How To Ask All the Wrong Questions

Way, way back in the early days of Casual Kitchen, an acquaintance who wanted to start a blog emailed me with several questions:

What do you do for database backup?
Where do you host your blog?
How do you scale up when your readership grows?

And so on. They were all very interesting, intelligent-sounding questions. And seemingly reasonable questions too, considering that this woman worked in a technical field.

Except that every single one of her questions turned out to be wrong.

Why? Because barely a month or two after she (enthusiastically!) started her blog, she just ...dropped it. She wrote a grand total of four posts.

Four posts. And she hasn’t touched her blog since.

So, all those questions about scaling up, about hosting, about database backup--none of them mattered in the slightest. They were the wrong questions.

You don’t know what you don’t know
Whenever we consider a brand new activity--investing, blogging, cooking, playing tennis, etc.--we always think we know more than we do. It’s when we actually start doing the activity that we come face to face with a real sense of how pathetically little we know.

In fact, our first step towards competence in any new field only comes when we truly wrap our minds around our incompetence. You have to accept and face the disheartening knowledge that you have a long way--a really long way--to go.

In other words, my friend knew so little about blogging that she didn’t even know the right questions to ask. She couldn’t know. Worse, the questions she did ask merely caused her to focus on all the wrong things. Forget worrying about how to back up her blog, she should have been trying to figure out what would make blogging fun enough so she wouldn't quit after four posts.

Wrong about tennis
Another example: Let’s say you decide to take up tennis. You’re in a sports equipment store, nibbling on your fingernail and staring at a wall of tennis racquets. And when the tennis racquet salesperson approaches you, a (seemingly) reasonable question might occur to you: what string tension I should use for my racquet?

Sounds intelligent, right? Except that anyone who's played tennis seriously for any amount of time would laugh uproariously at you for asking it.

Once again: know that your first questions are likely the wrong questions. The only person who will pretend this is the right question is the tennis racquet salesperson, as he attempts to sell you an overpriced $300 racquet.

Worst of all, that $300 racquet raises the stakes. It puts pressure on you to maximize your enjoyment out of tennis, and it may actually increase the chances that you’ll quit the sport in short order.[1]

Better to just go out and spend a summer or two hitting ten thousand balls with an inexpensive, or even a second-hand, racquet. Learn how to keep a ball in play for twenty hits without a miss. Then you'll be competent enough to ask informed questions about proper string tension, what kind of racquet is ideal, what tools you need to add to your game, and so on.

This principle applies to all spots: running, golf, beanbag tossing, even competitive belching. Never buy expensive equipment up front. Wait until you actually know what you need to know.

Wrong about Martha
One last example, from the domain of food: Let’s say you decide to take up cooking, and you’re wondering who to turn to in the food media for help on how and what to cook. You might reasonably look to Martha Stewart and all of her recipe ideas. After all, she’s famous for her cooking, isn’t she? She’s on TV and has her own magazine, right? Wouldn’t it be a great idea to try some of her recipes and techniques?

Nope. Any competent home cook would shake his head at your folly. Why? Because, as any Casual Kitchen reader could tell you, leaping to Martha Stewart-style recipes at the beginning of a home cooking career actually reduces the odds that you’ll continue to cook. You’re more likely to quit in frustration.

The point is this: when you start a new discipline, know that most of your questions, presumptions and ideas about that discipline will be wrong. Wrong in ways you never even imagined. Know this in advance.

Being right
Okay. So what are the right questions then? Here’s what to ask an expert in any field that’s completely new to you:

1) What are the most common mistakes that you typically see beginning [home cooks/ bloggers /tennis players] make?

2) What should I be learning as a new person starting to [cook/blog/play tennis, etc.]?

3) What did you find to be some of the unexpected early challenges of [cooking/blogging, etc.]?

4) What questions haven't I asked you that I should ask?

What’s the takeaway here? Primarily this: the questioner doesn't launch into a line of questions assuming she already knows. None of these are showoff questions that advertise the questioner’s expertise. Instead, each question is asked from a place of humility: this questioner knows she doesn't know.

This is how to take up blogging (or competitive belching) and not quit.

[1] It’s one thing to quit tennis in frustration after dropping $300 on a racquet. But in other domains, the stakes can be far higher. Take for example the domains of investing and personal finance: As many investors learned during the 2000-2002 tech crash and the 2008-2009 banking crisis, not knowing your own level of (in)competence--and not knowing the right questions to ask--can be financially devastating.

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chacha1 said...

I think there is really only one question that a would-be blogger should ask, and one person of whom she should ask it.

The person is herself.

The question is "do I already write every day just for myself?"

Because most blogs, even those which attempt to be instructive, thoughtful, beautiful, and/or entertaining, are going to be read by very few people.

So the writer needs to be prepared to write a lot, for a long time, without any feedback at all ... and without any grandiose notions of becoming a freelance-writing millionaire.

The writing, in other words, needs to be habitual, persistent, and done for its own sake.

Daniel said...

Yep, I agree. I read a lot of blogs (at last count my feedreader has some 600 blogs and websites in it), and there are so many exceptional sites out there that, literally, NO ONE reads. So, yes, I've seen what you're talking about too.

I think what misleads people is the fundamental survivor bias of it all. We tend to see the blogs that are well-known because those are the blogs that are... well-known. Nobody sees the blogs that nobody sees. So we think: "Hey, I can write as well as XYZ blogger! I should get readers too!" It's a road to perdition via extrinsic validation. :)

So, once again, agreed. If you want to write, don't hold your breath waiting for the world to beat a path to your door. Do it for yourself. Just write. And keep writing.