Nurturing Your Unquestions

This week I am in the city of Bucaramanga, Colombia, doing a Breaking Smart workshop. As usual, when I do one of these workshops, people ask me entirely reasonable questions to which I do not have satisfying, definitive answers. At best, I am able to suggest an honest process for engaging them. Here in Colombia, an economy stressed by low oil prices, high taxes, and a slow, difficult recent emergence from an era of conflict, these questions acquire a particular seriousness. They are not asked frivolously, as they often are by comfortable elites in the US.  I call these unquestions: questions that are not exhausted by any particular answer. I'm going to start using the reverse question mark, ⸮, to indicate unquestions. You can fruitfully ask unquestions repeatedly, and learn something new each time. Some are philosophy questions in disguise, and can never be definitively answered. Others must simply be asked by generation after generation, and might end up being definitively answered hundreds or even thousands of years after they are first posed. Still others are like stocks: they become urgent under certain conditions, and recede under others.

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Unquestions. Bic on Moleskine by Venkat

1/ A big recurring theme in Breaking Smart is learning to get comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity.

2/ This means comfort with unanswered questions of various kinds. There are 4 kinds of practical questions it is useful to get comfortable with.

3/ Regular questions can be answered as posed, and are exhausted by their answers, at least to the satisfaction of most who ask them. Question: Capital of Colombia? Answer: Bogota. Done.

4/ Metaphysical riddles such such as 'What is the sound of one hand clapping?' are at the other extreme. Concepts like mu help you grapple with them.

5/ Then there are questions you don't know can even be asked. Questions that map to your personal unknown unknown. You find these through mind-expanding explorations.

6/ But the kind that most trouble us in everyday life are what I call unquestions: not entirely ill-posed, with some substance, and incapable of being exhausted by any given answer.

7/ Unquestions that always come up in my workshops include "Is inequality a problem⸮", "Can old people break smart⸮", "Can our city/country/region produce world-class software startups⸮"

8/ And of course, the biggest unquestion of them all, "what do humans do when computers take all the jobs⸮"

9/ Not surprisingly, unquestions are rich fodder for ideological derping, where people get attached to one non-definitive answer or another.

10/ For the "software eating jobs" question, I usually respond with a version of the "new wants and needs" answer.

11/ But that answer, like any answer to any unquestion, is partial and non-definitive. Historically, new wants and needs have always created new jobs, but that's not the end of it.

12/ It is not an analytic truth in a logical, axiomatic system. It's a high likelihood future based on historical priors, a weaker type of truth than people are looking for when they ask the question.

13/ Follow-on questions like "this time it is different because X" cannot just be dismissed out of hand. You have to continue the conversation and figure out more each time.

14/ On the other hand, treating unquestions like regular questions and offering definitive answers than the evidence allows is worse.

15/ For the jobs question, one definitively optimistic answer is: "jobs are for robots, humans should be free," which strikes me as smug, psychologically implausible and insensitive to those struggling with actual unemployment.

16/ A definitively pessimistic answer is: "universal basic income," which strikes me as premature defeatist code for "the human species should retire to Florida" and prematurely writes off the ability of humans to grow and adapt.

17/ The problem with definitive answers to unquestions is that they manufacture artificial certainty to address an underlying emotional need.

18/ An unquestion is fundamentally ambiguous. This is why it does not get exhausted and allows for productive reframing and reasking. That ambiguity though, does not induce a comforting state of mind.

19/ The ambiguity -- which falls just short of ill-posedness -- is a feature not a bug. It means unquestions, unlike regular questions are renewable resources.

20/ By that I mean, it is possible to keep thinking about them for a lifetime, learning more each time you consider them, and still not exhaust them.

21/ But to turn unquestions into engines of learning, you first have to acknowledge the emotional needs left unsatisfied by the partial, non-definitive answers on offer.

22/ Rather than address the residual emotional stress with answers that relieve the stress at the expense of truth, you have to handle the stress directly.

23/ Here in Colombia, a country known for coffee, oil, and a troubled history in the drug trade, there are a huge number of unquestions in the air.

24/ Unquestions that are objectively harder than those that trouble most people in the developed world, in the sense that they leave you with more stress to acknowledge and manage.

25/ One of the benefits of traveling widely is that you get to notice and appreciate how gracefully humans can handle different levels and patterns of unquestion stress.

26/ So one concrete suggestion to those in the right life situations: travel as widely as you can, while you can, so you see how unquestions are asked, and the resulting stress managed, around the world.

27/ If you cannot travel, there is always television and YouTube. You might be surprised by what you don't understand about your most pressing questions, that people on the other side of the planet do understand.

28/ One way or another, learn to nurture your unquestions in generative ways, instead of letting them fester and turn into derping habits and ideological resentments. And learn to use the unquestion mark, ⸮.

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Check out the 20 Breaking Smart Season 1 essays for the deeper context behind this newsletter. If you're interested in bringing the Season 1 workshop to your organization, get in touch. You can follow me on Twitter @vgr

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