Asking Open Ended Questions to Pursue a Personal Philosophy

The book, Building a Second Brain, by Tiago Forte is about productivity and how we collect and connect information. He goes through a specific methodology (his “second brain” system) for doing this. One of the things that caught my attention in his book is that he uses personal open ended questions to collect information on things he is interested in but may not currently have a project for. Most knowledge management systems are targeted towards completing specific projects and goals. Using personal open ended questions, though, is a way of pursuing things that may not have an answer or a goal at the time.

This method of using open ended questions was also recommended by Richard Feynman. Feynman said that he always carried a list of his twelve favorite problems. These problems helped him to filter the information he pursued and the information he chose to receive. 

Some of Feynman’s questions were:

  • How can I accurately keep track of time in my head?
  • What is the unifying principle underlying light, radio, magnetism, and electricity?
  • How can I sustain a two-handed polyrhythm on the drums?

These questions are very specific.  As a scientist he used specific methods to come up with answers to these problems.

But what about the things that we don’t know, things that are intangible? How do we frame questions to help us find answers to these questions? 

The Art of Open-Ended Questions
The art of asking open ended questions is often applied to interviews and crime related issues. The goal is to get as much information about a specific subject without leading someone to a specific answer. For example, the following guidelines are used by the state of North Carolina in interviews.(1)

Why are open-ended questions so important?

  • They require a person to pause, think, and reflect.
  • Answers include personal feelings, opinions, or ideas about a subject.
  • Open-ended questions begin in very specific ways. Open-ended questions begin with the following words: why, how, what, describe, tell me about…, or what do you think about…

Use open-ended questions as follow ups for other questions. These follow ups can be asked after open or closed-ended questions.

    • Ask “why” and “how” to follow up and gain a more thorough answer after asking a closed-ended question.

But what about personal open-ended questions? Questions that might be more subjective than the kind of questions that can be answered by the scientific method. 

The Stoics carried philosophical questions with them and they used them to constantly assess a given situation and respond accordingly.

Samples of Stoic questions could be:

  • Is this in my control?
  • What am I missing by choosing to worry or be afraid?
  • Does this actually matter?

In guided meditations we are reminded to look inward and ask ourselves questions that help us respond to our current meditation, and additionally to become mindful of our responses to occurrences in daily life. 

Samples of such meditative questions are:

  • Where might I lean into forgiveness (of self or other)?
  • How does anger/grief/anxiety/happiness present in my body?
  • Who am I without using any words to define myself?

Samples for personal insight and contemplation might be:

  • What is my personal philosophy in life?
  • What do I believe is true about human nature?
  • What do I believe is most important for happiness in life?

Your own personal questions are unique to you. Perhaps you have a list and carry it with you.  At those times when you come across something that seems insightful or makes you ask further questions you can note them. In this way you start refining and creating answers to your own questions.  

Scientific questions usually have specific answers.  But the kind of personal questions that are often most pertinent to our lives may not have such clear cut answers. Or the answers may be specific to only you. But by knowing what’s important to you, or knowing when you come across something that connects to one of your questions, you begin to grow and expand your own personal philosophy. 

So, for what are you searching for answers?

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