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The Question That Starts a Journey

Monday, August 27, 2018
Have you ever had a question that stopped you in your tracks? One that literally left you speechless as you contemplated what it implied? Maybe it was the way it was asked, or the person who asked it that got your attention. Perhaps it touched a nerve or rattled your cage, shaking you awake to the fact that if you thought about it, this question might change everything.

What do you do with such questions? If you welcome them, they help you take stock of where you are and might lead to new choices. If they are unwelcome, you shut them down, rationalising them as not worth thinking about. The implications might change the way things are, disrupting your beliefs, habits and comfortable lifestyle. Even so, an unwelcome question can linger in the air like haze on a hot day, descending at anytime to float back into your awareness and stir up old unsettled feelings. 

In the introduction to his book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World (2006), John Wood, ex-Microsoft marketing executive, describes how unwelcome questions ultimately led him to a trip that changed his life. He remarks, “Seven years in…nagging questions continually popped up. ‘Is this all there is – longer hours and bigger payoffs?’’

Burnt out from constant travelling and deal-making, he takes a trip to Nepal where, while waiting for a beer to celebrate his arrival he strikes up conversation with a Nepalese man at the next table. This man is responsible for finding resources for 17 schools in the district, and being interested in literacy and education, John goes with him to visit a local school the following day. The visit highlights the school’s newly built library that sits empty. John is appalled that a library built for books, could contain no books.

Disruptive Enterprises Start with Dissonance

In last week’s blog I shared the neuroscience around cognitive dissonance, and how this ‘error signal’ in the brain can often be the catalyst for completing changing the way a person thinks about a situation. When facts or beliefs that we hold about something conflict with each other, the brain registers a threat, letting us know that something about this situation is wrong.

For John Wood, his brain could not reconcile the opposing facts that a new library could exist without any books. Libraries need books to be libraries; the two facts must go together.

His transformation or ‘entrepreneurial odyssey’ as Wood describes it, begins in this moment. He asks the Headmaster the obvious question, ‘Where, exactly, are your books?’ Wood reflects that after being shown the few backpacker cast-offs that were unsuitable for children, “His next sentence would forever change the course of my life: 'Perhaps sir, you will someday come back with books.''

It’s interesting to note that John Wood, like Mohammed Yunus from the Grameen Bank, deals with the ‘error’ signal in his brain by changing the way he thinks about the situation. He could of course, have simply rationalised away the discomfort of these conflicting facts and continued on his holiday.

For example, he could have rationalised why children in poverty don’t need libraries or books. He could have created a new belief that libraries are wasted space and better used for other things. He could have shifted the responsibility for finding books onto the Nepalese Government. But he didn’t do any of these things.

Having asked a pivotal question of the Headmaster and received a compelling response, Wood realises that seven years of questioning if this was all there was to his life, and if his job really mattered, were questions that he could no longer avoid. Once he asks his own pivotal question, ‘Are there thousands lining up to help poor villages build schools and libraries?’ he hears the answer he needs to take action, That job is not being done. You should rise to the challenge.’

Finding Your Pivotal Question

Maybe you sense that it’s time you paid attention to the unsettled, disquiet in your life.
The questions you are listening for are no secret. They are sitting just under the surface of your awareness. Probably they have been knocking around inside your head for the past weeks, months or even years. If one floats into your awareness when you sit quietly, or appears when things are not going so well, then that’s the one to start with.

Whatever this one question is, hear it out. Give it some breathing space so you can look at it more clearly. Take a deep breath and write it down but don’t answer it. If it’s a question triggering an ‘error’ blip in your brain, try to figure out what beliefs or facts you hold about this situation that are mismatched or oppositional. Can you feel that blip in your gut too?

Intuition is easily drowned out when you fear that it could lead to change. Rather than fear what a pivotal question might lead to, choose to see the situation as something to explore, like John Wood did. The question you are asking might start the journey but what that journey is and where it goes is ultimately up to you.

I’m Unsettled! Now What?

If you aren’t sure what your pivotal question might be, or where to take it once you’ve identified it, I’ve prepared a self-coaching guide of 62 questions to Quick-Scope Your Transformation to assist you. Six sections cover key questions that you can ask from the time you identify your unsettledness right through to deciding how you might act on it.

Whether it’s exploring what mid-life might hold, starting a new enterprise, helping someone else get clarity over a major change or just following your intuition to see where it goes, these questions will help you shift beyond the feeling of discomfort to see a way forward that works for you.

The Guide includes:
  • Exploring questions to ask when you feel unsettled about your life.
  • Focusing questions to give you insight into these issues.
  • Visioning questions to see where your intuition, ideals and beliefs are aligned.
  • Change questions to consider how to move from the present situation to the one you prefer.
  • Support questions to identify who can help and what you will contribute.
  • Action questions to get to the specifics of what you plan to do, how and when. 
There is no formula to follow and you can start right now. Just choose one or more questions from the most relevant section and use them to discover what you need and where you are going. I trust you will find it a helpful resource for moving ahead.