My best teachers all had one thing in common: they asked great questions. Questions that made me think beyond the immediate answer and look for a deeper understanding. Questions that sparked curiosity and encouraged me to look at a problem from multiple angles.
Those were the best teachers. The rest stood at the front and lectured for forty-five minutes, preaching information on how to pass the test. A strategy that, not surprisingly, doesn’t encourage learning.
Who else remembers cramming the night before an exam? is there any better evidence that the lecture model isn’t an effective teaching method? If it actually taught the information, why would we have needed to hold those emergency cram sessions?
We know this. We recognize the ineffectiveness of it. But we’re still allowing it to affect our own behaviors. And with that, we’re limiting our ability to influence and develop others.
We’re acting like the teachers who lecture. When we need to act like those teachers who question.
Questions Bring Curiosity
“To maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry – these are the essentials of thinking.” – John Dewey, How We Think
We’re conditioned to want the immediate answers. We want instant gratification and clear pathways to success.
The long-term cost of a lecture-based educational system isn’t just the wasted hours and lost opportunities, it’s the mindset that’s been instilled in far too many of us.
Somewhere along the way, we started to believe that in order to learn, we needed to be taught. And in order to help others understand, we need to spell out the answers for them.
But life rarely works that way. We don’t learn through lectures and long-winded sermons. We’ve already seen where that path leads. Instead of knowledge, we get superficial opinions. Instead of understanding, we get recycled sound bites.
When Albert Einstein was growing up, his teachers complained that he paused to think about the meaning of their questions rather than give quick responses. He later commented on the importance of individual thinking in education, a lesson our current school system is still struggling to implement,
“I was made acutely aware how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.”
So instead of a dogmatic obsession with immediate answers, and trying to force our own knowledge on others, maybe our focus could be better applied elsewhere. As the great poet Ranier Marie Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet,
“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.”
Questions impress personal ownership. And questions instill curiosity. All of which is critical to learning.
As the great management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “My greatest strength as a consultant is to be ignorant and ask a few questions.”
Questions Bring Customization
“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” – Eugene Ionesco
Read ten self-help articles and most follow the same script.
Look at my success. Do exactly as I did. And then you’ll be a multi-millionaire who’s at his target weight and is productive every minute of every day. Never mind your definition of success. Mine is the right version.
Except we’re not all multi-millionaires. We still struggle with eating healthy. And while my hat’s off to Gary Vaynerchuck for succeeding along the path that works for him, I have no desire to work 18 hours a day.
As anyone who’s ever told a hysterical person to “just calm down” knows, there’s a world of difference between someone hearing advice and actually following it.
Don’t get me wrong. Most people do want to help. But they’re focused on giving answers. Answers that worked for them.
They’re acting like the lecturer, prescribing their own personal roadmap. But people need a more customized solution. They need that questioning teacher to help them create their own map. As venture capital specialist Mike Maples Jr. suggests,
“People who offer great advice understand that their goal is to help someone on their unique journey. People who offer bad advice are trying to relive their old glories.”
We want people to develop. We want to be those great teachers. So we need to focus on the questions. In the words of Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Alphabet,
“We run this company on questions, not answers.”
Questions Bring Learning
“Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet.” – Krista Tippett
Great questions require thinking. They don’t lend themselves to immediate answers.
Whether it’s interviewing candidates or challenging engineers, I’ve often found that the length of my questions are indirectly proportional to the amount of thinking it creates. When questions become too long, they become leading. They telegraph the answer. Defeating the whole purpose.
That being said, asking questions becomes a skill like any other. It’s one we improve as we work on it. And while it can be difficult to think of great questions in the moment, the following are twelve simple ones that have continued to serve me well over the years.
There’s no scarier question to the bureaucrat than “Why?” There is no quicker way to uncover a shallow understanding of reason or an unwillingness to stray beyond the status quo.
Conversely, there’s no better question for the curious. Asking why gives us an excuse to probe the details and expand our understanding. It reminds us that the world is larger than our knowledge of it. And it invites us to lessen that gap by a little bit.
What do you think?
Working with engineers, introverts, and scientists, it’s easy to mistake silence for an inability to contribute. Most people do have a voice. It’s often up to us to encourage them to use it. And welcome those diverse opinions.
As a parent, I’ve found it’s doubly important to keep our kids as part of the discussion. They need to see that we notice, rely on, and pay attention to them. They have thoughts to contribute. And when we involve them in these discussions, we encourage them to ask their own questions as well.
What makes you say that?
Daniel Patrick Moynihan prophetically said that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” And he’s right. But people’s positions aren’t determined solely by the facts, but their perceptions of those facts. Perceptions that are caused by their unique experiences.
So while I may disagree with your opinion, I cannot disagree with your experience. And we’re better able to reach common ground when we can recognize the experiences that are driving those perceptions.
Is this still a good idea?
One that should be obvious yet rarely is. How often do we continue to drift down a path that’s no longer tenable because of the emotional investment?
We’re all aware of the sunk cost fallacy. That doesn’t mean we don’t still fall victim to it.
So what’s next?
It’s always fun to pontificate on the future possibilities, but it doesn’t become a reality without knowing that next step. Without action, intentions aren’t worth a lot.
In the words of inventor and author Doug Hall, “Courage is found in action. It has to be learned – and earned.”
What are the unintended consequences?
Opportunities and risks are two sides of the same coin. What are we opening ourselves up to and how can we manage them?
In the wisdom of J.R.R. Tolkein, “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.”
What if we did the opposite?
I borrowed (stole?) this one from Tim Ferriss. When everyone is busy looking for the incremental gains, trying to one-up the competition, it’s often good to try a complete change of direction.
Instead of edging out the competition, try to make them obsolete.
What are you not going to do?
With every opportunity comes an opportunity cost. It’s tempting to think we’ll continue to balance everything, but there will always be a trade-off.
Zappo’s may have high quality and good prices, but it’s the Customer service that’s raved about. Recognize that it’s better to be extraordinary in one area than merely good in five.
What delivers the best value to the Customer?
With every constraint and trade-off, each decision should come down to which option is in the best interest of your Customer. Keep this in mind, and prioritizing between quality, cost, and schedule become much easier.
In the inspiring words of Derek Sivers, “When you’ve asked your customers what would improve your service, has anyone said, ‘Please fill your website with more advertising’? Nope. So don’t do it.”
What’s the worst that could happen?
Another Ferriss inspiration. We specialize in imagining worst-case scenarios and allow that fear to paralyze us into inaction. When we consider these fears, we can often see them for the temporary inconveniences that they really are. After all, to the best of my knowledge, no one has ever died from receiving criticism.
As Mark Twain once reflected, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
What really matters here?
Another seemingly obvious one that somehow gets overlooked until it’s brought on by a regret-induced panic attack.
As Jerome Jarre often asks, “You are 99 years old, you are on your deathbed, and you have a chance to come back to right now: what would you do?
What would you need to see to change your mind?
In my opinion, the most underrated question of all time. A question that forces us to pause and consider the chance that maybe we’re not always correct. To recognize the chance that we’re wrong. Or are we ready to admit that we’re so closed-minded we can’t even consider the possibility?
The paradox of science is that it’s simultaneously a quest to reduce ignorance with knowledge and yet is also driven by ignorance. A closed-minded scientist is one that’s through making breakthroughs. As a closed-minded person has nothing left to learn.
As the great Richard Feynman explains in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,
“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty– some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”
Certainty limits our growth. Uncertainty brings the invitation for new ideas and new development. True learning never stops.
Question. Connect. Develop.
“I’d rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.” – Richard Feynman
When we were kids, we always had questions. Then we eventually started believing that’s just the way things are. And then at some point we started thinking we had to have all the answers. To the detriment of both our imaginations and our development.
As Carl Sagan said in his 1985 Gifford lectures, “If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from, we will have failed.”
Let’s bring back the excitement that accompanies an unexplained mystery. Or an unsolved puzzle.
And realize that if we truly want to help others grow, they don’t need us to preach our logic to them. They just need us to question. And connect. And inspire.
As those great teachers did for us.