questions, stories

Be Sure You Have Answered All Questions

This past semester I taught a very content-heavy course in which the students’ grades were based mostly on their performance on three long, involved exams. I know from experience, both as a student and as an instructor, that it can be surprisingly easy to accidentally miss a question, or even a whole page, on an exam. So in an attempt to prevent this, I emphasized to the students each time that it was their responsibility to check their exams over carefully before turning them in, to make sure they hadn’t missed any questions.

The final exam was in mid-December, and after the students had left the room (happily, with no exam questions left unanswered) and I was packing up my things, I glanced at the whiteboard where I had written my reminder:


Be sure you have answered ALL questions.

While this is a perfectly appropriate reminder for anyone taking an exam or filling out a form, what struck me in that moment was how ludicrous this advice would be in basically any other context. In other words…

We are never going to be able to answer all questions.

I find it endlessly fascinating to deconstruct the ways in which we talk about our lives and experiences, both to ourselves and to others. To begin with, we typically use a narrative format—this may be obvious, but I think it’s worth pointing out. We say, “First I did A, and then B happened, and then I responded by doing C, and D was the result.” Narratives are what we use to make sense of our lives, to turn a bunch of tiny isolated experiences and thoughts and emotions into a story with cause and effect and structure and meaning.

But what I find particularly interesting is that when explaining our past experiences and decisions, we often say things like:

“And at that moment, I finally realized that…”
“I guess what I didn’t want to admit to myself at the time was…”
“Little did I know that…”
“And ever since then, I’ve always…”
“Everything has been so much better ever since I…”

I don’t know about you, but my narratives include tons of statements like these—statements that refer to some sort of past transformation or realization or Eureka moment: “Back when I was younger, I was confused/made questionable decisions/didn’t understand [whatever], but then I realized [something], which caused me to [make some kind of huge change in my life], and now everything is awesome.” A lot of my narratives sound something like that.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing this type of narrative! On the contrary, I think it’s normal and healthy and human to feel like we’ve learned and benefited from past experiences, that we’re farther along than we used to be, that we’ve begun to find answers to some of the questions we’ve been struggling with.

The potential problem, in my opinion, comes in when we allow ourselves to believe that we have already answered all questions.

The reason I’m writing about this here on my personal finance blog is because this type of thinking is often at play when I think about my personal finance journey. I don’t know about you, but when I talk about my journey it sounds something like this: “When I was younger, I was not great with money, and I made a lot of questionable financial decisions, but then I had some experiences and figured some stuff out about money, and now I’ve got a system in place for my finances that totally works, and I’m on track to my financial goals, and it should be smooth sailing from here on out.”

My story kind of makes it sound like I think I have already answered all questions, no?

But that can’t possibly be the case. I know from many, many past experiences that feeling like I’ve got everything figured out is a pretty sure sign that I probably don’t have everything figured out. (And, in my opinion, nobody ever truly does.) I don’t mean this in a cynical, fatalistic way; rather, I mean it in a way that celebrates the fact that we’re always learning and growing and figuring out new things and refining—or even overhauling—our beliefs and habits, and there’s always going to be a new perspective or new information or a new realization around the next bend.

For example, in the next month or so, I will (I hope) find a job and make a detailed plan to start paying off my student loans, and I bet as soon as that happens I’ll have the urge to think, yeah, I’ve got this all figured out now. But chances are, I won’t have it all figured out. I’ll still have lots of questions to answer—about the finer details of student loan repayment, about how much money I’m really able to pay each month, about what it’ll be like to start to actually address this debt, about what I’m actually working towards, both financially and personally, about how I feel about it all, and about what future adjustments I might want to make.

So this post is really a reminder to myself that while it’s okay—in fact, it’s GOOD—to feel positive about my growth and progress thus far, I do not in fact have everything figured out, nor will I ever. There are still questions ahead, and there always will be. And that’s awesome, because it means there’s always more to learn, not only about money but also about myself and the world around me.

I’ll end by sharing two quotations with you that I have loved for a long time:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
~ Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”
~ e.e. cummings

What do you think? Is it useful in personal finance (or in life) to believe that we’ve figured things out?
And are we ever correct to think that we have?

37 Comments on “Be Sure You Have Answered All Questions

  1. It is my belief that we never stop learning in life and most of us will never have ALL the answers. When I was younger, I thought I knew it all. Now that I am older, I now realize that this isn’t the case. Very interesting, thought-provoking post.

    1. Thanks 🙂 Sometimes I almost feel like the older I get, the more I realize I don’t know! Quite the opposite of what I would have expected when I was younger and thought that adults had everything all figured out.

    1. Hahaha, yeah, actually one of the biggest challenges for me in teaching this course was having to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t know everything. It was a very science-y course, and while I was technically *qualified* to teach it, the students definitely asked lots of questions that I didn’t know the answers to! I had to get used to saying, wow, great question, I will look that up and get back to you next time.

  2. As a professional researcher, I know that it is much more important to find the right question than to have the right answer — and often we don’t know what the right question is until we’re very deep into the project. (Some people never find the right question, which is why there are really boring articles about very interesting sources.) As far as how that translates to our finances — I think the danger spot is maybe when we think we’ve found the right question(s)…but perhaps we haven’t.

    1. Oh gosh, yes, I can relate to this in research. While I was working on my dissertation I kept having thoughts like, huh, if only I’d structured my experiment a little differently, I would have been able to look at this cool thing that I never even thought of until this moment! I guess it’s all just an ongoing learning process, trying to figure out what the right questions are.

  3. I have fallen into the “I have all the answers” trap a couple of times…usually right before I hit a slippery patch and fall. Life has a way of humbling me when I take things for granted.

  4. So much yes to this! Every time I’ve “had it all figured out” I realize later on that oh whoops, I had it all figured out EXCEPT for these glaring issues that I can see in retrospect. So my default now is to assume I still have a lot to learn, always – and I agree with you that it’s not at all a bad thing! I feel like knowing all the answers would be a dull way to go through life 🙂

    1. Agreed! I remember that when I was a kid I used to think that I would have everything all figured out by age 27. Why 27? I have no idea, but to me that age was the pinnacle of adulthood. But, as it turns out, I was waaaaay off. 🙂 Today I look back on 27 and wonder what I was thinking. (Which is probably also what I’ll think when I look back on today, a few years from now.) But it’s all good! As you say, it would be dull to have all the answers.

  5. I see the more in people way younger than me. You think you have a lot of things figured out or a plan that won’t falter, but I’ve lived enough life to know if almost never goes according to plan. The good news is sometimes it’s better. The bad? Sometimes it’s not. The best thing I ever did for myself was admit I don’t know sh*t, then it freed me up to have a plan, but be super flexible with it. Sway like a tree!

  6. Such sage advice here–and quotations from two of my favorite poets to boot! You might be interested in the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari who wrote about (among many other topics) becoming something new is always in the works–especially when, as you say, we are of the strident view everything is static! And what a beautiful transformation is.

  7. The moment you think you know something, you stop learning. I think it’s so great that we never have all the questions answered. We have learned SO MUCH in the past six months of having a PF blog about Personal Finance. And we’ve become better people and better at finances because of it. The same is true with every subject. I love this reminder. It’s especially helpful to periodically RE-ANSWER the questions you’ve already answered because things change.

    1. Oh wow, Maggie, is your blog only 6 months old? That must mean you started it just before I started mine. You seem like such a seasoned blogger that I assumed you’d been around for a while already. 🙂
      And regarding re-answering the questions: YES. I think that is key. Even if we believe we’ve figured something out, that doesn’t mean we never have to think about it again!

        1. Ha, thanks…I’ve spent all day today failing at battling Russian spambots so am not feeling too confident in my blogging/tech skills at the moment. However, I AM working on my fill-the-bucket post! 🙂

        2. If you figure out how to beat them, let me know! 🙂 I’ve accepted that as sure as I feel, at times, it’s merely a feeling and likely to lead to a learning opportunity. I’m with everyone else–let’s never stop learning.

        3. Well, I doubt I’ll beat them, but thanks to you I’ve at least filtered them out of Google Analytics! 🙂 Also I learned that my particular spammer, “Vitaly”, is a common and much-hated one, so at least I know I’m not alone!

  8. I read this post earlier today, but felt like I wanted to sit with it for a bit, so I’m back to comment at last! It’s really so true that we never have all the answers, and I’m totally in the camp of having gone from having all the answers as a younger person to being quick to admit everything I don’t know as a less young person. I think a big part of it is realizing that life is a lot better if we take a flexible approach (I like Tonya’s “sway like a tree”) instead of a rigid one, and believing we have the answers is inherently rigid.

    But I also took your post another way — asking, in essence, whether we need to resolve every question or disagreement in our lives. And I actually just wrote a 1400 word post on a very timely disagreement in our lives that your post made me think a lot about, which will publish in the AM. 🙂 My short answer: I don’t think we have to resolve everything. I crave resolution in a big way, but I have come to accept with time and age and some degree of maturity that resolution is not always healthy for a relationship. (This will make more sense, I hope, in the context of the post!) Thank you for spurring my thinking!

    1. I’m all for people taking the post in different ways, in Oscar Wilde, critic-as-artist style! 🙂 And I can definitely see how this could relate to disagreements with other people — there definitely tend to be a lot of questions in relationships, don’t there? And though we’d like for there to always be a point of resolution, that does seem a bit unrealistic. People are complicated (to state the obvious). Anyway, I’m glad this helped you think a bit, and I’m off to check out your post!

  9. I think it’s helpful to recognize we don’t have it all figured out, and never will, but to strive to keep learning, asking, and answering. In fact, we refuse to declare an end goal like early retirement or moving to a farm (which both sound pretty good to us) just yet because we know our journey will continually shape and change us and our dreams. We’re satisfied for now to make wise financial situations that will set us up for future flexibility to take opportunities as they come, or set more specific goals as we get closer to actualizing them.

    1. Ah, that’s interesting, Kalie — that you’ve considered end goals but haven’t actually chosen one as your specific target. I think the phenomenon of goal-setting is a very interesting one in our culture: it’s definitely very highly regarded, and potentially very motivating…but also potentially limiting, if the goal doesn’t allow for flexibility. Good for you for making smart choices financial now while also continuing to be open to possible future opportunities. 🙂

  10. I’m a such a huge advocate of a growth mindset (which you my friend, totally have!) that I find it almost as a hinderance when you settle to think you have it all figured out. The reason? Once that “all figured out notion” faces a situation that turns you a complete 180…well, how does one react (typically not in the best fashion…). When you continuously recognize there is much to learn, you never settle. Opportunities are limitless, and your potential is never fully tapped out. I also think there’s a fine balance though – if you drive yourself crazy by trying to learn everything you may max out your capacity.

    1. You know, I actually think that your most recent post has kind of a similar theme to this post — because you were essentially talking about allowing for flexibility and exploration in goal setting (rather than rigid expectations for following the rules you’d set up for yourself), or at least that’s how I read it. It’s the same kind of idea, I think.

      And yes, I agree that there’s a fine balance here! One that I’m still trying to reach… 🙂

  11. I think if we had all the answers, we’d be dirty filthy rich by now :).

    I don’t profess to be an expert at anything. I’m always reading and trying to learn new things because you never know when that light bulb moment can happen.

    Blogging has helped me so much finding new questions and learning more about myself and what I’m capable of doing. It looks like it has the same positive effect on you too!

    Good luck on the job search!

    1. Ha, yes, good point. I am definitely filthy rich, or any other kind of rich. 🙂

      Yes, blogging definitely has helped me to find a lot of new questions, that’s for sure (like how to fight the spambots — still haven’t solved that one!)

  12. It’s pretty much NEVER safe to think we have all of the questions answered. When we do, we end up with a lot of unpleasant surprises. Not that I’d ever do something like that. Cough cough.

    But seriously, it looks like my therapist may not be covered under the insurance I just voluntarily switched to. I used the online tool, which stated that he was covered, but I didn’t call just to be sure. And now I may be paying the price — literally.

    1. Oh gosh, Abigail, I’m sorry to hear about that. Navigating health insurance is seriously the worst. Maybe you can somehow argue with them given that he was listed on the online tool?

      And yeah, totally, I would never think I had all the questions answered either. (Cough cough.) 🙂

  13. Sarah, I love your writing! I vote that you quit the job search and become a full time poet or novelist. Just kidding…kind of 😉

    I love the concept of recognizing that we DON’T have it all figured out because it leaves room for growth and change. Also, how boring would life be if we did know it all?! Having said that, personal narratives are my jam. If I didn’t do it (internally) I think I would go insane and feel like I never accomplished anything. The trials of being human….haha.

    Good luck with the job search! You’ve got this!

    1. You’re very sweet, Taylor. 🙂 Man, do I wish I could write novels or short stories!

      Oh, and I should have said more clearly that I really do think personal narratives are a positive thing — without them, how would we be able to make sense of anything? I just sometimes notice that mine are so cut and dried, when really there’s a lot of mess and unfinished business and continued questions…and that’s okay too.
      Thanks for the encouragement re: the job search! It’s progressing…slowly. Something will work out! 🙂

  14. I think at some point we need to feel “good enough” to take action on our finances. You could spend years researching and trying to understand the home-buying process, but it isn’t really practical to do that. I think we constantly reach a happy medium where we are acknowledging we don’t know everything but still make a decision.

    1. Yeah, that’s a good point — if we’re waiting until we have *all* the information on a particular topic, we’re never going to actually make any decisions about it!

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