“Find a question that makes the world interesting.”

If you want to do good work, what you need is a great curiosity about a promising question. The critical moment for Einstein was was when he looked at Maxwell’s equations and said, what the hell is going on here?
It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it can take years to figure out what a subject is really about. To take an extreme example, consider math. Most people think they hate math, but the boring stuff you do in school under the name “mathematics” is not at all like what mathematicians do.
The great mathematician G. H. Hardy said he didn’t like math in high school either. He only took it up because he was better at it than the other students. Only later did he realize math was interesting– only later did he start to ask questions instead of merely answering them correctly.
When a friend of mine used to grumble because he had to write a paper for school, his mother would tell him: find a way to make it interesting. That’s what you need to do: find a question that makes the world interesting. People who do great things look at the same world everyone else does, but notice some odd detail that’s compellingly mysterious.
And not only in intellectual matters. Henry Ford’s great question was, why do cars have to be a luxury item? What would happen if you treated them as a commodity? Franz Beckenbauer‘s was, in effect, why does everyone have to stay in his position? Why can’t defenders score goals too?

What you’ll wish you’d known,” by Paul Graham, January, 2005

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