I was reading The Power of a Good Question (a great post by Leo Bottary) today and it serves as the jumping off point for what follows. Leo provided great practical insight as to the “how” of this process as well as an example of what can come from it. I am going to take a more personal approach and share what I believe we have to embrace in order for our default to be asking questions instead of giving answers.
How many times have you told your kids (or been told yourself) to “grow up”? Well, when it comes to being a great questioner, the reality is that we need to maintain some of that childlike wonderment about the world around us. In “A More Beautiful Question”, Warren Berger points out that a typical preschooler asks about 300 questions each day but once they reach middle-school age, they ask very few.
This is referred to a neoteny (the retention of juvenile features in the adult animal) and you can read “Today we can’t afford to become adults” by Joichi Ito if you would like to find out why it matters.
If we were to maintain this childlike ability maybe we could also avoid what Robert Burton describes as the “certainty epidemic”. This is also known as the certainty bias which finds its roots in our genetics as we are hardwired to avoid uncertainty because it triggers a “threat response” in our limbic system which causes us to feel something akin to pain. Being certain is almost like an addiction so when we “meet” the goal of avoiding uncertainty, we feel rewarded…even when it is not in our best interest.
Questioning is also more aligned with divergent thinking rather than convergent thinking because it focuses on the “why” more than the “how”. In general terms, divergent is more creative and convergent is more efficient. I think there is less uncertainty in convergent thinking so this means our brain will reward us for taking the convergent path and making the world certain…even if its not. If you would like to read more, here is “Divergent Thinking versus Convergent Thinking” from Phil Charron.
Finally, there is this gem from Shunryu Suzuki which really stands on its on merits and needs no explanation. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
I realize the we live in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world (VUCA) which means that trying to remain open to multiple scenarios and withholding judgment is biologically challenging. We crave certainty because we want to avoid the psychological and emotional “pain” that comes with not knowing but, oftentimes, “knowing” is a false certainty. We make connections that are not there and draw faulty conclusions because are addicted and need that “certainty fix”.
I believe we all need to continually extend our “threshold of uncertainty” and embrace the opportunity to play the “holy fool” from time to time. Richard Cecil provides a great closing comment for us on this topic…“The first step towards knowledge is to know that we are ignorant.”