What are questions?

An unexpected answer from Clayton Christensen.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to spend about three hours with Clayton Christensen. Clay, currently a professor at Harvard Business School, is best known for his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. His latest book, How Will You Measure Your Life, has some wonderfully insightful business and life lessons.

His books, thinking, and approach to life, business, — and now, teaching — have influenced me greatly. I recommend reading everything he’s written and watching any videos of him you can find. Clay’s site is a good place to start.

What impressed me most about Clay yesterday was his clarity. He’s a very clear thinker and communicator. His genuine interest for helping other people discover clarity comes through with every patient word.

This one thing thing he said

Spending time with Clay leads to lots of interesting insights, but for me, there was one that stood out among all the others.

You’ve probably heard it said that someone can’t be taught until they’re ready to learn. I’ve heard it said that way too. It makes sense, and my experience tells me it’s mostly true. Why though? Why can’t someone be taught until they’re ready to learn?

Clay explained it in a way that I’ve never heard before and I’ll never forget again. Paraphrased slightly, he said:

“Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go. It hits your mind and bounces right off. You have to ask the question — you have to want to know — in order to open up the space for the answer to fit.”

What an insight. He continued to talk about the power of questions. Questions are your mind’s receptors for answers. If you aren’t curious enough to want to know why, to want to ask questions, then you’re not making the room in your mind for answers. If you stop asking questions, your mind can’t grow.

That day had a profound impact on me. It’s so easy to think you know, but most of the time you’re really just being defensive — protecting yourself against the truth about something you think you’ve already figured out. Make room, make room. It’s a life-long pursuit.

(Special thanks to Bob Moesta for inviting me to meet Clay)

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