realize that I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m delighted with the width of the world!” — Richard Feynman

This passage is from an interview in Omni magazine and Feynman is referring to his teaching career. I felt like I was in school to learn what was right and what was wrong. But Feynman totally flips that. The whole purpose of his teaching was not to be right about anything, it was to test the limits of what he didn’t know. To root out the areas that were fuzzy and unclear. That’s where the interesting stuff comes from.

Finding good questions

Answers that can’t be questioned are dogmatic and ripe for being torn apart. They might give us a sense of security but that’s often an illusion. Remember that people used to believe the world was flat? Now they believe it’s round. Who knows what shape it might be next. Answers like these are dead ends. If you’re searching for these kinds of answers, stop now. They aren’t worth finding.

Instead, look for questions that can’t be answered because this provides purpose and direction. A good question can change the way you look at a problem. Sometimes it can change the way you look at the world. The best questions don’t lead to an answer, they lead to even better questions. I’d rather be a person that can ask interesting questions that one that has all the right answers.

Have you ever felt that, despite everything you’ve done, you still don’t know where you’re going? That’s ok. Feynman shows us that we might never reach that point. And instead of finding that a problem he points to the fact that it provides us with an endless source of curiosity. There’s wisdom in knowing you don’t know.

It wouldn’t be right to preach the wonders of asking questions and then not leave you with one to think about. So my question to you is this: when you wake up tomorrow, what’s the question that’s getting you out of bed?

If you can figure that out, who knows what interesting questions lie ahead.