What’s Harder Than Finding New Answers?
Breakthrough solutions start with reframed questions, and we are in need of breakthrough solutions in many, many realms. We can all benefit by grasping in a more disciplined way something we have tended to see as pure serendipity: the flash of inquiry that leads to insight.
Something that seems like a once-in-a-lifetime stroke of luck—the insight, seemingly out of nowhere, that shows the way forward—is actually not something we should leave to chance or assume must be rare. We can make such moments happen by putting more emphasis on the questions that precipitate them.
What If We Brainstormed for Questions?
TO QUESTIONING AND BEYOND
Pixar, the filmmaking company that brought you such masterpieces as Finding Nemo, Coco, and The Incredibles, is great questioning environment, under the leadership of Ed Catmull, who has been at the company since its founding and is now president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios.
This is a place where the mean quotient of catalytic questions is substantially higher than in other organizations. Catmull has worked very hard and has in turn inspired other leaders to create a culture of candor from the start. Yet, in spite of these broad-based foundation-laying efforts, Catmull is acutely aware of how hard it is to get catalytic questions out on the table. So he and others have been very deliberate about adding specific, structured, purposeful settings where creative questioning flourishes.
The Pixar “Brain Trust” is a perfect example. In the process of making a film, directors voluntarily enter a room where the whole point is to get the raw, unadulterated feedback of their peers. This is a potentially devastating experience, because at Pixar they hold a strong, shared belief that directors should work on projects in which they have, or acquire, a deep emotional stake in the storyline. Historically, this makes for the best films, but it also means that directors display deep vulnerabilities.
Beyond the Brain Trust, Pixar has designed other purposeful spaces and places to open up possibilities for creative inquiry, insight, and ultimately impact. One important event that has taken place a couple of times already is “Notes Day.” The inspiration is the longtime tradition in filmmaking for people high up in a studio hierarchy to periodically ask for a screening of a film in progress so that they can provide feedback in the form of “notes.” Notes Day took that familiar practice and extended it to the task of assessing whether the studio itself, rather than one of its products, could use some serious tweaks or rewrites.
Creating Conditions For Yourself And Others
Questions are discouraged in us and we discourage them in ourselves. Where questions flourish, it is because someone has created the space for them to do so. The spaces in which questions thrive are spaces where different conditions prevail.
Individuals can get themselves into such productive circumstances in three ways.
First, they can consciously seek out more settings where questioning conditions prevail. On a personal level, a coaching or therapy session, a sabbatical, or even a camping trip, can be a forcing function—a carved-out safe space for questioning that does not resemble the normal conditions in which one operates.
Second, you can create those conditions in pockets around you—and not only for yourself but perhaps for others as well.
Third, in your daily comings and goings in circumstances you cannot easily change, you can pack along the condition of assuming greater wrongness as a purely personal perspective. This is akin to the idea of mindfulness, a state of active awareness of and attention to what is happening in the moment. If you can, by sheer dint of will, refuse to capitulate to the conditions that are suppressing your imagination and voice, you can make a questioning space for yourself.
Why Would Anyone Seek Discomfort?
Is there anything more fundamental to human psychology than comfort seeking? Most of what we celebrate as societal progress involves the removal of discomfort-causing problems. Individually, we avoid situations in which we feel stressed—and with good reason: Stress is a killer. But in the modern world many of us have the luxury of insulating ourselves so thoroughly from stressors that we put ourselves at risk of adverse effects in the other direction. Untroubled by challenging experiences or information, we stop growing and learning. Our questioning capacity atrophies.
Famously, discomfort spurs a lot of innovation. Problem-solvers habitually focus on pain points. Elon Musk, for example, was stuck in an epic LA traffic jam when he thought of the hyperloop—his vision of a huge pneumatic tube capable of carrying people at supersonic speed, reducing the time from Los Angeles to San Francisco to thirty minutes. “I was an hour late for a talk,” he says. “And I was thinking, man, there has got to be some better way to get around.” It’s a classic necessity-as-the-mother-of-invention story.
Meanwhile, Victor Hwang, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and now VP of entrepreneurship at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, advises entrepreneurs that they should “head into the weird places” to stretch their brains. Putting a slightly finer point on that, he outlines three ways to seek out the unusual:
- Watch and listen to weird stuff. I enjoy watching obscure documentaries and listening to unusual podcasts. It’s thrilling to find cool ideas lurking just a few clicks away.
- Walk in weird places. Take walks in hidden suburban neighborhoods, department stores, community colleges. When you’re walking with no purpose but walking, you see things in fresh ways, because you have the luxury of being in the present.
- Talk to weird people. Striking up conversations with people who are different from you can be powerful.
Why Not Aim for the Biggest Questions?
With regard to any problem, there are assumptions that have grown up over the years as to what can be altered versus what is simply reality that must be accepted.
Musk noted that many fresh solutions are the products of cross-fertilization of ideas from different domains. “A lot of people who spend a long time trying to figure out how to solve tough problems in one industry don’t ask, ‘Well, is there some way we could apply that solution to a different industry?’” he noted. “And that can be really, really powerful.”
About the power of questions. On various occasions he has recalled reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams when he was around fourteen years old and taking away “an important point, which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part.” That is a tender age to arrive at the realization that being able to summon up accurate answers will take you only so far. Today, Musk applies his prodigious intellect to summoning up better questions—questions that will knock down assumptions and channel energy into new pathways of discovery. Why is he so much more capable of this than most people? In large part because he started early and he kept at it.
Big Means Fundamental
Probably more accurate way of saying “big questions” is to refer to them as “fundamental questions.” The most significant, potentially transformative questions are the ones that go back to first principles. Thinking about them this way makes clear that not all “big” questions are on a planetary scale. They can be transformative at a more local level, such as in a single community, or a single company, or for a single individual.
It is no surprise that Oprah is a believer in the power of questions. She has been interviewing personalities in live settings since she was a teenager; by the last episode of her daily television show, she had racked up 4,589 shows and over 37,000 one-on-one, on-air conversations. “One lesson I learned from all my years of interviewing,” she says, “is that the key to getting the answers you need lies in asking the right questions.” Conceivably she has asked more questions than any person on earth.
She made it her practice to ask all the guests invited to appear on her show, “What is your intention?” She wanted to make sure that her understanding of that guided the questions she would pose to them. Probably, for many, it was the first time they had been asked that, and they benefited from being forced to think about it. Now Oprah is asking the same question of all the rest of the world she reaches because she knows by her own experience that simple inquiry yields significant impact. In her words, “Ask the right questions, and the answers will always reveal themselves.”
Some of us are in the habit of asking bigger questions than others, but the message is that all of us could be asking bigger ones than we do. This is the great payoff from becoming more aware of and more adept at questioning. It allows you to take on the problems that matter most.
Some of that will involve questions about your own life’s purpose. You don’t want to be one of those people who, as Joi Ito puts it, “work their asses off on some path only to suddenly, when they have a moment to pause and become aware, realize they’ve been on the wrong path.” To avoid that, he says: “I think it’s an important thing to be constantly checking in to see whether you’re actually doing the things that matter to you.” And some enhanced questioning power will allow you to take on the problems of the wider world.