You Should Have a Research Question

How to turn curiosity into a superpower.

November 29, 2023 • 5 min read

Humans are naturally curious. We wonder about things. Seek answers. Read an unreasonable number of Wikipedia articles about the Roman Empire for no reason.

Well, not for no reason. Our minds are wired to learn.

However, without a bit of steering, this curiosity can get a little… time-wastey. Learning something – especially if that thing reinforces our existing preconceptions – will give you a nice little dopamine hit, whether or not the information is useful.

Greek triremes were often fitted with bronze rams to destroy enemy ships’ oars.

Cool, right? A fun fact. Dopamine received, thank you. This loop even works even if the “fact” isn’t actually true.

Polling released earlier today demonstrates that your political party’s views on climate are increasingly accepted, putting mounting pressure on legislators.

Heck yeah. Fave, repost, resume scrolling.

In the modern era of anything and everything all of the time, we’re drawn to habits that sate our curiosity with these little dopamine loops. Which is fine in moderation! But not like, super great.

Luckily, there’s one weird trick that can buck that trend. It helps you build meaningful expertise, meet interesting people, foster your reputation, and spend less time scrolling and more time actually learning.

You should have a research question.

Research sounds boring, get me out of here!

No, wait, I promise it’s more fun than it sounds. When I say “research”, I don’t mean a formal scientific hypothesis with a methodology, bibliography, and, like… apparatus and stuff. Although, I guess if that’s your bag, go nuts? When I say research, though, I just mean intentionally going in-depth on a specific question or topic. Taking a thing you’re curious about, and going beyond a Google search, Wikipedia page, or one-off question to a friend. Digging in. Going on a little journey.

By occasionally picking things to go deep on, you balance out the otherwise broad information diet we all get by default by being on the internet, consuming media, and just kind of being a modern human.

Of course, you already have some subjects and interests you spend more time learning about. The idea behind a research question is just to be a little more intentional about that. Pick up a specific question or two for a few weeks, and level up your understanding. Repurpose some of the time you would otherwise be scrolling news or memes or dunks.

Questions of Interest

Anything that matters to you can make a good research question – as long as it’s deep or obscure enough that you can’t simply get a clear answer from Google or ChatGPT.

For example, a few years back I was frustrated at how unclear it was who I should vote for in our local Vancouver elections. So I dug in, learned a bunch of interesting things about the parties and our government, helped tens of thousands of people learn how they might want to vote, and got to meet the Mayor. It was time well spent.

Research questions don’t need to be of great societal import to be worthwhile. I once found myself thinking about cereal. Well, that happens a lot – cereal is delicious – but I was feeling frustrated that I didn’t know which cereals are actually okay for you, and which cereals are just empty sugars with healthy branding on the box. So I spent some time investigating, gathering some data, and sharing what I learned. Now I eat more Shreddies, and less Honey Nut Cheerios. That bee is a charlatan.

Intentional research is especially powerful for investigations that relate to your work. Earlier this year, I was growing frustrated with OmniFocus, the app I use to manage my tasks and todos. Instead of diving into making a competing app like I would have done in the bad old days, I posed a research question: “How do other leaders manage their time and attention?” Then I contacted a few folks I know, had interesting conversations, recorded what I learned, and asked those people if they had a suggestion for somebody else I should talk to. It was amazing.

Not only did my little research project level up how I manage my own time, improve my understanding of how to support others, help me avoid the misery of building an unprofitable todo app, and give me something to write about, it led to me connecting with 25 people that I respect. While it was nominally a research project about productivity, in retrospect the connections with interesting people were even more worthwhile than what I learned.

Most people under-estimate how worthwhile it is to contact a handful of people you respect with a question. Of course, books are the classic way to immerse yourself in a topic, but there are a lot of topics that are niche enough – or current enough – that the only way you’ll fully understand it is talking to people. “What is working at Stripe like?” “Where do the best engineering managers look for jobs nowadays?” “How does your team iterate LLM prompts and chains without breaking things?”

Not only will talking to others help you rapidly learn about a topic, you’ll often be asked questions in turn – questions you’ll be well prepared to answer because you’ve been researching this very topic! That is, you’ll be talking to smart people about interesting questions. Awesomeness achieved.

Of course, reaching out to people can also be a bit uncomfortable. At first, I suffered great hesitation when I considered emailing somebody about my little question. Even after I got a response or a chance to talk, I often wouldn’t systematically take notes, or remember to ask my interviewee if they knew anybody else who might want to chat about the topic. Even then, if I did take good notes, I often wouldn’t turn those notes into a coherent doc or article I could share with anybody else.

But as with anything, practice makes progress. You build the muscles you use.

So consider it. Your question can be personal – “What kind of company would I enjoy working at?” It can be as serious as Patrick Collison’s collection of “interesting questions” of humanity-level import, or as trivial as The Pudding’s investigation into how K-Pop group composition has changed over time”.

The point is to build a habit of sometimes diving deep. Picking a research question that might motivate you to read, meet new people, write about what you learned, or even just go overboard about something for the pure joy about it.

It’s a habit I cherish. And I suspect – if you give it a try – you will too.

Next in the Living Thoughtfully series: Once a Month →

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© Allen Pike. 👋🏼 You can contact me, or check out Steamclock.