We have a tendency to assume that things aren’t our fault when we don’t achieve our goals or miss out on some opportunity. If we didn’t get the job, we assume they must have had someone already in mind. If we didn’t win the game, we remember that the refs were making some truly bad calls. What if we said that no matter what the situation is, no matter what the failure, no matter whose fault it is, the only way to improve is to prove ourselves wrong?
Questions Change Everything
Imagine a friend of ours applied and interviewed for a job but didn’t get the job. They ask us, “what am I supposed to learn from this? I feel like it wasn’t meant to be.” With limited details, the amount that can be learned is also limited. If all we know is that they didn’t get the job, we can only form very basic assumptions, such as “you must have done poorly in the interview,” or “they must have had a better candidate.”
But what if we get more information? What questions were asked in the interview? Was our friend able to answer all of the questions well? Did they know the subject of the job they were interviewing for? Did they talk to anyone who worked at the organization or for the group they were looking to work for prior to the interview? Were they on time, dressed in a way that best represented themselves? Did they get any feedback on the reasons?
All of the various questions start to dictate the information we ultimately learn from. It would follow then that asking the right questions can get us pretty far when we encounter any problem. But are we asking the right questions?
The important caveat is that whoever is coming up with the questions has a particular perspective, and generally, it is one that suits the individual’s best interest or goals. If the questions are biased or have a limited perspective, the answers, no matter how true they are, also are biased and have a limited perspective.
This is found in statistical studies all the time. Leading questions, loaded questions, and a host of other biases can manipulate the results. For example, what if we asked, “Did the interviewer seem to be prejudiced? Was there anyone of the same race, gender, etc. represented? Wasn’t there an article stating how bad the company was? Didn’t your shoelace break right beforehand?” We could go on, asking questions that have less and less importance or more and more bias.
On one hand, there are no bad questions. But if we answer the first set of questions, we may glean some information about how we can improve or better posture ourselves for the next interview. The second set of questions could teach us that the interviewer was possibly prejudiced, and the environment wasn’t appropriate for us, that there were even signs pointing to the fact that we shouldn’t take the job.
The trick to asking the right question is to simplify the question to be as broad as possible first, then let the answers dictate the next set of questions. So, if we are asking questions about race or gender, what is the broader question that encompasses that line of questioning? Most likely, this simplification will start to flush out broken or misguided questions. If our ultimate question isn’t somehow aligning with self-improvement, then we know our intention isn’t improvement.
Not only do we have to worry about the questions starting off as bad questions, but we have to ensure that we can do something about wrong answers. Wrong answers could come from not doing enough research, making assumptions, or any other host of mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with getting wrong answers; in fact, we should always expect wrong answers.
One way to do this is to use some lessons from science and treat our answers more like hypotheses and not assume our answers are definitely true. This means we have to formulate our answers in a way that uses disprovable statements. We have to have a method that can be attempted, which, if successful, will prove the statement wrong.
For example, if the answer to ‘why didn’t we get the job’ is ‘because the job interviewer was sexist,’ how do we disprove that statement? How would we prove that the interviewer is not sexist? If the interviewer said so, would that be enough? If the interviewer posted nice things about the opposite sex, would that be enough? Since the answer has no way of being disproved, it can’t lead to valid conclusions.
This doesn’t mean the answer isn’t true; it just means we can’t put the answer to the test. Without disprovable statements, our answers can become a dangerous safe haven for various logical fallacies and self-deception.
What about when we intentionally (or subconsciously) answer wrongly? This may seem far-fetched, but it happens all the time. If we had asked ourselves after the interview, ‘did we study enough before the interview?’, our gut reaction may be “yes, of course, we did everything we could.” The over-confident person is essentially practicing self-deception just the same as the person with low self-esteem.
Thankfully, disprovable statements can also help flush out self-deception. If the answer is disprovable, we can simply keep asking questions until we disprove it. So, for example, the statement ‘we did everything we could’ is disprovable because we can at least try to come up with things we could have done instead. Find one thing, and we would know we were wrong.
But wait, if we “believe we can do something,” isn’t that a positive statement? Why would we want to try and prove it wrong? Put simply, we need to put it to the test; we have to find out if we’re right or wrong. What is the point of believing something if we don’t put it to the test? If we do happen to prove ourselves wrong, then we learn something, and we also create a new statement to prove wrong: “We cannot do it.” Notice that if we always work to prove ourselves wrong, we will never be stuck in a rut. However, if we are always trying to prove ourselves right, one wrong belief could have us stuck forever.
The Learning Rule
Initially, I came up with the rule: Ensure that the questions we ask ourselves always work together to help answer the ultimate question “how can I improve and be better prepared to accomplish the goal next time?” With this frame of mind, any set of questions could arguably be useful. The point was that by prioritizing the right question, all the rest of the questions and answers fall in line.
However, with more thought, I realized that there are a lot of skewed answers out there. There are those who wholeheartedly believe that they are improving themselves, yet somehow, they don’t seem to be doing the right thing; their answers are somehow mired in possible self-deception or cognitive dissonance, and as such, their improvements and outcomes become more and more skewed.
So realistically, our concepts form a deceptively simple rule: “Never stop proving yourself wrong.”
“We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.” -Richard Feynman