The One Simple Question That Gets You Farther Than Everyone Else

Every time I go to pay for something at a store in a mall, the cashier will ask for my phone number or email address. They always word it in a way that almost suggests it’s required to complete the transaction – though of course they don’t actually say that.

I always ask the same question: “Do you need it?” 

And they always reply the same way: “Nope!”

Of course they don’t. They’ll gladly take your money however they can – but they know that getting repeat business from customers they already have is easier than finding new customers.

To that end, they have one super high-priority goal with each customer that is only usurped by the almighty sale: get your information and permission to market to you directly.

Most people don’t walk into their local J. Crew with the intention of getting a clothing newsletter in their email inbox. They just want a new shirt.

Well, actually they want people to think they look sharp, and they want something that looks good being torn apart in case they ever get turned into the Hulk . (Wait, I’m the only person who buys shirts with that in mind?)

Either way, it’s safe to say they’re not in the market to be marketed to.

But that does nothing to stop them from automatically complying with the question – “Can I get your email address?” – and handing over their information.

So, as you can see, you get by all this marketing and just get your clothes by asking one dead simple question.

It’s that easy.

The One Simple Question

No, the question isn’t “Do you need it?” If you ask that question when your professor asks you to pay attention, you’re going to have a bad time.

It isn’t any specific question at all, really.

Rather the One Simple Question represents a certain mindset. It’s having a mindset that seeks to ask questions in any given situation, rather than accepting things at face value.

Much of the world is hidden behind a simple question – you just need to have the guts to ask it. | Tweet This

There may be multiple questions in a situation that you could ask; regardless, from your point of view before asking anything, there is always one question between where you are now and a point at which you are more enlightened or in a more favorable position.

Here are two examples of how this mindset works to your benefit.

Getting Closer to the Truth

Asking this question may get you closer to the truth of a situation.

Lots of things that come up in life that are confusing – or, to put it more accurately, that don’t match up with your brain’s model of the world.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky writes in “Your Strength as a Rationalist“, it’s actually pretty bad that our brains will routinely take situations like this without raising a red flag.

In his example, a fellow IRC chatroom member said a friend had reported chest pain, but that paramedics had examined it without taking him to the hospital and told him not to worry about it.

Even though Yudkowsky had prior knowledge which told him that people who report chest pain are always taken straight to the hospital, he simply accepted the story and tried to fit it in with his prior knowledge by assuming it was a very minor case of chest pain.

Later, it was revealed that the friend had made the whole story up. Eliezer had forced his mental model to accept a story that wasn’t even true.

In that situation, his One Simple Question that he should have asked himself is, “I notice that I am confused. Does this story actually fit what I know of the world?”

Following that question to its logical conclusion reveals one of two possible answers:

  1. His mental model has a flaw (it isn’t matched up with the real world, meaning there is some fact he is misinformed on).
  2. The story is false.

By having the mindset to ask questions instead of simply accepting information that confuses you, you can get closer to the truth. Eliezer’s example may seem a bit narrow, but the concept fits situations of all types.

Getting More of What You Want

Here’s a specific piece of truth you’d probably want to get as close as you can to. You get a letter from your university in the mail. Aside from its polite greeting and introduction, it basically says this:

“You have to pay $5,000 for this semester’s tuition”

As I said before, much of the world is hidden behind one simple question.

In this situation, the One Simple Question you could ask would be, “What are my options for paying that?”

Most people think tuition is due right up front, and for good reason – that is basically what is communicated. It’s not said explicitly, but in my experience, that’s the idea that comes across.

Seeing that big number, students and parents start scrambling to pull together all the cash at once. Scholarships are applied for, not enough is awarded, and then loans are taken. Bad things happen.

But did you know that you can actually pay for your tuition monthly? I don’t know if this applies to every school, but it does at mine.

Now, having the option to pay monthly doesn’t automatically mean a family will be able to pay for a student’s tuition without assistance – but it might. As such, it’s an option that should be known about and considered.

That’s what asking the question gets you. Now you get to assess the situation with more options available.

There are plenty of other situations where asking a question works to your benefit. Want to:

This goes back to the example I started this post with as well. By simply asking the question that comes to mind – “Do you need my email address?” – I get to buy my clothes without worrying about having to delete emails later.

Sometimes there are even tangible benefits to asking yourself questions. I notice that way too many people ignore one simple question that could make their lives better by an incalculable factor, and that question is:

“Is there a better way to do this?”

I try to ask myself that question all the time, and it’s paid off in spades. A few examples:

  • During my internship, I was assigned a mind-numbingly tedious and repetitive job. After being told how to do it, I decided to find a better way – and to that end, I discovered Sikuli Script, wrote a program to do the job for me, and got paid to watch Netflix all day.
  • I wasn’t a fan of how much floor space my desk took up, so I decided to see if I could build one that hangs off my loft bed. It worked like a charm. Even better, LifeHacker featured it, which a large reason CIG is as big as it is.
  • In an effort to find my optimal study environment, I experimented with studying in dozens of different spots on campus. Not only did I learn more about myself, but I also ended up knowing the location of almost every building on campus.

Now, Start Asking Questions

Ever since realizing the amazing amount of value that I can gain simply by asking the right questions, I’ve purposely made an attempt to be more mindful of the situations I’m in, and of what questions might give me more information I can use.

This is something that takes deliberate practice. The simple fact is that the world is so full of distractions, obligations, opportunities, and other stuff, that we often take the things that come up at face value so that we can move on with our lives.

However, with practice you can cultivate this valuable mindset. With it, you can start unlocking more of life.

Photos: lock

Thomas Frank is the geek behind College Info Geek. After paying off $14K in student loans before graduating, landing jobs and internships, starting a successful business, and travelling the globe, he's now on a mission to help you build a remarkable college experience as well. Get the Newsletter | Twitter | Instagram

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3 Comments on "The One Simple Question That Gets You Farther Than Everyone Else"

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Martin Boehme

But Tom, do I really need to ask questions?

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