… so much as thinking that you already have the answer.

For the life of me, I can’t remember where I read that. It sounds like something from the kind of book I used to read about 20 years ago… but truth to tell, I’ve found it to be quite useful advice. I’ve spent over two decades as a university researcher, and this quote has proved its worth over and over again when the research wasn’t making progress—almost inevitably, it turned out that we were asking the wrong questions.

And the reason we were asking the wrong questions is because (you guessed it) we thought we already had the answers for them.

I currently work in training , and this is a piece of advice that I find myself giving to my clients over and over again. Typically it’s in a context where they’re trying to change something, such as a job, but have hit a roadblock—generally, this is because they’re making assumptions; either about what they know, or about what they can and can’t do.

Now, I’m no great philosophical thinker, and I can’t promise that this sequence of questions will change your life: all I can say is that it’s a sequence of questions I’ve learned to ask myself whenever I hit a dead end—all based upon the idea that nothing stops you asking questions quite so much as having answers for them already.

Where do I want to go?

What I mean by that is that I need to be very clear about what it is I’m trying to achieve. Often it’s not so much the immediate question of “what am I trying to do?”, but “why am I trying to do it?” All too often, I forget about the bigger picture and end up head-butting something to try and make it work when it would be a  lot easier to go around the problem and figure out a different way to achieve the same end.

For example, I recently spent five minutes trying to get a jammed drawer to open to get to the spare batteries inside it, forgetting that I had spare batteries in another place altogether. Sure I needed to come back and un-jam the drawer at some point, but it didn’t have to be now, when people were waiting for the new batteries. I’d forgotten to ask myself what I was trying to achieve, and concentrated instead on what I was trying to do.

Where am I now?

This is a question that can only be answered in relation to the first. What I’m getting at is asking how far I am from where I want to be. Sometimes we concentrate so much on the things we haven’t done, attained, achieved, etc. that we forget to take stock and look at what we have.

A friend of mine recently spent a long time suffering angst about the growth of his company because he hadn’t quite reached the expansion targets he’d set for himself and the company. Okay, targets are (often) good, but he’d forgotten to ask himself why he set those targets.  As it turns out, he’d set them not because they were important in their own right, but as proxies for what he really wanted—to be able to have a good quality of life for his family. As soon as he thought about it, he realized he already had that.  In fact, worrying about not achieving his expansion targets for his company was the main (almost the only!) reason his family’s quality of life wasn’t what he wanted it to be!

He’d forgotten to ask himself the questions about why he was doing what he was doing.

What resources do I have?

All too often, we don’t stop to consider what we can do and the friends we can ask for help.  Asking yourself questions in a semi-formal way can bring to mind the staggering resources and support that can often be brought to bear with a problem.

I spent most of yesterday trying to solve a WordPress problem on one of my own blogs when, if I’d stopped to ask myself what resources I really had, I would have remembered that I can email someone who writes WordPress plugins for a living. I’d implicitly begun to assume the resources I saw (me) were the resources I had.

To quote a certain yellow cartoon character, “D’oh!”

Featured photo credit:  Many raised fingers in class at university via Shutterstock

 

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