It’s easy to feel the need to take sides. So many problems, questions, and issues in the world seem to have two opposing answers, and we’re constantly asked to choose which we accept. But the real, radical change comes not from those who pick a side and advocate their solution better than everyone else, but from those who reject the underlying premise of the question altogether.
Yesterday in an interview I was asked whether college was a good investment for young people. This is the kind of question everyone seems to think is important and has an answer for these days. Charts and graphs and data sets are brought out to prove or disprove the financial value of a degree. She wanted to know where I stood on the question. I apologized and said I can’t provide an answer because I don’t accept the question. She was confused. I asked her how she would answer if asked whether pickup trucks were a good investment for young people. She laughed and said, “I guess it doesn’t really make sense to try to answer for an entire group.” Exactly. But how easy it is to accept the premise and jump into a fruitless debate about aggregates instead of individuals with real lives and real choices.
Later in the interview she asked whether I thought liberal arts were important, or if I was on the side of learning practical skills. Once again, I had to reject the premise. This common dichotomy is a false one. You don’t have to choose between abstract thinking and applied knowledge. In most cases, you need to do both to do either really well, certainly in the world of entrepreneurship.
These are but a few examples. It’s a useful exercise to step back from any debate or problem and try to discover the premise underlying the apparent conflict. The most productive response to a question isn’t always an answer. Sometimes it’s a better question. It’s not about picking the right sides but picking the right questions.