Ammar Mian

An Essay on the Sanctity of Questions

When I find myself struggling with my own sense of right and wrong, I often return to educator Neal Postman’s book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. On the surface it’s about education, but like most great things, it touches on pretty much everything under the sun. Here’s a passage I recently came across that motivated this entire essay:

Very often children make declarative statements about things when they really mean only to elicit an informative response. In some cases, they do this because they have learned from adults that it is better to pretend that you know than to admit that you don't. 

(An old aphorism describing this process goes: Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.)

In other cases they do this because they do not know how to ask certain kinds of questions. In any event, a simple translation of their declarative utterances will sometimes produce a great variety of deeply felt questions.

Here’s a quick exercise: Find the questions that you react to in disgust, denounce without addressing, or refuse to even inspect.

If you’re having trouble thinking of one, here’s a sampler:

These are all questions, and presumably, they provoke curiosity and a desire to figure out if there is an answer. However, the weight of experience provokes other feelings, usually before curiosity has a chance to get a word in.

Rage and disgust.

“How dare you?!”

As a young child navigating a world of too-tall furniture designed for too-big people, all your questions were innocuous. “Does everyone have a butt?” “Why is the sky blue?” “What does ‘sex’ mean?” … Until the adults decided some questions are unaskable.

Questions are powerful. So powerful that some of them are deemed unaskable, for reasons that are often concealed or obscured to the asker. However, it is in these unaskable, blood-boiling inquiries that a much deeper understanding of the world and ourselves emerges. This is such a profound insight into solving problems that Toyota used it to develop a system (The “5 Whys”) that led to massive improvements in its manufacturing processes.

The Structure of a Question

So questions are important, and in any pedantic essay about questions, we must ask: What is a question? It is a statement that elicits an answer, an inspection, or another question. If we viewed this as a super simplistic grammar, we could describe it as such:

Question: Question | Answer | Inspection

Inspection: Question | Answer

Answer: { x1, x2, x3, x4, … xn }

A question either gives you an answer, or it gives you a possibly infinite stretch of questions or inspections. But very rarely does a question or inspection actually give you an answer; it just gives you more and more interesting questions to inspect.

Questioning is a process of drawing truth out of observations. Whether or not truth actually ends up getting drawn out (it usually will not), that’s besides the point, as long as the questioning continues.

The wonderful byproduct of asking questions is inspection. Questions beget questions to inspect, and very rarely do they beget answers. Through this process of questioning, your eyes open to notice more of the world happening around you.

There are many dynamic systems simultaneously at play that let you arrive to this very moment. And in your lifetime, you can only learn about a small sliver of them, but there is infinite beauty and depth in even the smallest thing you learn to truly see. This reminds me of that old Rumi bit: “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.”

All the world’s treasures are found in the questions we ask. Anything that suppresses one’s ability to question and to ask freely is an enemy of free inquiry.

"This Boils My Blood!"

Funnily enough, all questions are innocuous until they offend someone — otherwise, this problem of “unaskable questions” wouldn’t be much of a problem. Why does a question make someone’s blood boil? I’ve identified three main possibilities:

Go back to the question (or questions) that boil your blood and ask yourself, “Why does it boil my blood?”

Most blood-boilers have the effect they do due to the recipient’s suspicion or their fear. Very rarely is it the first possibility (“This is common sense!!”) because if it were that simple, you’d gladly invite the question, help the asker investigate it, and articulate an answer or clarification.

Questions that you find somewhat unaskable, disgusting, or blood-curdling are the very questions you should spend your days investigating. Hunt your blood-boilers and ask questions of them. Here lay great things, whether you’re a technologist, academic, activist, artist, friend, spouse, or normal dude LARPing around.

The Age of the Entrepreneur

Nowadays "entrepreneur" has become synonymous with "tech bro building apps for high-society dogs." But if we take a careful look at where this term comes from, we learn that it derives from the world of theater and the performing arts.

An entrepreneur generally speaking is an "undertaker", someone who brings an idea and an expression to life. We are all entrepreneurs now. The fracturing, divisive, polarized world demands it of us to find new shapes of meaning, coordination, and truth.

And the process of bringing anything to life, whether it be a business or a technology or a new form of expression, is that you are inevitably required to ask tough questions, unflinchingly, over and over again, of yourself and of those around you. This process of questioning and inspecting will yield views that many others think you're stupid for seeing.

Investor Andy Rachleff calls this the pursuit of being "non-consensus and right" (as opposed to consensus and wrong). Both are hard, because secrets wouldn't be secrets if they were lying in plain sight. Instead, they quite often find a comfortable home behind the unaskable questions.

Unashamedly asking questions is how we move past virtue-signaling, rhetorical devices, and the dogma of “the self as a public persona”. We are uniquely in service to the pursuit of truth. We have a valuable contribution to make to this collective human pursuit given our unique ability to ask questions of the world.

It takes a true weirdo to undertake the analysis of the seemingly obvious. But it is vital now more than ever to inspect the sacred symbols all around us and see what’s really going on beneath.

August 2017