S Subramanyeswar
Jan 17, 2019

Subbu's Blog: Questions are the best way to answer

The author urges readers to make 2019 the year of questions and making it a part of everyday conversations

Subbu's Blog: Questions are the best way to answer
Why is it that we in the modern world have stopped looking for questions and started finding answers instead?
What is it that is stopping us from attempting a deep dive, and instead, keeping us content by skimming the surface?
When was it that we lost interest in being curious and found comfort in being told what to do or not do?
Where is the initiative that older generations showed to source diverse bits of information to get the big picture instead of surfing for byte-sized answers?
Who gets to benefit from choosing the easy way out, when putting in that extra effort can turn out to be more advantageous?
How can an empowering culture of questioning be revived, instead of promoting a stifling system of pre-determined answers?
The why, what, when, where, who and how of things can solve a lot of the problems that we come across in everyday life. If only we care to ask the right questions. In fact, a vibrant culture of questioning can be a potent force to ignite far-reaching change in our lives. Iconic examples are not hard to find.
“Why can’t books be sold online?” asked a hedge fund manager. This led to the creation of Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer.
“Why can’t a table be made in 5 Euros?” asked a seller of matches. This resulted in the birth of Ikea, the world’s most popular furniture brand.
“Why do we have to wait for a picture?” asked Edwin Land’s daughter. It inspired him to develop Polaroid, the world’s first instant camera.
However, on a common, everyday level, most people are content with the answers they are given rather than probing with the questions they require.
This diffidence to question things is even more strange because we are as a species curious and inquisitive. The most normal human child always has a head full of questions, from the most inane to the most profound, even though it may be inadvertent.
But sadly, the moment they are put into an environment that fosters formal learning, all that natural curiosity goes out of the window. To be replaced by staid, straightjacketed, rote learning that unfortunately passes off as education.
In fact, a pre-schooler is said to ask the parents an average of 100 questions a day. But by middle school, they stop asking questions, coincidentally, also the time that their motivation and engagement levels drop. That’s because our education system rewards students for having the right answers, not for asking the right questions.
The other reasons could be anything from a desire to establish a standardised education system to being wary of maverick students hijacking the learning process. But whatever it is, it does not bode well for the future of education.
It is not just the education sector that suffers from this malaise, though it is by far the most significant since it lays the foundation for the kind of temperament that is cultivated. The unwillingness to question pervades everything from science and technology to business and sports. It is far more easy to follow a template and finish a ‘job’ rather than put one’s mind to the task at hand and perhaps deal with an uncertain outcome.
There is also a cultural angle, when it comes to Indians. The patriarchal Indian culture values respect, obedience and conformity above all else. Children cannot question their parents, teachers or elders on either traditional aspects or in their daily lives.
The colonial past also left us with a legacy of submissive behaviour, either through duress or through an inferiority complex. This was manifested even in professional lives where the superior subordinate relationship is so ingrained that people are happy just following orders instead of questioning the need for it.
Another pertinent question is that if today, technology drives our lives, can it also help us ask better questions? Pablo Picasso had answered that more than five decades ago when he commented, “Computers are useless - they only give you answers!”
In the present context, this can be seen in the way social media generates a certain perception and disseminates it to millions, who believe it as the gospel truth that cannot be questioned. The rise of the fake news industry and its pernicious use by political parties is proof of the damage that accepting answers and not questioning news and views can cause.
But it’s not completely hopeless either. If we know what to ask, technology can serve up innovative, life-changing answers, as demonstrated by IBM’s Watson. Through effective questioning, we can access, explore and figure out what to do with the answers provided by technology, going beyond just querying a search engine or database.
For long, the world’s leading innovators and creative minds have never had a magic formula or even an explanation as to how they overcame challenges and achieved success. But one thing most of these change makers had in common was the resolve to constantly ask questions. Albert Einstein, credited with discovering one of the most profound theories relating to physical existence, once reckoned that if he had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on it, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes making sure he was answering the right question.
The best of intellectuals are not comfortable with being given an answer nor even finding an answer right away, because their focus is on trying to get the next question. A good question is an ambitious concept and can potentially shift the way we perceive things, serving as a catalyst to bring about change.
Questions don’t just provide an answer but unravel many hidden layers in those answers. They can generate new areas of enquiry and lead to changes in the way of thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process of discovery, abruptly and maybe even unconvincingly.
But if the process of questioning is so significant and relevant, what explains it being disregarded in education and in our working lives? Perhaps it has to do with the fact that today answers are easily accessible and available everywhere.
Today, there is a deluge of data that is virtually drowning us, but the knowledge to make the connections, and thereby make sense of it all, is scarce. The real value lies in how that knowledge can be put to use in pursuing the right questions.
The new reality requires us to be life-long learners instead of early-life learners. This means we need to constantly maintain or rekindle the curiosity, sense of wonder, the inclination to try new things and the ability to absorb and adapt to situations. You don’t learn until you question, and you don’t grow until you learn.
As Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google says, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” He knows
that if we keep asking questions, we can keep finding better answers.
Why not make the best resolution you have made in years? Why not make 2019 the year of questions? Why not start the new year by making questions a part of everyday conversations?
Why not make a difference by asking questions that stimulate, provoke, inform and inspire?
You won’t find a better answer to transform the world, no question about it.

(The author is chief strategy officer, Lowe Lintas)

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