As an obvious extension to my post on being obvious, I'd like to add an extra piece of advice- ask simple questions. I think that a super productive way to view fields of art or science is to try to reduce them to the simplest, smallest set of questions one needs to ask in order to think like a practitioner of that field.

In acting, the central triad of questions, as pretty much any good acting teacher will tell you, is:
  • What do I want?
  • What's in the way of what I want?
  • What's my action? (i.e. How do I get what I want?)
The David Mamet school of acting (described in A Practical Handbook for the Actor) essentially insists that there is nothing else to acting besides answering these questions and knowing your lines. I disagree with this as a rule to be followed to the grave, but the reality is that almost every problem that you run into in the course of rehearsing a play can be resolved by answering these questions as precisely as possible.

For physics, it's hard to pin down since different subfields call for different approaches. But the most important questions to ask are:
  • What are the symmetries?
  • What are the invariant quantities?
(Of course, if you are versed in the teachings of Zen Master Noether, you know these are but symmetric approaches to the invariant way.)

In science in general, we have the triad:

  • If things were this way, what would the world be like?
  • If the world is like this, what way would things be?
  • What is the world like?
For Keith Johnstone, the central question in improvisation is:
  • What's the status game?
That is, what is the social rank of each of the characters in the improvisation, and how do their ranks change (or stay the same) over time?

In lighting design, I would say that the two main questions are:
  • Where is the light coming from?
  • What is the actual color of the light?
You don't necessarily need to answer them verbally, but if you ask them to yourself anytime you will start to notice shadows and reflections and subtleties that you never noticed before. I highly recommend doing this whenever you think of it- like right now! (Granted maybe you shouldn't listen to me since I don't really know anything about lighting design.

If you don't know what simple questions are best to ask, then just ask any question! So long as it's simple, and can be applied to the This is the philosophy embraced by Brian Eno's card deck of "Oblique Strategies." It consists of a bunch of questions and/or imperative statements and/or otherwise structured small collections of words designed to get you to look at whatever you're doing in a new light. You can find an online deck here.

I'm interested to hear other peoples' thoughts- what are the most important dumb questions in your field?