In Future Pull: Partner with the Universe to Create the Life of Your Dreams, I encouraged you to adopt a Perspective of Unlimited Possibility. My intention was to promote a spirit of open mindedness; a willingness to believe that we may not know all the answers and that anything is possible. However, adopting a Perspective of Unlimited Possibility also means recognizing that that you — yes, YOU — are capable of anything; that nothing is impossible.
Sometimes, the only thing stopping you from achieving the miraculous is simply not knowing what the miracle might be. Sometimes, that’s because we aren’t thinking big enough. And sometimes, we aren’t thinking big enough because we aren’t asking big enough questions.
When you need a solution to a problem, an answer to a question, or new ideas to explore, what is your ‘go to’ approach? Do you brainstorm? Mind-map? Ask your friends? Toss a coin? Read the tarot? Consult the stars?
No matter what approach you choose, you have to start with a good question. If you begin with the wrong question, you will end up with the wrong answers. Obvious? Not really. Most of us start off with the first question that pops into our head and then go in circles looking for an answer and ultimately settling for one that isn’t at all satisfying.
I’m sure you’ve heard this analogy. Walking down the street late one evening, a man comes upon another person down on his knees groping around on the sidewalk. He asks, “What are you doing?” The man on his knees answers, “I’m looking for my keys.” The helpful gentleman offers to help and starts to search the street, the gutter and the road under the streetlight. Finally, he asks, “Are you sure this is where you lost them?” The keyless man responds, “No, I lost them over there in the bushes but it’s too dark to look over there.” If you ask the wrong questions, you’ll end up like the man in this story, searching in vain and getting answers that take you nowhere, or at least not where you want to end up.
Asking effective questions is an inborn talent that we suppress as we grow up and get ‘tribalized’. Every child is a great questioner, often driving their parents crazy with their unusual ‘why’ questions. When my son was about four years old, he woke me up and asked me, “Why do people have foreheads?” The best answer I could come up with was, “To keep the hair out of our eyes.”
As children grow up, they learn that they are rewarded more for having answers than for asking questions and they start to lose their god-given questioning talent. In reality, the people who ask lots of questions – unusual questions that force them and others to think out of the box – are the ones who become thought leaders and innovators.
A study of some 3,000 creative executives, conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University and the INSEAD business school, found that what linked all of these Steve Jobs-types, perhaps more than anything else, was their curiosity and willingness to question. Hal Gregersen, one of the authors of the study noted that they have “The same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children.”
Coming up with the right question — the one that presents a challenge in a new light — demands that the questioner be able to look at an existing reality from multiple viewpoints, including, perhaps most importantly, that of the ‘naïve outsider.’
Sometimes it takes courage to play the role of ‘naive outsider’ and ask these questions. We’ve all been told that there are no ‘stupid questions’ but in reality, when we actually do ask the ‘off the wall’ questions, we are often rewarded with eye-rolling and brush-offs.
The art of questioning also requires patience. When we ask a question, we expect an answer as soon as possible and few of us are willing to allow questions to roll out, one after another, until a ‘hmmm’ question suddenly opens up a whole new way of thinking with the potential for amazing solutions and miraculous new directions.
The problem with trying to move too quickly to an answer is that it kills the question. Creativity is linked to the capacity to tolerate not knowing, to seek out paradoxes, to withstand the temptation of early closure, and to nurture the ‘courage of one’s own stupidity’ in questioning commonly accepted assumptions.
So how can you finetune your own art of questioning? Practice! Question everything! Use open-ended questions – they are the ones that lead to new ways of thinking. Open-ended questions are those that don’t look for a specific answer. They begin with “Why,” “How,” or “What if….” They are brave. They rattle cages. They are willing to travel down new paths. They don’t settle. And they lead to new and unlimited possibilities.
What are your favorite questions for opening your mind and inviting new ideas?