It’s the quality of the question, stupid

It was in the early evening of one of those mid July Tuesdays, after roaming around for hours on end, that I finally decided to rest and reflect on my day while seeping a cold lager, at one of my favorite joints in one of my favorite corners of New York city: the famous McDougal street. This street, including the neighborhood, which is called Greenwich village, is one of the most fascinating and historically significant street I have ever been in my life and I will write about it in a different blog post, but now back to my story. Not long after I sat, the table next to me was occupied by four gentlemen, out of whom the three I immediately recognized. As it turns out, I was sitting a few feet from the famous standup comedians Dave Attell, Keith Robinson and Jim Norton. I consider myself a huge standup comedy buff and I watch quite a lot standup clips everyday and funnily enough, I was even watching a YouTube video featuring Norton and Attell just minutes before they came and sat next to me. Don’t you find these kinds of situations very weird ? This is probably why New York is the greatest city in the world. As much as I wanted to exchange a few words with these chaps and perhaps take a selfie with them, I couldn’t, due to the obvious covid scare. How many things can we lose due to this pandemic by the way ? Anyways, this post is not a rant about the pandemic or about the missed opportunities for a selfie with some comedians but it was born out of a reflection after very short conversation with the manager of the bar (this bar happened to be the famous NY comedy cellar) where I was at.

On my way out after paying, I met Liz, who manages the comedy cellar. As I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to ask her about the cellar, I blurted the first unfiltered thing on my mind:

me (geekishly): So when are you guys going to start comedy shows ?

Liz (detachedly and not even looking at me): Governor Cuomo hasn’t been telling me anything so I don’t know. (then walks away while grabbing some chairs)

As she didn’t seem keen for further engagement, I simply walked out. But while walking to the train station, I couldn’t but be bothered by her attitude in responding my question. My immediate thought sounded more like “after all, the X amount of $ I haven’t I spent in the establishment, though it might not get me an answer for my question, it should at least protect me from a cold shoulder treatment right ?”  Dear reader, I can imagine that you’re starting to feel a bit uneasy from the level of ego and sense of entitlement packed into my immediate reaction about the failed communication. At this point, I don’t even blame you if you might also have dropped a “who the f*** does this guy think he is “. So what was the problem that took our brief communication off the rails or better yet, what would have it taken to make our brief interaction a bit more satisfactory or at least didn’t end in resentment from one side ?  I argue that it all had to do with the quality of my question.

While waiting the D train, to go to uptown Manhattan, where I live, I couldn’t help but put myself in Liz’s shoes and reflect on the situation. How many times had she faced a similar question, everyday, in the past couple of weeks during the pandemic ? I would guess she had been asked this mindless question enough times to be frustrated enough into spewing a mindless automated reply. In fact, under such a time, where businesses are uncertain about their future and the continuance of their survival, my mindless question could have  added to her anxiety. Okay, before this starts to sound a prologue to communication seminar, I will get to my point. Splicing our brief interaction and wondering how our brief interaction could have been improved led me to one place: the quality of the question.

I could have asked a slightly better question or I could have simply framed my question in a different way such as:

  • Are you guys thinking of some outdoor shows somewhere in the city
  • Are you planning of partnering in anyone of those outdoor activities “
  • If indoor crowds are allowed tomorrow, how would you guys safely manage things

The quality of our lives can be correlated to the quality of the problems we try to solve everyday and daring to solve any problem starts with asking questions. Hence, by the transitive law, the quality of our lives is also correlated to the quality of questions we tend to pose in each day. In fact, out of the few things I learned in the first year of graduate school, the one that strikes me the most is how in research a good questions might even be more important than their answers. Sure, finding an answer for a mediocre question can get you publish a paper in a conference but a good question can have an enormous impact on your field of study or can just totally revolutionize it. As a matter of fact, in the entire human history, countless things have taken place as a result of good question but perhaps, one that stands out the most is a question following a falling apple in the garden of Isaac Newton. That question alone eventually led to the discovery of the theory of gravity, the three laws of motion and calculus (Isaac really knows how to take it easy huh 🙂 ).

But I must point out that, good questions don’t just come out of no where. It is highly unlikely that we wake up some day endowed with the astuteness to ask great questions. Like most things in life, asking good questions is a skill that is achieved by training the mind to be alert and developing keen observation skills. These are also mental qualities that are related to mindfulness.

So dear reader, if I managed to convince you that pursuing answers for good questions can improve your life, why don’t you start from now by carefully looking at your life, your surrounding and start asking one ? As for me, I have already found the great question for the day: “What am I doing still writing this blog and conversing with an imaginary reader this late into the night, when I have a conference call tomorrow at 9 am ” ?

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