Asking The Right Questions

How To Avoid Wonky Thinking

The human brain is hardwired to deal with immediate threats but in the modern world we live in a delayed benefit environment.


Asking The Right Questions. How To Avoid Wonky Thinking. Picture and quote from Albert Einstein on the importance of asking the right questions.



Asking The Right Questions Is Critical To Effective Thinking.

One of the major points of focus on this site is learning how to think and how to apply the most appropriate cognitive processes to the task in hand. In order to be able to do this we need to avoid wonky thinking.


Asking The Right Questions Is Critical To Avoiding Wonky Thinking.

We are hardwired to look for short cuts and that tendency coupled with our cognitive biases leads us to conclusions that confirm what we want to hear. So we should never underestimate our capacity for self-deception and miss-perception.






A Dog's Life

A Dog's Life and cognitive distortions

Recently I was out with my labrador Ben and we were both enjoying our evening walk. It was dark  but with street lighting the visibility was good, but not for Ben!

The lead strained and I could feel him pulling. I glanced down at him and I could see that the fur on his neck and shoulders was sticking up, and he was assuming an attack posture as he intently focused on something that he saw as a potential threat.

Looking up the street I could see nothing that was likely to pose a threat to him.  We carried on walking up the street, and I noticed a large black rubbish bin lying end on to the edge of the pavement. 

As we got closer I could feel and see Ben get more and more agitated. When we were about 5 yards away I loosened the lead and watched him sniffing and examining the bin up close and as soon as his sense of smell told that the bin was no threat to his safety his whole posture relaxed, he started wagging his tail and we continued our walk.

Our brains may be hardwired to react to a perceived threat in the same as Ben's did but, unlike Ben, we have better eyesight, a more sophisticated cognitive capability and the capacity for asking the right questions.








    “Our minds are not quite designed to understand how the world works, but, rather, to get out of trouble rapidly and have progeny." [Nassim Taleb]







Asking The Right Questions For Survival


Quote from Arthur Koestler about the limitations of the human brain's evolution.

"You are walking around with the same hardware as your Paleolithic ancestors." [James Clear]

The earliest remains of modern humans are approximately two hundred thousand years old and they had a brain relatively similar to ours.

From an evolutionary perspective, back when we were living on the Savannah plains of Africa most of our decisions had an immediate impact on our survival and so we had to think fast.

So it is unsurprising that the natural way we think is to seek a quick and easy solution that addresses the immediately presenting symptoms.

From an evolutionary perspective there was no immediate gain in understanding underlying causes or consequences other than our immediate physical survival. These default thought processes are very similar to everyone else's thinking and lead to similar conclusions.

Our default modus operandi is to use short cuts, reason by analogy and rule of thumb -  basically we are looking for similarities.




    The default question is:

    "Where have I seen this before?"








Asking The Right Questions In A Modern Environment

Asking The Right Questions In A Modern Environment


We no longer live on the Savannah plains....

In the modern world  we live in what scientists refer to as a  "delayed return environment" where the ability to accept deferred gratification is critical.

As writer James Clear says:

"In modern society, many of the choices you make today will not benefit you immediately…You live in what scientists call a delayed-return environment because you can work for years before your actions deliver the intended payoff."

Living in this modern environment we need to expand our thinking beyond the default response.

We are so programmed to think by way of analogy that it requires conscious effort and application to frame more resourceful questions.


We are not Elon Musk

A good place to start is to use first principles thinking which means that we deconstruct the problem or challenge that we are trying to resolve down to its constituent parts, and then build up from there.

Elon Musk is often cited as one of the best exponents of this approach. Whilst I am in awe of his creativity and his achievements I don't find the comparison between Elon Musk and myself particularly helpful.

I am not building space rockets or tunneling under Las Vegas, I am more concerned with finding practical solutions to infinitely more mundane tasks and situations to do with every day life.








Frame The Problem Clearly

As Einstein said in the picture at the head of this article - the most important part of asking the right questions is to define your problem.

  • The big question you are asking, and trying to find the solution to, needs to be clear and precise.
  • You should spend a significant amount of time doing this.
  • Once you have established the problem you want to solve, the whole process will flow from there.


    The most important part of solving your problem is defining it.








Applying First Principles Thinking To Washing Muddy Boots

Applying First Principles Thinking To Washing Muddy Boots

I was staying in an Airbnb with my grown up children and a friend a couple of winters ago.

We had been out for a long country walk and returned to the property with very muddy footwear. The was a general discussion about how we were going to clean our boots without the appropriate cleaning materials and scrubbing brushes.

I applied the first principles approach and decided that all I needed was a sink, a tap, and some sort of scrubbing brush together with a bottle of detergent.

My son came into the kitchen about 30 minutes later and starting telling me off for cleaning my boots in the kitchen sink:

"How could you...its unhygienic...that's disgusting..."

My response was to say that muddy boots were no dirtier than a lot of other things that ended up in the sink and after I had finished I used a powerful detergent and cleaned the whole sink area and bowl and the scrubbing brush.

I told my son that by the time I had finished the kitchen sink area was a darn sight cleaner than it was before I cleaned my boots. I said:

"There is no logic to what you say, your problem is that the idea of washing muddy boots in the kitchen sink offends you."

Needless to say, 30 minutes later I spotted him washing his and his girlfriend's boots in the sink!

This was a typical example of how, in everyday life,  we so often prioritise form over function.








Optimize The Function And Ignore The Form

Because of our our default tendency to think by analogy we focus on appearances and not on why we are doing what we are doing. We focus on form not function.

One of the inherent difficulties of this type of thinking is that we get stuck in the existing ways of doing things because:

"...that's how we do things round here!"

We project the current form forward rather than projecting function and abandoning form.

Old conventions and tradition, the ideas we inherit, are presented as form [outwards appearances] and are usually accepted without question. This creates a barrier to truly innovative and creative thinking.

First principles thinking requires you to drop your adherence to prior forms and focus instead on the function.






The Wellington And The Gate

A simple everyday example of optimizing function over form.

Some years ago my family and I lived in a big house with a drive and a large gate at the entrance.

Many people used the gate and it was always being slammed shut after people came through it.

I was concerned because the joints on the wooden frame at the end of the gate were continually getting damaged as it banged onto the gate post.

I knew that I needed to figure out a practical solution to protect the gate or I was going to have to have spend money replacing the gate and that wouldn't solve the problem.

I went to our local building store and could not find a suitable solution, so I gave it some thought and I realized that what was needed was a heavy rubber pad on the gate post to soften and absorb the shock of the gate bashing into it.

The next challenge was to find a piece of rubber of the right thickness and width to form the pad. I then had a brain wave and recalled that I had a pair of old rubber wellington boots, and that I could cut a chunk off of the sole of one of these boots and create the rubber pad I needed.

As I was doing this, two of my younger relatives came to see what I was doing and laughed at me and ridiculed what I was doing and told me that I was eccentric.

But as things panned out, I had the last laugh because the rubber pad saved the gate and it was still in place several years later when we sold the house.

This was a simple everyday example of optimizing function over form.



    What are you trying to accomplish?

    What is the functional outcome you are looking to achieve?







Avoid Unintended Consequences By Asking The Right Questions


Second Order Thinking. Avoid Unintended Consequences By Asking The Right Questions.

Another important thinking skill is asking the right questions that will take you beyond the obvious and help you avoid unintended consequences.

  • As you consider the consequences of a potential decision or action, this is about thinking in terms of interactions and time.
  • This involves seeing things that other people don't, won't or can't see.
  • As with first principles thinking this is a more deliberate thinking and it is known as second order thinking.
  • It can lead to extraordinary performance.

This is not really about asking the right questions it is much more to do with asking the same right question several times in several different scenarios and contexts.

The key question to ask is: "And then what..?"










The Church And The House Next Door

An example of second order thinking.

A few years ago I was asked to facilitate a session with the leadership team of a local church. The purpose of this session was to help them decide whether or not to purchase a very large old house that was adjacent to the church and that had just come onto the market.

The vicar and some of the team were quite keen on the idea of purchasing the building with a view to turning into a centre for community outreach and community service.

Other member of the team were against it and the rest were unsure.

The church was close to completing a major fund raising exercise for an extensive modernisation and new build to the existing church site.

I started by asking them to share their strategic vision for the church and then to outline how they saw this building aligning with that vision

Then I asked them to outline the steps and stages that would be involved in making this acquisition and launching this new venture.

This was followed by a followup question as to how they saw this potential project working in practice.

At each stage of this discussion process I asked them to describe the impacts of what they were proposing and how that did or not align with [a] their strategic vision and [b] more practically how it would affect their existing activities and commitments, and most critically [c] how it would affect church finances.

After about an hour and a half it became increasingly apparent to the vicar and  others who were originally in favour of this potential initiative that in fact it could likely prove to be a major distraction from their core activities and a very expensive distraction as well.








    And then what..?







Recommended reading:

Discernment - Exercising Good Judgement

How To Win Without Succeeding - Avoid Losing!

Finding Signal In The Noise - How To Avoid The Noise Bottleneck

The Art Of Thinking Clearly - 3 Steps To Clarity

How Not To Be Stupid - 4 Key Tips

How To Benefit From The Unseen Margins - 5 Key Tips For Success

Transformational Life Hacks - To Understand Is To Know What To Do









Next Article: Learn How To Benefit From The Fat Tail Fractal Factor


Return from: "Asking The Right Questions"

To: Walking The Talk

Or to: Mental Models


Contact me



English Chinese (Traditional) Russian French German Italian Spanish Vietnamese


LATEST ARTICLES

  1. Situational Communication - Different Strokes For Different Folks

    Situational communication is about taking account of 3 often ignored factors about the other person. You are a situational communicator when you recognise that effective communication is not an event…

    Read More

  2. How To Influence Without Authority - 6 Key Tips

    The secret to how to influence without authority is that you get what you really want by giving other people what they really want. We live in an interconnected world and knowing how to influence with…

    Read More

  3. Change Questions To Change Your Outcomes

    Asking The Right Questions Is Critical For A Successful Change. Every time we initiate a significant change - whether in our personal life or in an organisation - we will most likely over-estimate our…

    Read More

  4. Group Culture - The Invisible Software That Rules Your Life

    Group culture is: "How we do things round here". We like to see ourselves as free agents making our own choices and living authentically but the reality is that The Matrix has many layers and we are u…

    Read More

  5. Why Getting From A to B Is Not Aways A Straight Line

    In circumstances of significant change, the progress from A to B will not be in a straight line. We run our lives largely on auto-pilot. In most circumstances your experience of getting from A to B is…

    Read More

  6. The Art Of Persuasion Planning For Success - Here's How To Do It!

    To be successful in the art of persuasion you must ensure that certain things happen. To be successful in the art of persuasion you must establish a framework of what has to happen to get you to that…

    Read More

  7. The Art Of Persuasion Advanced Communication Skills - Gaining Buyin

    Create The Environment Where They Want To Buyin to Your Proposal In order to build the win-win you have to uncover what it is that the other person really wants or needs, and to do that you have to as…

    Read More

  8. The Art Of Persuasion The One Fundamental Principle - Create A Win-Win

    The art of persuasion is based on the simple idea that you get what you want by enabling the other party to get what they want. Being a nice friendly person with good inter-personal skills may be a go…

    Read More

  9. Communication Persuasion And Change - Key Skills To Survive & Succeed

    It's not the strongest that survive, nor the most intelligent, but those who are most responsive to change, the most persuasive, and the best communicators. We are living in an age of unprecedented ch…

    Read More

  10. The Eisenhower Box - What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent

    What Is Important Is Seldom Urgent And What Is Urgent Is Seldom Important. The Eisenhower Box is a time management and decision-making model devised by President Dwight Eisenhower to help him prioriti…

    Read More

  11. Zen Enlightenment [Satori] - The Stink Of Zen

    Lost In Our Delusions About Enlightenment. There is something in human nature - a desire to glamorise, sanctify, objectify and idolise – that elevates people who have offered deep insights to the huma…

    Read More

  12. 5 Zen Mindsets For Mastery - In Any Area Of Your Life

    The Wisdom Of A Person Who Masters In Any Art Is Reflected In Their Every Attitude. The state and quality of your mind has a very large bearing on the quality of your performance in any area of life t…

    Read More

  13. Dealing With The Toxicity Of Online Dating - 6 Key Tips From A Clinical Psychologist

    Toxicity Is The Price Tag Of Accessibility. In the early days of online dating, users were vetted and had to go through a registration process and agree to comply with a code of conduct designed to en…

    Read More

  14. Why Understanding Ergodicity Is Critical To Your Long Term Survival

    How Not To Be Fooled By Randomness. Ergodicity is an ugly word from the world of mathematics. It is an umbrella term for two sets of conditions of probability and outcome. These two conditions form th…

    Read More

  15. Dealing With Imposter Syndrome - Ego Is The Enemy

    How You Frame A Situation Has A Profound Impact On How You Respond To It Emotionally. Imposter syndrome is a psycho-emotional experience of a fear of being found out as incompetent despite ongoing evi…

    Read More

  16. The Challenges Of The Road Less Traveled

    Issues You'll Face When Playing The Long Game. The challenges of the road less traveled is loosely based around the phrase popularised by M.Scott Peck with his book "The Road Less Traveled". This arti…

    Read More

  17. How To Benefit From the Unseen Margins - 5 Key Tips For Success

    These Unseen Margins Can Have A Very Dramatic Impact On Your Life. To understand how to benefit from the unseen margins we need to start by understanding what they are and where we find them. In this…

    Read More

  18. The Art Of Thinking Clearly - How To Do More Than Just Survive And Reproduce

    3 Key Tips The art of thinking clearly starts with the sobering realisation that our brains are designed to achieve two things: Survival and Reproduction! 98% of our thinking is unconscious, automatic…

    Read More

  19. Algorithms to Live By - 5 Useful Rules Of Thumb

    5 Useful Heuristics From Algorithms To Live By The thesis of the book "Algorithms to Live By" is that algorithms developed for computers can be used by people in everyday life in a wide range of situa…

    Read More

  20. Finding Signal In The Noise - How To Avoid The Noise Bottleneck

    The Art Of Being Wise Is The Art Of Knowing What To Overlook. We are blessed and cursed to live in the digital age. We have access to more information than we can possibly handle yet we struggle to fi…

    Read More

  21. The Checklist Manifesto - Your Personal Safety Net

    A Checklist Is A Safety Net That Encourages Better Results And Prevents Avoidable Mistakes. The volume and complexity of what we know has exceeded our individual ability to deliver its benefits correc…

    Read More

  22. How Not To Be Stupid - 4 Key Tips

    How To Avoid The 7 Causes Of Everyday Stupidity. We are all capable of everyday stupidity as we undertake routine tasks in our business and working lives and also in our personal lives. This is not ab…

    Read More

  23. Beginners Mind And The Voice Of Experience

    Only The Experts Survived Evolution. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." These are the famous words of Shunryu Suzuki in "Zen Mind, Beginner's Min…

    Read More

  24. The Art Of Being Alone Is A Skill

    Let's Make Today A Good Day. You may not have chosen the condition of being alone, and it may have been imposed upon you by circumstances beyond your control, but your response to the situation is wit…

    Read More

  25. Intuition & Anxiety - Are There Angels Or Devils Calling Here?

    How To Tell The Difference Between Intuition and Anxiety. How do you know whether the voice of your intuition is real or just the product of your inner anxiety? We all struggle with these inner voices…

    Read More

  26. Like A Prayer - Life Is A Mystery

    It Isn't The Process Of Prayer That’s The Problem, It’s The Way It’s Framed. Regardless of what we feel about Madonna or her song the topic of prayer often arouses strong reactions. Usually, it is som…

    Read More

  27. Fear Of Missing Out - "I'll Have What She's Having!"

    We Follow The Herd - We Mimic Other People's Choices. Fear of missing out - or FOMO as it is popularly referred to - is the feeling that everyone else in your peer group is having much more fun than y…

    Read More

  28. Free - Self Improvement Resources

    Exercising Balance and Discernment. I have just updated these self improvement resources with a number of additional sources of material that are practical and can help you change your life. Check it…

    Read More

  29. Your Higher Self - Your Hardwired Portal To The Universe

    This Is The You That Is Beyond Your Thinking Mind. This is the big you, the transcendent you, the you that is often referred to as your higher consciousness or higher self. This is the you that acts a…

    Read More

  30. The Power Of Gratitude - It's Good For You!

    Gratitude And Attitude Are Not Challenges, They Are Choices. The power of gratitude quite simply is that it is good for you! Many of us were raised by parents who instilled in us the social niceties o…

    Read More



Get new posts by email:









Zen-Tools.Net





Support This Site