Coming up with questions to "channel your ideas"

In this video released in late March 2023, I said that coming up with questions to guide the research you do can help you to, as John Dewey puts it, "hold [your] current of ideas to a definite channel" (Dewey, How We Think).

If you are just now coming up with questions to guide whatever research you plan on doing, you might find what's below to be of some assistance.

Already working on a specific project?

If you're already working on a specific project, then the questions you come up with should be the ones that will help you to bring that project to completion.

For instance, if you're a student in your final year of college and have just a semester or two to write a senior thesis, and if you have already figured out more or less what the subject of your thesis will be, then you should come up with questions you will need to answer in order to write a good senior thesis.

Yeah, I know, there's nothing surprising here.

Don't have a specific project in mind?

If you don't have in mind a specific project (with or without an already determined due date), then perhaps you have a number of things you're interested in that you'd like to research over the course of many months or years. If that is the case, then chances are that you would also like to get to a point where you can transform the research you do into something you will share with others, whether that be an essay, article, book, video, podcast episode, etc.

If this is the situation you're in, you might want to check out what's below. (If you'd like to jump immediately to seeing the sorts of questions other people have come up with, click here.)

"12 favorite problems"

I wouldn't be surprised if you've come across something that talks about listing your "favorite problems." Among those who talk about coming up with such a list is Tiago Forte, the maker of the online course Building a Second Brain (and more recently the author of a book with the same title).

Forte points out that Richard Feynman, a famous Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist who made contributions to a number of fields, was once asked how he kept on making significant scientific discoveries throughout his life. Feynman's response was that what you need to do is "keep a dozen of your favorite problems […] present in your mind," and then, whenever you come across something relevant to one of those problems, check to see whether it helps to solve the problem.

Forte encourages people to come up with 12 of their "favorite problems," and he instructs them to formulate those problems as questions.

Tiago Forte's advice

Forte recommends that you start your questions with the words "what" and "how" so that you end up with open-ended questions rather than ones that could be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”

If we follow this advice, then we shouldn't come up with a question like “

Does money buy happiness?”

We should instead reformulate the question so that it can’t be answered with a simple “yes" or "no.” Maybe something like:

What do people need in order to live happy lives?

The statement that “money buys happiness”—or maybe the more accurate statement that “money buys happiness to some extent”—could be among the possible answers to the question about living a happy life, but it’s probably best to have the question be fairly general and open ended, with only the possible answers to the question being where you get specific or more detailed. (Note: statements that constitute answers to questions are statements that make up the titles of many of my "claim pages" in Obsidian, something I talk about in the video linked to up above.)

Diverging from Forte's advice

Here's a question I'm interested in:

Do I have a real self?

Note that this question doesn’t begin with the words what or how and also that it could be answered, albeit inadequately, with a simple “yes” or “no.”

But I think this question is fine as written. Sure, it could be changed to something like

What’s the best way to understand what the self is?

But making that change would make the question sound rather remote from my life when in fact the answer to it could have a direct impact on how I live my life. Not a big deal if I make the change, but if I'm doing research on what Buddhist thinkers say about the nature of the self and doing so in the hope that I will gain some sort of insight that will make me less frequently call upon the gods to smite my enemies, then maybe that's good enough reason to stick with the first of the two ways of asking the question.

In any event, it’s easy for me to keep in mind that this question shouldn’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” I don’t need the words what and how in order to avoid answering this question with just “yes" or "no.”

Therefore, while there isn't anything wrong with Forte's advice, don't feel as though you need to adhere to it in order to come up with some good questions.

You may never answer some of your questions

What do people need in order to live happy lives? and Do I have a real self?—these are what might be described as Big Questions. I may never come up with conclusive answers to those questions. And that's fine.

As Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse explain in their book Why We Argue (and How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement,

disputes over Big Questions are often messy, and, consequently, seemingly interminable. Moreover, they are also persistent: that is, despite their messiness and seeming interminability, we continue to debate these matters. [...] we can't stop caring about these matters, and do debate over them persists, despite the fact that it seems likely that no one will ever have the last word (pp. 10–11).

It can be good to have some questions you might never fully answer because those kinds of questions could lead you through a number of valuable lines of inquiry over the years. It can be good to have questions that create paths along which we end up making significant discoveries, even if we do not discover the answers to those questions.

As C. Roland Christensen says in one of the essays in Education for Judgment, questions “are the entry point to the discovery of knowledge, the key to intellectual growth.”

Our aim should be to grow our knowledge, to grow intellectually, to grow ideas. And we can do that without satisfactorily answering all the questions we come up with.

According to John Ciardi, a well-known poet and translator of Dante’s Divine Comedy,

A good question is never answered.
It is not a bolt to be tightened into place.
But a seed to be planted and to bear more seed.
Toward the hope of greening the landscape of ideas.

Source: quoted in "The Discussion Teacher in Action" by C. Roland Christensen in Education for Judgment.

If you're reading to do some planting, then get to it. If you want more assistance, keep on reading.

Questions that might help you come up with questions of your own

Below are five questions that might help you to come up with questions of your own.

1. Are there any habits you want to eliminate or cultivate?

If so, write those down. Then read on to see how to turn them into questions.

Okay, let’s say you want to start a habit of getting stronger while avoiding injury. Turning that into a question isn’t hard. Actually, we could turn it into two questions:

First: What are the best exercises for increasing strength while avoiding injury (Hint: it’s probably not exercises on weight machines. Maybe do dead lifts, instead—and stay away from CrossFit? But do not take my advice unless you consult with a doctor who says the advice is solid.)

Second: What’s the best way to create new habits and actually make them stick?

As you may know, there is a lot of literature out there on forming habits. One famous book about habits you might already be familiar with is Atomic Habits by James Clear. There's also a book by Charles Duhigg called The Power of Habit and another by B.J. Fogg called Tiny Habits.

So, if you have any habits you want to eliminate or cultivate, feel free to take this question and use it as one of your own and then maybe check out one of the books just mentioned.

2.  Are there things at this point in your life that you wish you had known earlier?

If so, write them down, and don’t worry at this point about how you’re going to turn those things into questions.

Let’s consider an example.

Let’s say that while going through school, you had a fear of failure and that unfortunately that fear of failure is what really drove you to study hard. And let’s say you’ve heard of or actually read Carol Dweck’s famous book Mindset, which lays out the advantages of having what she calls a “growth mindset," which in a way embraces failure because of what can be learned through it.

There are a variety of questions that this line of thinking might lead to.

For instance,

What steps should I take if I want to shift from what Dweck calls a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset”?


How can I encourage my children to adopt a growth mindset?

Alternatively, you might pull back a bit and ask a more general question:

What attitudes and strategies are best for learning?

And then a possible answer to that question could refer to the growth mindset, perhaps something like

People should adopt a growth mindset if they want to experience more joy and fulfillment in their learning.

In response to the question that makes up the heading of this section, you may or may not come up with one or more of your favorite questions. You may just come up with a statement or two for which at a later date you will seek confirming or disconfirming evidence.

I want to stress here that if you came up with anything in response to the question “Are there things at this point in your life that you wish you had known earlier?”, then you likely have valuable things to say on the matter, and you can think of your future note-making as helping you get enough clarity on the matter so that you could give solid advice to others.

You could think of this in terms of giving advice to your younger self, but more importantly, you could think of this as giving advice to people who currently might be in a situation similar to your younger self and who could benefit from knowing what you have come to learn over the years.

3. Questions that other people want answered?

This question is similar to the one before it but comes at things from a different perspective. So, rather than asking you to think about questions you wish you had had answers to in the past, here you’re being asked to think about questions you’ve heard other people ask and that you might be willing to devote some time to researching and answering.

4.  Are there any problems you anticipate having to deal with in the future?

If so, write them down and see whether it makes sense to transform any of them into questions you will research.

5. What’s the most important question you could try to get an answer to in your life?

Yeah, Big Question, I know. It's one I often ask my philosophy students to think about. So think about it.

Search for lists of questions others have come up with

Want to see the questions other people have come up with? Run a search using the following terms: "12 favorite problems Feynman."

On this webpage, I have collected some of the questions I found when I ran such a search back in June of 2021.

Lastly, you might want to check out this podcast episode (or the YouTube version of it) by Norm Chella. (He uses Roam as his notes app.)