Not Every Question Needs an Answer

“No answer is also an answer,” we say in Germany. Usually, a negative one. “Freddie never got back on our group chat. I don’t think he’s coming to the cinema on Wednesday.” That sort of thing.

Against better judgement, I still try to answer all of my emails. My hit rate is higher than it should be, but every now and then, messages still fall through the cracks. Sometimes, months pass, and I start wondering whether it has become too embarrassing to reply. Usually, I still do it. Every now and then, however, I re-read the message carefully, and I think: “You know what? I think this person is better off if I don’t respond.”

Maybe the issue they described was attached to a deadline, and that deadline has come and gone. Maybe it’s the kind of challenge no one can give you an answer to, and so whether I reply or not never mattered in the first place.

In almost all cases, however, I am sure of one thing: Writing the email is the most helpful part — and that they’ve done already. When you message someone and ask for help, you’re describing your problem. Maybe for the first time. You need to be succinct. That exercise alone is usually worth just as much, if not more, than any potential answer you might get.

When asked about his mentors, Derek Sivers says he only has three — and two of them don’t even know he exists. Instead of actually reaching out to them, he just drafts an email outlining his problem. Then, he pretends to reply from their perspective. He can keep that exchange going for as long as he needs to, but usually, by the third round, whatever initial challenge he had has long been replaced by a different, slightly better problem.

Not every question needs an answer, and not every answer proves its question was worthwhile. Plus, you’re only human. From time to time, you’ll miss a notification or be too tired to respond. It’s okay to not reply. No answer is also an answer, and it might not be a bad one after all.