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Living in the Question

posted Nov 4, 2012, 4:23 PM by Lisa Shelley   [ updated Jul 8, 2013, 2:28 PM ]
A wise person once said to me, "the more you know, the more you realize you don't know."

Knowing the Answer 

We are raised and educated in a manner that largely emphasizes the concept of a finite knowledge base with little ambiguity.  There is an 'answer,' and to know that answer is to win the prize.  We conquer the alphabet, multiplication tables and the state capitals through dedicated study, and are duly rewarded for "Knowing the Answer." As our studies become more complex there is more allowance for nuanced understanding, however the rhythm of tests and examinations we all endure to demonstrate our learning still leaves us with an undeniable bias toward "Knowing the Answer."  

In adult life this bias begins to be limiting.  It can play out in early career employees as a reluctance to ask questions for fear of appearing unknowledgeable.  It can result in insular thinking within an organization when one group does not consider the perspective of another.  In the worst case it can result in people so attached to "Knowing the Answer," that they never evolve from the twenty-year-old version of themselves.  Continuing to learn and grow both personally and professionally requires that we abandon our bias toward "Knowing the Answer," and instead embrace "Living in the Question."

Embracing the Question
Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School Professor and author of "The Innovator's Dilemma," provides an excellent visualization of the importance of a questioning mind. 

"Questions are places in your mind where answers fit," he said. "If you haven't asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off."

Unfortunately, a bias toward "Knowing the Answer" effectively shuts you off from growth. You don't form the questions that provide a place for new information to connect, resulting in an inability to discern it.  You only hear that which validates the perspective/understanding/idea that you already have. You render yourself unable to innovate.  You stop seeing new ideas and you are unable to connect existing ones.

Making the Shift
Hopefully there comes a time when you realize that what you "know" is simply your current understanding;  the culmination of your life's learning and experiences.  It isn't about being right, or wrong.  It's just where you are.  This understanding allows you to detach from your beliefs.  You realize that the prize in life isn't for "Knowing the Answer," rather it comes from the intrinsic satisfaction gained by continuing to learn, grow and contribute.  From this place it becomes natural to "Live in the Question."  Additional information and deeper understanding feels like an enhancement to what you already know rather than a challenge to it.  When you come across someone who thinks differently than you do, your response is one of curiosity.  You want to understand what has led them to believe what they do, so that the understanding can continue to inform your own.

But what about Action?
Can we "Live in the Question,” and still get things done?  It's important to distinguish the difference between "Living in the Question," and some other unproductive behaviors we have all observed.  "Living in the Question" is not about perfectionism.  The focus of the perfectionist is still on "knowing the answer," however a perfectionist's high expectations can result in “analysis paralysis” and an inability to act.  Similarly, the Devil's Advocate may appear as someone that is living in the question, however their focus is also on "knowing the answer," or proving that someone else does not.

“Living in the question” is about being comfortable with the paradox of both knowing something, while at the same time recognizing that what you know is limited and could change with new information.  It does not prevent you from taking action when you need to act, however it will likely prompt you to ask better questions before doing so and will lead to a better understanding of any associated risk.

The Leadership Advantage
Leaders who "Live in the Question" have an advantage, not only because they naturally foster growth and innovation, but also because they encourage learning and are more open and inclusive.  They naturally want to understand other's perspectives and they encourage dialogue. When you lead with a bias toward “Living in the Question,” your employees will naturally feel respected, valued and heard... the foundation for building connection and sustainable employee engagement.

So, where in your life are you stuck "Knowing the Answer?"  What might open up if you allowed yourself to "Live in the Question?"  After all, the more we know, the more we realize we don't know.