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Never Stop Questioning

There’s a certain age that kids go through when they seem to have an endless supply of questions:

“Why is the sky blue?”

“Why do cows make a moo sound?”

“Why don’t planes fall out of the sky?”

“Why are traffic lights red, yellow and green and not purple, orange and pink?”

And then, as we get older, the questions decline until the point when we stop asking.  Albert Einstein said, “The most important thing is to not stop questioning.” But as Buckminster Fuller observed, “All children are born geniuses; 9,999 out of every 10,000 are swiftly, inadvertently degeniusized by grownups.”

Why Do We Stop Questioning?

  • We lose the wonder of childhood.  We’re not as interested in things that aren’t part of our everyday routine. We stop caring so much about the world around us.
  • We focus on the specific things that are important to us and stop paying attention to all of the other things in the world that we think are distracting us from our focus. Hyper-focus can be good in short intervals when we’ve picked the right focal point, but often we’re so intent on focusing on something that we don’t pick the right thing to focus on.
  • We’ve been beaten down by people telling us our questions are stupid.  We no longer want to risk the embarrassment. We stop taking risks.  We stop playing to win and begin to focus on just avoiding a loss.
  • We’ve seen the consequences of being honest, and we don’t want to risk those consequences. I’ve seen executives ask a group of employees what’s wrong with an organization and get complete silence as an answer, because previous experience has shown that those who speak out are ridiculed, denied advancement or even driven out of the company.
  • We’re so rushed that we no longer take the time to wonder about things. We become so intent on being efficient (doing things right) that we forget how to be effective (doing the right things).
  • We hide our ethical, moral or religious beliefs because we feel uncomfortable discussing them. Even when we’re asked to do something which goes against our beliefs, we give in because we don’t want to be viewed as contrary or annoying, and because we don’t want to be labeled, judged or demeaned.

Why Is This a Problem?

  • Progress occurs because people question the world around them. If you don’t question something you do, then how do you ever get better at it? By questioning, you open up the possibility that there’s another way to do things, another explanation for the results you see, another way to approach a problem you’re trying to solve. If you don’t ask questions, then you’re essentially giving up: You’re accepting the world around you “as is,” without the possibility of any improvement or change. You’re condemning yourself to live in your current world forever, without any chance of that world getting better.
  • Studies have shown that group solutions to a problem are better than the individual solution of the worst member of the group but never better than the individual solution of the best member of the group. A group solution to a problem essentially averages the expertise and intelligence of the members of the group, giving an average solution. But if an individual in the group asks questions, speaks out, and gains the trust of the group with an above-average solution, then the overall result is superior.
  • Major technology and process advancements are more likely in smaller companies because the culture of a smaller company encourages outlaw thinking that would be unacceptable in a larger corporate culture. The smaller company culture encourages questions rather than discourages them, encourages extreme opinions instead of ridiculing them, and supports extreme research that would be impossible in a do-it-by-the-book organization. It has gotten to the point where many large companies achieve significant technology advances only by acquiring the small companies that have actually succeeded in those advances. Then further technology advancement slows or stops when the small company culture is overwhelmed by the negative culture of the large acquiring company.

Recommendations

  • Try to reestablish wonder in your life. Spend some time with a young child and try to see the world through the child’s eyes. Marvel at things you’ve been taking for granted, ask questions about things that have always puzzled you, and use your adult knowledge to find the answers to those questions.  Let the answers raise more questions, and dive deeper into the unknown.
  • Find someone you totally trust, and every so often have an actual deep conversation with that person about values, beliefs and the meaning of life. It will invigorate you, and maybe help you put things into perspective. Do this with other people who have different beliefs from yours, and try to understand how their beliefs are different and how that affects their thought process and how they live.
  • Encourage others in your family and your business organization to ask questions. Be supportive of a questioning mentality, where no questions are considered stupid, and where contrary beliefs are tolerated and even encouraged.
  • When you ask a question, be prepared to accept an honest answer, even if you don’t like the answer and even if you disagree with the answer. Without being discouraging or offensive, try to understand why the person believes the answer they gave. If you disagree, try to get to the root of the disagreement: Do you have different fundamental assumptions? Do they have information that you lack? Are they looking at things from a different point of view? But never do this kind of probing in a public or group setting — do it privately to avoid embarrassment and to encourage honesty.
  • Promote a “truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth” attitude at home and at work. The “whole truth” part is where most of us fall short. We hold back on telling the whole truth because we’re ashamed or because we know it can get us in trouble. So we don’t tell our manager that we’re having difficulty with a certain task until we’re so close to the deadline that there’s no way to prevent being late. Or we don’t reveal our concerns about a new potential vendor because we don’t want to offend anyone. Telling the whole truth means actively sharing information instead of just waiting for someone to ask us. Telling the whole truth means not holding back.

Conclusion

We’re full of questions as children, and then we gradually stop asking. It’s not that we’ve learned everything there is to know. It’s more that we’ve been sufficiently discouraged in our curiosity and questioning that we’ve found it easier not to ask. But there are huge consequences when we stop asking questions, and those consequences carry over into business. Somehow we have to reignite those fires that burned within us, reawaken our sleeping questioning child, and apply a questioning, open and honest attitude toward our lives, both personal and business. Questioning and honesty lead to growth and achievement. Silence just perpetuates the status quo.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rob Burkett June 26, 2012, 12:20 pm

    Great post! I’ve always been open to questions, particularly why I would do something a particular way. If I don’t have a good reason, then I better change. We can then act with confidence, which not to be confused with ego. If we aren’t providing value, then we need to move to a place where we can.

    The shame of it all is that this should be second-nature, for individuals and corporate cultures – but sadly, it isn’t.

    • Harwell June 26, 2012, 7:14 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Rob.

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