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Avoid asking "Broken Telescope" Questions

Avoid asking "Broken Telescope" Questions

Today's post is about asking better questions and identifying terrible questions.

I really enjoy reading Quora.

Partially because they’ve done a great job of curating questions and answers that I’m interested in. But also because I am entertained by the challenge of finding what I call “Broken Telescope Questions.”

Quora is FULL of these.

Perhaps my favorite Broken Telescope Question:

What do people in Silicon Valley plan to do once they are over 35 since most will neither make it big nor move up the management chain of command? - Quora

A Broken Telescope Question is a question based on an assumption that the question author has never challenged (in this case, “people over 35 can’t make it in the Valley”). It’s an unchecked belief that got somehow embedded into the author’s worldview, and now colors their perspective.

The Broken Telescope Problem

Imagine an astronomer looking for a new star system. So he points his telescope into space. The only problem is that the zoom ring on his telescope is broken; he’s stuck at a certain depth. The swivel is also broken; he’s stuck looking at a certain region of space.

But the astronomer does not know his telescope is broken. He thinks this is how all telescopes work. He thinks all of space is confined to the area viewable within his Broken Telescope.

Until one day, someone comes along and fixes his telescope.

He is amazed that he can now zoom in and out and swivel left and right. Quite literally, a whole new universe just opened up to him.

Identifying (and Fixing) Your Own Broken Telescope Questions

Broken Telescopes can be dangerous.

Imagine peering through someone else’s Broken Telescope. Look through it enough times and you might start believing there’s nothing wrong with it.

Then imagine you look through more people’s Broken Telescopes. You might be convinced to go home and make sure your telescope works the same way.

Thankfully, with some practice, Broken Telescope Questions are easy to spot and easy to fix.

Let’s look at this one, found not just on Quora – but frankly everywhere in society:

“How am I supposed to become successful if I don’t have a degree from a famous university?”

Do a quick check by asking yourself these 3 questions…

  1. Does the question contain an embedded assumption?
    A lot of questions have assumptions in them, like trojan horses, trying to sneak by your critical thinking sensors. Try to sniff them out. In the above, we can decipher the embedded premise to be “a diploma from Harvard / Stanford / brand-name school is a prerequisite for success in the tech industry.”
  2. What is the ‘real’ question?
    Then, figure out the author’s true concern underneath the assumption: “is it possible to achieve success without formal education or credentials?”
  3. How do you correct the assumption?
    Fix the telescope. Find counter-examples that prove the assumption doesn't always hold true, or address the true concern: “a brand-name school can provide some advantages, but having a strong personal drive may be a stronger determinant of your success.”

Broken Telescope Questions Are Everywhere You Look

Here’s a few more examples:

“How can I get a girls to like me if I’m not buff and handsome?”

Assumption = “Only muscular male models can attract women”

The real question = What do women look for in a partner?

Correction = There are tons of examples of beautiful women dating not-as-beautiful men. Neil Strauss also wrote a best-selling book on his experiences in attracting women as an average-looking man.

“I’ve submitted so many job applications but I haven’t gotten an interview, why doesn’t anyone want to hire me?”

Assumption = “Submitting job applications is the most efficient way to get a job in my industry” or “I am applying for jobs that I am qualified for”

The real question = When job-hunting, how do I get a higher ROI for my time?

Correction = For most industries, getting an interview is about standing out, and one of the ways to do that is by getting referred. Spend your time meeting up with — and adding value to — people in the industry instead of the “resume spray and pray” approach that everyone else is doing.

How come our Facebook lead gen ads aren't increasing our sales?

Assumption = "Running lead generation campaigns on Facebook will immediately result in demand for our sales team."

The real question = What marketing tactic is most effective in reaching an audience that wants to buy our products?

Correction = Many other similar companies use Facebook ads for awareness and familiarity, not lead gen. We can instead use paid social efforts on Facebook to educate, entertain and build affinity ... instead of treating it like a transactional, direct response channel.

Everyone’s Telescope is Broken in Some Way

It’s just human nature to have a perspective tinted by your experiences and environment. I will probably ask a few Broken Telescope Questions today, and you will too.

Be careful when taking advice. Everyone’s telescope is broken, but they’re all broken in different ways. Ask lots of questions just to be safe.

And never stop fixing your own telescope, so you can be in a better position to help others fix theirs when they need it.