Want to Know

Never stop learning

Towards the end of every episode of his wildly popular podcast, Tim Ferriss asks guests a series of questions he labels “Rapid-fire.” They’re basically the same set for every guest so each interviewee has a few questions they can prepare for. One of his standard questions is:

Blank Billboard: Want to know

“If you could put one billboard anywhere, with anything on it, where would it be and what would it say?”

I loved Derek Sivers’s answer to this question (“It won’t make you happy,” and he would place his billboard outside of any big shopping mall or car dealership). It has since become my new mantra before making any discretionary purchase.

Earlier this week while listening to the Cal Fussman episode during a 3-hour drive to Houston, I began pondering the question myself. What would I put on a billboard? I didn’t have to think about it very long before the answer hit me: “Want to know.”

“Want to know” is one of our family’s core values and the point behind it is to encourage ourselves to always search for the answers, the underlying story, the truth and the whole truth. It began several years ago when our oldest kids entered middle school and would come home with tales of “Did you realize…” and offer up as fact something one of their friends (and sometimes, regrettably, a teacher) had told them. These “facts” were usually laughable and occasionally plausible, but they were all treated equally by us. Most often with the following questions:

  • “Are you sure?”
  • “What makes you so sure?”
  • “Did you try to confirm or disprove it?”

We encourage our kids to also honor the Russian proverb, “Trust, but verify.” To confirm or disprove on their own. To want to know if it’s real or not and if it’s not, what the real story actually is. Want to learn. Want to know.

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This might have come to me so quickly because earlier in the same podcast a statistic was presented as fact that didn’t pass the sniff test. Specifically, a statistic that stated that the cost to incarcerate a juvenile in the state of California is $233,000 a year, a staggering figure. It seemed to me like a statistic that was either taken out of context or highly manipulated. In other words, a statistic ready-made for a headline.

Fifteen minutes’ worth of research was all it took to reveal that there was more to the story than the attention-grabbing headline. The figure is only for one county in California (Los Angeles County), there is almost no supporting evidence in the article (only references to a recent audit), and the article also reveals that the $233,000 figure is likely inflated due to a lawsuit, an unusually high injury rate among employees, and the fact that the county’s juvenile detention staff is the same size it was when twice as many individuals were incarcerated (mis-management in one county as opposed to a systemic state problem). In one report that I was able to find that included details, many assumptive costs were included, such as “lost future government tax revenue” and “lost future earnings of confined youth.” I don’t know if that was the case with the L.A. County figure, but with nothing cited, I don’t know that it wasn’t either.

The main point here is not about the cost per youth offender in L.A. County, but about reading or hearing something, and wanting to know more. Wanting to know beyond the histrionics. This doesn’t apply solely to sensational headlines or statements that don’t pass the sniff test. It also applies to anything you might wonder about. Here are some recent examples of things our kids asked us where we encouraged them to “Want to know”:

  • How did Warren Buffett get so rich?
  • How do you email someone you don’t know?
  • Why are there sometimes cold spots in the food I microwave?
  • Can we grow potatoes in Texas?
  • Did you know sharks can get in the subway after a big rainstorm?

So many people stop at either asking the question to whoever is standing in front of them, or at a five-second investment in a Google search. They want someone to serve up a pre-packaged, complete answer as if they’d ordered it off of the McDonalds Dollar Menu. In part, I blame our public school system. For 13 years, we are presented with a question and an answer, and then taught to memorize that answer; as opposed to being taught problem solving, inquiry, and the development of a lifelong quest for learning. In Texas, the emergence of STAAR testing has exasperated the problem.

I’m not alone in this observation. According to education researcher Keith Sawyer of Washington University, “Very few schools teach students how to create knowledge. Instead, students are taught that knowledge is static and complete, and they become experts at consuming knowledge rather than producing knowledge.”

Anyone who has attended my one-hour talk on building a dream and a life of your own, knows that I feel consuming instead of producing is a cancer of our current culture. A cancer where a strong dose of “Want to know” just may be a cure.

My formal education concluded after my sophomore year in college, but I never stopped learning. My desire to “Want to know” has led me to accomplish more than I ever thought possible. It has literally defined my life. It’s now my hope that no matter where along their path my kids decide to conclude their formal education, it will be the equivalent of going from concrete to asphalt while driving down the interstate. Continuing a self-directed education, they’ll barely even notice the difference as they speed down the highway, every few miles taking notice of a strange billboard with only three words on it.

Want to know

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YOUR TURN: When was the last time you bought into a “fact” without wanting to know? When’s the last time you heard something that didn’t pass the sniff test and you dug into it to learn more? Share your story with us in the comments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.