"I don’t want the answer!” I said, last week. It was met with a blank stare and then momentary recoil as if something untoward had happened.
From the time we sat on neatly arranged benches in classrooms, we’ve been asked to prioritize answers above anything else. We’ve been expected to have ready-made answers for everything; from the mundane and boring to the more existential questions. What is 9 times 7? How many isotopes there are of Hydrogen? What will you do after college? So on and so forth. So, it’s perfectly rational to cause a mild stir at the very least when an answer isn’t welcomed with a broad enough smile or customary appreciation. Indeed, when the boss spoke that very line to me about ten years ago at my first real job at the office, I reacted similarly.
Among the many things,s I realized fresh off college was the fact that my Engineering degree was worthless at my job selling recruitment services to product companies. I strove to make up for it by sheer force of will — reading up anything I could find, talking to whoever would lend an ear. Armed with this knowledge, I quickly became infallible with spot answers to most things. And then the questions got harder. Also, I noticed the questions needed ‘working out’. I mean, how could you decide what strategy to adopt while hiring for a startup that wasn’t willing to pay market salaries? Even if one had faced that challenge umpteen times before, every startup was unique and so was the question.
But, habits are hard to cease. I continued spot-answering until when the boss asked me, in no uncertain terms, to shut the hell up! The funny thing is, I thought I was finished. What good is a professional who doesn’t have answers to everything? Then, sensing my desperation, he introduced me to what is perhaps the most important tenet I’ve learned in all this time: Approach > Answer.
Answers are fleeting. Their scope of use is limited and if it doesn’t take enough time to arrive at them, they were probably not worth knowing, anyway. Answers hide all varieties of sins; they don’t tell you why something is, just that it is. Most often, answers delude people into believing something without really understanding what caused them. Answers also have a single pay off — you could be right once (admittedly, in very rewarding ways, sometimes). But, approach is of much larger significance. If you focus on approach, answers become incidental. Approach also hedges risks of luck or uncertainty in the greatest possible way. And approach gains in time, cumulatively, becoming more lethal with its application to different problems. Indeed, there is much to learn at the overlap of solving math equations and relationship problems.
Answers hide all varieties of sins; they don’t tell you why something is, just that it is
Scott Adams, in his book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” advocates systems over goals, very much akin to approach over answers. “A goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don't sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it's a system. If you're waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it's a goal.”
A seemingly smart spot answer precludes what could be a more valuable, rock solid approach. It is an enviable ability to let a problem simmer for a while, maybe brood over it, pay the necessary respect any important question should merit than spouting off whatever is at the top of one’s head.