The human mind is extremely averse to ambiguity and uncertainty. We are hardwired to seek answers — even if they’re incomplete or wrong — and most societies consider having answers as more valuable than having questions.
Look around you: the overt objective of many jobs is to provide answers. After going through an interview process where you need to give answers that prove your level of competency, your role will often consist in giving more answers to your manager, your colleagues, and your customers.
We love content that offers advice, products that offer solutions, quick fixes, magic bullets and antidotes. We certainly don’t like problems, especially if they linger for too long. We try to avoid them as much as possible, and, if we’re unlucky enough that a problem falls into our lap, we strive to crack them swiftly or to delegate them to another poor soul.
But what if we learned to fall in love with problems, to see them as puzzles to play with, a lens through which we can better see the world?
Feynman’s favorite problems
Richard Feynman was a true philomath — a lover of learning. Not only did he greatly expand the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, but he translated Mayan hieroglyphics, figured out the origin of the NASA Challenger disaster, and was a fantastic physics professor.
During the second world war, he worked on the first ever nuclear bomb, and became an expert safecracker just to demonstrate how the documents for the construction of the bomb were not securely kept.
In 1965, for “fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”, Feynman received a joint Nobel Prize in Physics.
One of Feynman’s most enduring characteristics was that he loved problems. Instead of avoiding them or trying to solve them as fast as possible, he would seek interesting problems, keep them in mind, let them simmer, and constantly try to connect his everyday experiences to these big questions.
During a talk at MIT, mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota recalled: “Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps.”
Through the looking glass
Like Feynman, you can generate a list of a dozen problems to constantly keep present in your mind, not because you want to solve them as soon as possible, but because they feed your curiosity and turn the world into a big mystery game.
As Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David Hackett Fischer aptly said: “Questions are the engines of intellect — cerebral machines that convert curiosity into controlled inquiry.”
Similar to Alice who discovers a strange world through the looking glass, the questions you choose to keep in mind act as a mirror that reflects the world around you and makes you look beyond the surface of the glass.
Your favorite problems form a prism that separates incoming information into a spectrum of ideas — a frame that allows you to deliberately filter distractions, direct your attention, and nurture your curiosity. In short, your favorite problems become a curiosity engine.
Creating a list of favorite problems offers many benefits:
- Turn stressful situations into intriguing problems to explore
- Filter information based on whether it relates to one of your favorite problems
- Connect with fellow curious minds who are interested in similar problems
- Focus your attention on ideas that arouse your curiosity
- Notice relevant patterns and potential solutions across seemingly unrelated topics
The good news is: you don’t need to be a Nobel Prize winner to craft your very own list of favorite problems. You just need to proactively dig into your past interests and imagine your future opportunities.
How to create a curiosity engine
Taking the time to define your favorite problems is one of the best investments you can make into becoming a better thinker. By crafting a personal list of problems you care about, you will navigate the world around you more effectively and more playfully.
The realization that you can connect an experience or a piece of information to one of your favorite problems will bring you child-like joy, while making you a more productive problem-solver.
Follow these three steps to generate your favorite problems and design a curiosity engine:
1. Make physical and mental space for self-reflection. Defining your favorite problems is a metacognitive exercise that requires time and presence. Don’t rush it. Block an hour in your calendar, find a quiet spot, and open a notebook or your note-taking app.
2. Explore potential areas of inquiry. This is the most gratifying part of the process. Go through the following prompts and write down your answers:
- Thinking about your childhood, what were some of your favorite hobbies?
- As an adult, what are the topics you most enjoy learning about?
- What are interesting ideas you know of but can’t fully grasp?
- What are skills you wish you had?
- What are the most important challenges in your field?
- Did you notice any recurring patterns in your daily life?
- Are there areas of your life you find difficult to reconcile?
- What aspects of society do you find puzzling?
- If you had a crystal ball and could travel to the future, what would you want to see?
3. Turn areas of inquiry into questions. Take the areas of inquiry you identified in the previous step, and rephrase them into questions by using one of the following structures:
- How do I…?
- How can we…?
- What is the best way to…?
- What is the relationship between A and B?
- Why is X a certain way?
Make sure that your favorite problems are specific enough that you can connect them to new experiences and information you come across. For instance, “What is the meaning of life?” is too broad, but “What is the best way to inject more meaning into my daily life?” is specific enough.
Your favorite problems
While Feynman mentioned having a dozen favorite problems, not all questions you generate this way will feel important or interesting enough to make it into your final list of twelve favorite problems.
However, try to aim for at least five questions so you have a balanced mix of problems that relate to different areas of your life and work.
Your favorite problems can be practical business questions, such as: “As a team, how do we overcome the tyranny of perfectionism while delivering great work?”
They can also set your professional vision, so all of your work is seen through that particular lense. For Ness Labs, our favorite problem would be: “How do I help others be more productive without sacrificing their mental health?”
But your questions can also be more philosophical. Some of the biggest unresolved problems in neuroscience include: How does the brain transform sensory information into coherent perceptions? What is the relationship between subjective experience and the physical world? How can learning be improved? How does past experience alter future behavior? Why do we dream?
Once your list of favorite problems is ready, save it into a note, which you can call “Favorite Problems”, and pin it to the top of your home screen for easy access. You can even share it publicly, whether on your blog or on social media — this is a great way to spark conversations with people who are curious about similar problems.
Then, start collecting ideas that relate to these problems, whether these ideas come from an article you read, from a conversation with a colleague, or from something you watched. Practice mind gardening by connecting these ideas together and generating your own original ideas.
Just like Feynman’s, your favorite problems will become a curiosity engine, encouraging you to look for patterns, ask questions, expand your knowledge, and seek the diverse opinions of others. As you learn and grow, those big questions may evolve, acting as a compass for self-discovery.