What if instead of projects, you used questions to guide you?

My PhD started with an intriguing question: “Why do DNA and other charged polymers attract each other in certain conditions?”

It’s not just counter-intuitive (like-charges should repel), it also goes against the results of simple calculations that you would make for the system.

At first, the question was exciting. A mysterious phenomenon, one that once unraveled might have wide-reaching implications, such as new possibilities for medical implants, or preventing cystic fibrosis patients from drowning in their body’s own fluids.

It was decided (note the passive tense), that “a good project” would be to extend some simulation results published in 1997, using the much greater computational resources available today.

Two years later, I had lost all enthusiasm. My project had stalled. None of the simulations I wrote produced any meaningful results. Nothing I read on the subject of “like-charged attraction” made any sense to me.

I had always assumed that I simply got bored with the drudgery of research. But I recently realized the truth:

My PhD died the minute it stopped being a question and became a “project”.

It was on life-support ever since, taking only as little of my energy as I could spare from my other more exciting pursuits (i.e. software). And it continued that way for more years than I can even bear to actually count.

What is a PhD?

Most professors will give you the standard answer: “A PhD is a unique contribution to human knowledge.”

So you counter: “What if a high school student stumbles on something that is a unique contribution to human knowledge. Is that a PhD?”

“Of course not. It must be published, or at least publishable.” he’d reply.

“Alright, so what if I find a creative way to answer the initial question, and publish the result in a year. Is that a PhD?”

“No. PhD’s take several years to complete.” he’d say. No matter the question, it was hard to get a sense of what, exactly, a PhD was.

In the end, I did finish my thesis. For better or worse, I stuck with it for years until I was able to, with great relief, pull out my draft and hand it to my supervisor.

It was then and there, sitting in my supervisor’s office, that I had my final answer. He picked up the draft, flipped directly to the last page, and looked at the page count. 157. He gave a slight nod.

That’s my answer then:

A PhD in Physics is a project that takes 5 years or more to complete, and covers at least 150 pages.

What is a “Project”?

Project (n.):

  1. An undertaking requiring concerted effort.
  2. An extensive task undertaken by a student or group of students to apply, illustrate, or supplement classroom lessons.

As soon as something becomes a project, it takes on weight. In our minds, it becomes a thing that must be pushed up a hill with concerted effort.

Worse, a project can very take on a life of its own, outside of the purpose that created it.

My PhD started with an intriguing question. But shaped by Parkinson’s law and the structure of graduate research, it was quickly turned into a project with a minimum acceptable size and scope.

It no longer was about answering a question, about the “pleasure of finding things out”. It became about “going through the motions” like any of the 9-5 jobs in the world.

A project, then, is something that requires concerted effort over an extended period of time, to produce some predetermined result.

In other words, projects are defined by the difficulty it takes to complete them.

Why are questions better guides?

Projects are closed structures, designed to be easily measurable, easily gradable. They evolved in the rigid and stifling organizations that are today’s schools and companies and governments. They have one function: to generate perceived progress towards an aim. Actual progress is secondary. Projects have owners. Projects assume to know the form the final solution will take, leading us to get stuck for years in blind alleys, rather than look around for a different approach.

A question is always open. It invites participation. It invites your own “supercomputer mind” to work on it, even while you sleep. Questions have no owners. Questions invite alternate solutions. They invite playful connections. Questions can only lead to more, and better, questions.

What questions guide me?

When I started Gingko, these are some of the questions that guided me:

  • Why do we insist on writing linearly when our minds do not think linearly?
  • If linear writing is too constrained, what if a web of hyperlinks is too chaotic? What if we need something in between?
  • What if we could write at more than one level of detail?
  • How might we write in 2 dimensions instead of 1?

And so on. I’ve been following these questions implicitly for years, and I believe I’ve provided an answer for some of them with Gingko. But the beauty of questions is that answering them only triggers new and better and bigger questions.

Here are just a few of the questions that guide me now:

  • What if one could create massive impact in the world, without inducing massive stress?
  • What if software could be for everyone, not just the privileged few?
  • What if there was some new kind of organization that perfectly combined shared purpose with complete independence?
  • What if the natural and most productive state of human beings is that of playful inquiry?
  • How might we design organizations to function exclusively on playful inquiry?
  • What if there were no boundaries between ‘laymen’ and ‘scientists’?
  • What if we could solve all the problems in the world, from the uneven distribution of wealth and resources, to the apathy and drudgery of 9-5 work, by simply changing the way we solve problems?

What questions guide you?

It takes strength to live in uncertainty in an age that so values answers and certainty. We have to go against every school lesson, every homework assignment, every project brief we’ve every taken on. To live a life guided by questions, we have to go back to our childlike ways. We have to re-acquire the “beginner’s mind”, and see everything around us as new.

It takes strength, and a rebellious nature. But in the end, what you gain for yourself is a gift: the ability to make a difference, while living a life of constant creative flow. A return to the wonders of childhood, combined with a deep sense of purpose.

In the end, the only difference between making a massive impact and making no impact, is the persistence in following your big questions to wherever they may lead.

 Further Reading

5 thoughts on “What if instead of projects, you used questions to guide you?

  1. I recently had a lot of things happening to me and to my family. Since then, I started to ask new questions:
    “What kind of person do I want to be?”
    “What kind of work will help others, provide meaning to me and earn me enough money to live while using as much of my strengths as often as possible?”

    1. Sorry to hear you’re having a hard time, Jens.

      “What kind of person do I want to be?” is a very powerful question.
      For me, I’ve tried to create a model of this person in my mind, and I try to ask myself “What would I do if I were the person I aspire to be?” even for very small actions.
      It helps build that habit of asking for small actions, so that when the next big decision comes in, you’ll know to use the question, and your image of who you want to be, to guide you.

      It sounds ridiculously naive, but I believe that one day, we won’t have to add “and earn enough to live” to our search for meaning and purpose. It sucks that we still do.

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