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Ask Many Questions

August, 2013

Note: This is part of a series of articles that starts here: Radical Thinking.

One obvious way to think new and different thoughts is to ask a lot of questions about things. Here are some examples of the general questions you might ask about a given matter, thing, philosophy, situation, person or idea:

Why is it the way it is?

How could it be different?

What if it didn't exist?

What was the goal here?

What is the best thing about this?

What is the worst thing about this?

Where could this be more useful?

Who made this the way it is?

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

What are other people doing differently?

Incidentally, apart from generating creative and sometime radically new ideas, this is also a great method for creating jokes and comedy routines. Some of the funniest comedians develop their jokes and stage presentations by questioning everything. Consider, for example, the idea of achieving immortality through writing or other work -- a common enough thought. Questioning this idea might bring you to the following funnier thought:

I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying. - Woody Allen

Sometimes the question itself is the joke:

Why is it when we talk to God we're praying, but when God talks to us, we're schizophrenic? - Lily Tomlin

Questioning the definitions of words can lead to funny results as well:

Definition of confidence: Ignorance of the many ways one can fail. - Steve Gillman

I bring up humor in this lesson because it can be very radical. It can be a whole different way of looking at life; a way that gets at the root of things. A comedian questions the idea that vegetarians don't want to hurt animals, for example, turns the idea around and draws a cartoon of carrots and broccoli marching with signs that say "Down with vegetarians!" Whether or not it makes you laugh, it does point to some fundamental questions about the nature of sympathy and the line between various life forms and how this fits into our own ideas about morality.

Incidentally, I have a page that addresses the question: What is humor? I also have a page on how to write jokes and riddles as a mental exercise. Now, let's get back to...

Questioning Everything

I recently put up a page on famous dropouts, which covered just those who dropped out of high school, like the billionaire Richard Branson, the mathematician Albert Einstein and the actor John Travolta. I pointed out that it's less common now for dropouts to succeed in many areas, because diplomas, degrees, and official papers have become so much more important than in the past. For the sake of this lesson, then, let's ask some radical questions about diplomas and degrees. Here are a few that come to mind, with some answers, ideas, and ponderings:

What does a degree or diploma really prove?

A college degree shows that the person took certain courses and met the requirements to get that piece of paper. Since we all can think of people with degrees who really don't know what they are doing, the papers certainly don't prove the person is qualified for the position he or she seeks or has. At best, it is a way for employers to increase the odds of hiring a qualified person. In addition, some people feel that it does show the ability to commit to something, since it does take some effort and time to get a degree.

Why do we think we need paper credentials?

Many people think that we need to have such a system of diplomas and degrees to have a safer society. This idea carries on into licensing of everyone from doctors to those who cut our hair or decorate our homes. As we know, there are bad hairstylists and deadly doctors with the "proper" degrees and licenses so, again, all we can really hope for is that this process will increase the odds that we'll be safe and get good haircuts.

Why is it the system the way it is?

What really keeps the whole system of "credentialization" going and growing? Consider a psychologist who spent eight years getting educated and licensed. He doesn't want others to be able to open a therapy office after training for eight weeks, right? Thus the professional organizations he belongs to lobby on his behalf for licensing laws and regulations. The system is kept going by those who have an interest in limiting competition, which means those who have already paid the price to enter the game.

What are the good things about this system?

The system may increase the odds that we get accountants with some education, and teachers who can read and write. There is also something to be said for the idea that requiring this lengthy process also proves an ability to make a commitment, since the person with the degree or license must spend so much time to complete the requirements (but then that brings up the question of whether the ability to commit to years of work is really important to all fields).

What are the bad things about this system?

1. Great minds and qualified people can are excluded from positions where they could do a lot of good. For example, would Einstein succeed today as a high school dropout? In today's political environment, would we elect any of the eight past presidents who quit high school? And have we really been better off with our more "educated" presidents?

2. The system lulls the public into a false sense of security. We spend more time researching the purchase of a cell phone than which doctor to use, despite the provable fact that some doctors kill twice as many patients on the operating table as others (nobody even asks which ones.) As an another example, few people seem to care that more than half of all licensed investment advisors perform worse in the stock market than you would if you threw darts at the newspaper to make your stock picks.

3. It forces all participants to make the same large investment in time, even though many could learn what they need to be qualified in half that time or less. This is a terrible inefficiency and a unjust personal burden for the better candidates.


I would suggest asking many more questions than I did here, but for the sake of this lesson, these will do for now. You'll certainly have your own ideas about this issue, based not only on these questions, but on your experience. But here are some new ideas that come to my mind when pondering these questions and answers.

1. A Rating System

A friend of mine had a bachelor's degree in business administration, which is what got him a job with a company that sold natural gas to large companies. He hated the job, and did poorly. A good used car salesman with a fifth-grade education would have done better, since this was essentially a sales position. So much for the value of a degree.

Perhaps what we need is a company that rates people for the likelihood of success in various specific positions, using personal information and testing. The person would be given a score. Once it is demonstrated that this system is better at predicting performance than traditional credentials are, employers could hire based on those scores. They might hire a highly educated employee one time and a fifth-grade dropout the next, but ideally they would have better employees on average. Consider the credit scoring systems that have developed in recent years. The FICO score in particular has done wonders for the mortgage industry, because this one number we are each given has been consistently better at predicting risk than all the bankers' best efforts (the problems that led to the real estate slump had much more to do with ignoring these scores than with using them). Why not try something similar?

2. New Kinds of Degrees

What if instead of having any course requirements, you just had to prove that you were educated and qualified enough to have a given degree? This is done on a small scale in some colleges with courses that one can "test out" of (pass by way of a test), but I'm suggesting that degrees potentially be awarded without any defined course work as long as there is testing that can show an applicant deserves the degree. Perhaps later a study would show that these graduates are performing as well as the traditionally educated professionals.

Is this scary? Not to me. I've known enough lousy teachers and doctors and other professionals to have lost faith in those pieces of paper on their walls. To simply complete some courses to get a degree doesn't seem like a recipe for competency to me. If there was rigorous testing to get the degree, I would have more faith in a lawyer who studied on his own for six months and got a degree in this way than in one who just managed to show up for classes for six or eight years.

3. No Required Degrees or Licenses

What if there were no legal requirements for degrees or licensing in most fields? Would this be as dangerous as people think? Not likely. Having no legal requirement doesn't mean there would be no degrees or licenses. Certainly most people would still go to professionals who had the usual credentials on their walls, and using false credentials would be punishable by jail time as it is now, because it would be fraud. We have professionals out there with fraudulent credentials already, so this is nothing new.

What would be new is our choice to seek alternatives. Dental hygienists, for example, would probably set up their own offices to do basic teeth cleaning at half the cost we pay for this service at dentists' offices (hygienists are usually the ones that clean your teeth anyhow, but the law requires that they do it while working for a dentist).

A woman could learn everything needed to prepare wills in about six weeks, and charge much less for that service, and the specialization in that one area might make her much more competent than an attorney who does a few wills each year.

Schools might train medical technicians to stitch up small cuts and treat other minor injuries, and graduate them in six months instead of the many years a doctor has to go to school now. If they then set up clinics for these minor injuries, they could charge a third of what is currently charged (they invest a lot less to get their degree), and because they are specializing, they might even do a far better job than is done by most doctors today. Not convinced? Then you would be free to spend hundreds of dollars for the usual "licensed" doctor, while I could be legally free to get my broken finger set for $50.

Questions, Questions, Questions

As mentioned, I suggest asking many more questions than in this example. Play around with a lot of ideas as well. You may disagree with some of my conclusions above, and you may even think many of my specific ideas are worthless, but I think I have at least demonstrated how new ideas can come from asking the right questions, and from questioning the answers.

To get in the habit of questioning everything just pick something to think about each day and write down all the questions that come to mind. It might be something you saw on the news, or just an object sitting on your desk. The questioning is more important than the answers or new ideas you come up with. Good questions will always suggest new ideas in any case. Do this for a few weeks and it will become a powerful mental habit.

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