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Simple Questions

The “real world” comes with a huge list of benefits, mainly the freedom and means to make decisions. But as time runs its course, some of youth’s perks are forfeited as payment for such an independent, self serving life. Most companies, or at least various departments within, have a culture and personality that goes beyond the office space, inhabiting a small place in employees’ souls. That’s not to say every company and department is different, but industries, regions, and size can lead to a similar approach. For children, however, this divide has yet to occur. Artists, musicians, athletes and academics all study together. Social class separates, but as elementary school leads to high school and from there to college, class walls begin to disappear and multidisciplinary integration holds its final grip. It’s what makes higher education so important and such a unique setting as compared to the high schools and workplaces throughout the world.

The benefit of having everyone in one place, all of the extroverts and introverts, the rich and poor, religious and non, is that variety has a way of reducing expectations. In a technology firm, employees are expected to navigate the internet and build a spreadsheet, athletes should know what it means to eat well and how to properly stretch, musicians are expected to read music. This is forgotten at school, classes and clubs are open for newcomers and students are encouraged to test the waters.

It’s with this change of attitude that learning can flourish. Intimidation battles education in the “real world”, but it’s absent at school. Teachers and peers are happy to answer questions and build understanding. One’s lack of knowledge will not affect the success of another, will not dampen the reputation of all. Simple questions don’t expose those who don’t know, but those who want to know.

In a time of such great change, where technology seems to be destroying jobs while individuals question everything from their rights to their gender, it’s crucial to gain understanding. But how hard it can be when we’re expected to know so much already.

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ~Laozi

The first step is the most difficult. And getting to a point of understanding means first realizing what isn’t understood. Breaking the problem down to its core and admitting that nothing makes sense. And nothing displays this more, reveals a lack of understanding better, than simple questions. They are everywhere in the classroom and the best amongst us seem to carry them through life. It’s no secret that the smartest people, those with experience and knowledge, are so eager to ask such questions.

“What is the cloud?”

“Why is sugar bad?”

“What does Brexit mean?”

I see a few motivations, both leading to an understanding we all pursue. A knowledge that goes beyond a pop quiz definition, defending the idea against skeptics and conversing about merits. Equipping ourselves with such a deep, true grasp of ideas undoubtedly sparks confidence, growth, and happiness.

First, a central stimulant for such basic questioning, is skepticism about one’s own comprehension. A castle built on sand is doomed but solidifying that foundation early, before the weight of more complex thoughts causes basic ideas to buckle, is the only way to mastery.  Subsequent conversations lean on simple facts, testing and strengthening them. Driving these pillars deeper as accuracy is confirmed.

Second, and perhaps more impressive, is the tendency for the smartest to develop a fuller truth. Some facts are simple but most are far more complex than we give credit. I think about gravity, an idea which almost certainly is taught to us as “the reason things fall”. Why we can’t fly, why the “ground” exists as such a formidable, ever present bottom. But this is barely it. Gravity is the attraction to everything. It affects astronauts and surfers, it guides the planets, the seasons, and the stars. Without pushing for a better meaning, continually asking “What is gravity?”, how are we expected to strengthen the foundation. New information, from teachers, classmates, family, and friends expands on an initial understanding to fill out the picture. It turns a photo to a video, adding context and angles.

At times, it feels that the only path to such questions is through humility. Without it, one believes they “know”, that others cannot help, only be helped. But as with gravity, I can assure you that most ideas have more layers than can be understood in a lifetime. Applying such layers to our own foundations requires opening them up for inspection. But if we’re confident there isn’t one explanation, one source for the explanation of ideas, is it really humility that asks the questions, or a prudent desire to truly understand? Returning to such a basic question doesn’t display a lack of pride but a desire, a need, to learn.

Understanding is built and grows, changing meaning as time runs its course. Knowledge today may be enlightened tomorrow, affecting all ideas that rise from basic principles. The world is questioning basic rights while progressing into an economic division never before seen. Foundations are being shook. So now, more than ever, feels like a proper time to ask questions. Not to prove humility and show a desire to negotiate. No, because if we’re ever going to have tough conversations, to ask difficult questions and build bigger castles, it must start from the simple questions.


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