Is there such a thing as too many questions?

Girl in Field

Curiosity: The natural urge to continually question the world around us, to understand how things work and where they come from.

Recently, my colleague Courtney Carr posted a wonderful blog on the ways in which we ask questions, encouraging us to never stop doing so. But I wanted to capture the alternative view: Can there be such a thing as too many questions? Can questions ever be dangerous?

Certainly, you’ve heard of “loaded” or “leading” questions. What about when asking questions get us into trouble — whether it be asking something at the wrong time, or in a way that makes us look or feel slightly awkward? If a questioning mentality is a great thing to have, why do we sometimes hear negative comments about inquisitive people?

When there is a question asked, there is knowledge to be learned. This can be both a blessing and a curse.

Knowledge can be a wonderful, but also dangerous thing to have. Too much can lead to information overload, anxiety and potentially depression if we don’t assimilate what we learn in a manner that works for our brain. A dear friend and colleague of mine recently shared an article discussing rumination, when the brain cycles through questions and thoughts incessantly without any real purpose.

Defeating this sometimes-dangerous mind pattern requires mindfulness, breaking through the negative thought cycles before depression and anxiety can take hold. Mindfulness in general is a wonderful technique to have at your fingers tips when you need to deal with large amounts of information or an overwhelming number of questions. And in our digital world, this is something we all face on a daily basis.

The mind is an amazing puzzle. History has shown us that geniuses – famous artists, mathematicians, etc. – can be prone to anxiety and depression, and some have studied the link between creativity and mental illness. Maybe this is due to overstimulation, the amount of questions running through the mind of a genius all at once. Even Albert Einstein discussed this problem: “A question that sometimes drives me hazy: Am I or are the others crazy?”

When we ask questions, we should be mindful of how we phrase them and whom we ask. We need to be careful not to guide others in their responses. As Einstein said, “A man (or woman) should look for what is, and not for what he thinks it should be.”

And we need to be patient. Sometimes it can take months or weeks to come to a resolution or find an answer to a question we may have. And that is ok. Years, decades or even centuries have gone by before humans answered some of the biggest questions of the universe. And there are many still out there. Being ok with not having an answer right now is something we all need to become comfortable with.

As Einstein says, “I used to go away for weeks in a state of confusion.” Being comfortable with confusion and uncertainty is needed today. Perhaps this is why my mother said to me (and I say it as a mother now), “You can ask the same question until the cows come home.” In other words, the answer won’t change no matter how long you keep asking the question. (Perhaps this is why my husband and father offered these wise words, “What did your mother say?”)

At the same time, we need to be comfortable with the answer to the question changing. Being disproven may sting at first, but it’s a good thing in time. Sometimes asking the simplest question of all, even to those with all the answers, is the best course of action. “Are you OK?” can give a rare insight into our colleagues, clients, friends and family.

What happens when we go to the other extreme and choose not to ask questions? Our mind goes round and round in circles and stops developing or changing. It creates a silo mentality, like a happy dog forever chasing his tail. The silo effect occurs when everyone goes on in their own lives, blissfully unaware of the wider world. Although, they are happy, right?

Balance is required, an awareness of the difference between information and knowledge. As Einstein once again said, “Information is not knowledge” and he was right. We are surrounded by information, everywhere, more every minute, and it both answers and raises more and more questions. But how much of that information do we turn into knowledge? That’s what matters.

In Einstein’s words, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, if not simpler.” In my view, this is the answer to asking the right questions.

The perfect question is born from a beautiful mind, from a kind and considerate person that knows the right time and way to ask. How can we learn this skill? The only answer to that is wisdom. We learn through experience, knowing ourselves and those around us, trusting those around us to know when something is not quite right and ask, “R U OK?”

Trust in your own instinct. This will get you to the answer eventually.


Sarah James was ANZ lead for Authentic Leadership in DXC and an advocate for DXC’s Women in Leadership and STEM. Prior to leaving DXC in September 2017, Sarah founded the Empowering Future Leaders blog and was its primary author. With over 15 years of experience in the world of IT, Sarah’s specialty is spatial information and includes integration on projects as diverse as mapping volcanoes in Hawaii to delivering high-tech police vehicles.

RELATED LINKS

Why we all need to ask more questions

Learning from the veterans in our workplace

Good enough is never good enough, right?

Comments

  1. geosupergirl says:

    One of my old colleagues and mentors sent me a beautiful emaIL last night about this blog. He, Sean Kery gave me permission to post his thoughts here. Hope you enjoy and Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts Sean.
    “Cool Blog……..Ive looked at the mindfullness teachings of Jon Cabot Zin and others, but what works for me is a bit different. I carefully select what questions I ask and what avenues of investigation I follow, and then go at them hard until I’ve gotten as far as I can or as is necessary, depending on what I’m trying to get out of it.

    I’m having trouble as I suspect a lot of DXC’ers are as well, with information overload when working with “Big Data”. It reaches a point where keeping track of the metadata consumes a lot of time and resources and we can get lost for weeks post processing through the lake to find the patterns we are looking for. Part of the difficulty is that the data lake is like scuba diving in the real ocean. Once you are submerged in it, it can be very difficult to tell where you are and what direction you are swimming in. It can be fun to “Get Lost in the Data”, but then we have trouble meeting deadlines and accomplishing what we set out to do. I guess that’s because data science like any other science is inherantly open ended. I guess that means that asking questions should be done with a bit of mental discipline?

    On the R U all Right, front. I think we all need some down time when we are not questioning, striving , learning. I think neuroscientists would talk about there being a time effect in forming new mental pathways. One of the theories of Autism is that their brains have no down time, the neurons are firing, firing firing, it must be exhausting.”

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