An Old Man From Jersey Explains: How To Think

An old man sits on the steps to a dingy apartment building reading a newspaper. A ten year old boy stand on the grass nearby about to ask a question.

So I was sitting on the front steps to my apartment building the other day watching the people walk by when this kid comes up to me and says, “Hey mister.”

I say, “What do you want, kid?”

He says, “How do you think?”

I think about it for a minute, and then I ask him, “What are you asking me for kid? Looks like you already got it figured out.”

“If I knew I wouldn’t be asking, would I?”

“Fair enough kid. Here you go. First of all, in order to understand how to do something you need to identify what it is you’re trying to do. ‘Thinking’ is a vague term, but all it really is, is asking questions. So in order to understand how to think you need to understand how to ask question.

Before I go on though I need to know, why do you want to know how to think?

“I don’t know. It just that, you know, you hear people say that you need to think, and I just thought maybe I should know how to do it.”

“We’ll, that’s not going to do at all. Thinking is like anything else. In order to understand how to do it you need to understand why to do it, otherwise you won’t do it. If that’s going to be the case, there’s no point in figuring out how to in the first place.

First off, it enables you to do anything. You ever meet anybody who can’t seem to do anything by themselves?”

“Well, I guess there’s this one boy in my class who always needs the teacher’s help for like everything.”

“There you go. He has to ask other people questions because he won’t ask them himself. I tell you what, kid. That’s no way to go through life.

The next reason you need to think is because it’s how you understand anything. If you don’t question the world yourself you’ll have to rely on the answers other people give you, and take it from me. Most people don’t have any idea what’s going on. Even if they did, they don’t know everything. So if you never ask questions about the world around you, yourself you’re limited not just to the quality of answers other people give you but also the amount of knowledge other people give you. The only reason society has advanced as far as it has is because a lonely few smart folks from each generation ask questions that haven’t been asked before.

Now that ties into the last reason, which was summed up by a wiser man than myself who said, ‘You see things not as they are but as you are.’ That means a lot of things, but what it means for the topic at hand is that you don’t experience the world, life, reality, whatever you want to call it, as it naturally is. You experience it through the filter of your understanding and beliefs. If you’re a schmuck then you experience a schmuck reality. If you’re wise then you experience an enlightened reality. And how do you suppose you become enlightened? There are those who would disagree with me on this, but I say it’s by asking questions and discovering the truth. That way your reality is defined by the truth…or as close as you can get, and every little bit counts as much as life itself because that is life. Hell, I’m talking in circles. Does that make sense?”

“I guess so. I mean, it explains this one guy in my apartment. He’s always angry and mean. I guess he didn’t ask enough questions? So he doesn’t have enough answers? Or maybe he got the wrong answers?”

“You got that right, kid. See, I told you, you got this down pretty good already. Let’s just make sure you got the rest down. Let’s talk about how to think, which is to say, how to ask questions. You’re what, 10 years old?”

“10 and a half.”

“Yeah, of course. So that means you’ve taken some math classes right?”


“Any algebra?”


“Hmmm. Well, algebra is a lot like the math you’ve probably been doing. The main difference is that you don’t know what one of the numbers is.

How can I explain this? Do you know what 5+5 equals?”

“That’s easy. It’s 10.”

“Okay. If I asked you, 5 plus what equals 10, could you answer that question?”

“I just told you. 5 plus 5 equals ten!”

“Great. You can figure out the missing variable. You understand algebra. This is important because asking a question in real life is the same as asking a mathematical question. And since they’re the same thing they follow the same pattern, and every math problem follows the same basic formula. Don’t get me wrong. You know that addition, subtraction, multiplication and division follow different patterns, but the basic pattern is the same.

They don’t teach you this in school, but the pattern goes like this. And I’m going to write this down on a napkin so you can take it with you.”

1. Ask a question. 2. Gather data

A. Identify the variables you have.

B. Identify the variables you don’t have.

3. Sort the data

A. Apply formulas.

B. Ask sub-questions.

4. Question your answer.

“Does that make sense, kid?”


“That’s what I figured you’d say. Don’t worry. It’s pretty simple, and it’ll all make sense in a minute.

The first step is simple enough, right? Ask a question. You don’t ask a question, you don’t get an answer. And that’s why most people are stupid. They never ask questions. But there’s a little bit more to it than that. You ever hear the phrase, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question?”

“Yeah. My teacher says that sometimes.”

“Well, your teacher’s heart is in the right place, but she’s crippling you and your classmates. The reason is because any question other than the most important question is a stupid question.”

“What’s the most important question?”

“Well, overall it’s either, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ or at least ‘What should we do now that we’re alive?’”

“So the most important question is, ‘Why?’”

“Er. Yeah. Yeah, I guess it is. Hmmm. Anyway, after you answer that question then the next most important question becomes the most important question. Or let’s suppose you’re being attacked by a bear. In that case, ‘Why?’ ain’t so important at the moment. In that case, ‘What the hell do I do about this friggin bear?’ is the most important question. Asking any other questions at that moment would be stupid.”

“There aren’t any bears in…”

“None of your sass, kid. You know what the hell I’m getting’ at. Anyway, once you establish what the most important question you should be asking is, the next step is to get answering it. However, you can’t solve a problem that you don’t know at least a few of the variables to. And just like in a math book, life usually gives you a couple of the variables…”

“Wait. What’s a variable?”

“Hmmm. A variable is a piece of the puzzle you don’t have. Hmmm. I can see I’m gonna have to break this down in simpler terms. Do you like cop shows?”

“Oh yeah. They’re my favorite.”

“Okay. When a cop shows up at a murder scene he’s got a question he’s gotta answer. He needs to know who committed the murder. The problem is he doesn’t know who did it. So the culprit is an unknown variable he has to solve for. Now, if the murderer was standing over the body with a smoking gun the question would be easy to answer. Unfortunately, that don’t happen too often. So the cop has to put together the clues he’s got to answer the question. That means he’s gotta gather the data that’s right in front of him. So he looks at the scene and records what he sees. Then, once he’s got that down, and only once he’s got that down he can figure out what other parts of equation he doesn’t have. That brings us to the next step: gathering the data you don’t have.

Now, if you’re asking a question and the answer isn’t obvious it’s because there are missing variables. There are a billion ways to find out missing variables. You can do research. You can ask other people’s advice. You can deduce things logically without anyone’s help. It’s up to you. Just know that there’s something you don’t know and you need to figure out how to find that information out. Really, you’re going to have to use this method to figure out how to figure that out. That sounds kinda crazy, I know, but that’s how it is.

In order to make sense of all the information you’ve got you’re going to have to sort it all out. The easiest way to do that is to use a formula. If you’re a cop then the formula is going to be police procedures. If you’re a scientist you’re going to use the scientific method. If you’re a lawyer you’re going to use the law process. You see all knowledge falls into some kind of system, and a lot of those systems are well understood, and people have developed formulas for understanding the patterns in the system. If you’re lucky enough to be working in a system that people have studied before then you’re wise to use the formulas people have figured out. That’s how you figure out a multiplication problem. You follow the formula we’ve figured out to solve multiplication problems.

If you don’t have a formula to follow…and a lot of times even if you do…you’re going to have to connect the rest of the dots by ask sub-questions.

That’s not so complicated. You just keep asking questions about the unknown variables you have until you find the sub-answers that help you put the whole question together and find the whole answer. In the case of a cop the questions are going to be, ‘What is the motive? Who knew the victim? Are there fingerprints?’ Yada yada yada.

If you came home and your mother wasn’t there you’d ask, ‘Where is she? Did she leave a note? Where is she at this time usually? Who does she know? Is there something special going on today?’ You get what I’m saying. If you train yourself at finding the sub-questions that cut to the heart of the main question you’ll be able to solve anything, and then you can do anything.”

“Wow. That’s pretty cool. I can become a detective too.”

“Yeah, great, kid. But regardless of whether or not ten years from now you still want to do the one thing you just now thought of you still need to understand the last and maybe the most important part of the problem solving method. You need to question your answers.

History is full of examples of the problems that come from not questioning your answers. People just accept the answers they’ve been given or the ones they’ve come to themselves and stick with them even though they’re wrong. That’s how atrocities happen and keep happening. That’s how live are ruined. That’s why that one guy in your apartment is going to waste his whole life being a dumbass. Don’t tell your mother I used that word. Anyway, you get what I’m saying?”

“Yeah. I get that part.”

“Good. Any questions?”

“Yeah, I got a bunch.”

“Good answer…”

See what other questions the old man from Jersey has answered:


Liked it? Help spread wisdom. Support The Wise Sloth on Patreon.

Leave a Reply