Chapter 2

The conveyor belt to a self-determined
future: Asking questions

The freedom to think

Personal develo­pment uses the ability to ask questions. With questions, you can open up the future. Asking questions means wanting to know something specific about something. We have the freedom to think and are not controlled by instincts but instead are capable of under­standing. Indivi­duals who do not ask questions remain ignorant and choose not to develop.

After I graduated from high school, lots of people wanted to know what I wanted to become. I didn’t know. I didn’t recognize any parti­cular talent in myself. I knew what teachers did, and the same went for doctors. And I didn’t want to learn either of those profes­sions. So what was I supposed to become?

Back then, if you managed to get your Abitur, the academic track high school diploma, you could study whatever you wanted. Two things were for sure: I had to leave home, and I had to go for a university degree that would allow me to be as flexible as possible in my later career. I had no doubts that I would find what I was looking for. I knew that I would use my questions to succeed as soon as I found something I was interested in.

Approa­ching reality

We use questions to help us size up a situation or make predic­tions about the future. The answers to the questions serve as the basis for shaping a situation or for preparing ourselves for the future. Since both questions and answers can be based on false assump­tions, this sizing up and shaping situa­tions is only productive if they appro­ximate reality as well as possible.

I found out that there was a German Institute for Film and Television in Munich that offered a university degree. To study there, however, I had to take an entrance exam. Only twenty students from among the several hundred appli­cants were taken. I sent letters with queries, went to Munich and questioned students who were already enrolled at the institute. I used the infor­mation for in-depth prepa­ration and I passed.

Life is the ongoing challenge of asking questions. To meet this challenge, you have to stay curious. We have desires, have to solve problems and manage tasks. We want to reach goals and overcome resis­tance. Many of us want to “make it.” Some of us who feel that we do not get enough attention want to “show everyone.” To translate our desires into deeds, we have to make decisions and act on them.

Be curious!

In many cases, asking questions is no different than seeking answers that have already been given by others. Learning is no different than adopting the answers of others. Since as children and adolescents, we are unable to predict what we should learn that will be beneficial for our lives, this decision is made for us by our parents, teachers, politi­cians and civil servants. This subjects us to learning stress that stifles our curiosity. And even worse, we do not learn to develop the skill of taking the initiative for learning!

Some young people find classroom learning easy. I always envied them during my school days. Later, however, I realized that while their good grades gave them an advantage at the start of their careers, they soon lagged behind if they were unable to translate their knowledge into action. Similar to a computer, it doesn’t help if the knowledge programmed into it is never used.

No matter how much we learn and study, we have to be sure to retain both our curiosity, as well as our sense of reality. How can I apply what I have learned? Where I can try it out? In what situa­tions can I make use of it? I was one of the first parti­ci­pants in a Studiosus study tour because I wanted to go to Greece and Athens to visit the Acropolis. After all, I had been put through the mill learning Greek at school for years.

Acting from the helicopter perspective

You need the dimen­sions and the context of what you have taken on board as knowledge. Otherwise, knowledge quickly turns into a collection of trivia that might help you as a contestant on a quiz show, but not for shaping your life.

I had read and heard a lot about the Holy Land, even as a child. But it wasn’t until I traveled to Israel and Jordan that I even came close to under­standing the histo­rical events that took place there. Being in the actual place, engaging with the situation, preparing for the visit in-depth, following up on what you have seen and heard, this is how you gain insight and experience that form the awareness from which life is shaped.

In this process, situa­tions can be so powerful that you are completely absorbed by them. I experi­enced this in Brazil when I was working on develo­pment assis­tance projects. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to deal with my impres­sions and be completely present back in my place in Europe. A sense of reality requires the distance of the helicopter perspective. Otherwise, you can’t see the forest for the trees.

Exploring the world

Science and research are charac­te­rized by syste­ma­tized processes of asking and responding. A critical distance is respected. This creates the prere­qui­sites for under­standing reality and unleashes possi­bi­lities for shaping situa­tions. You take on knowledge and the tried and tested experi­ences of those who have gone before you, subject them to critical review and open up new perspec­tives through questions.

Performing research means asking questions. You put together preli­minary answers, or hypotheses. You have ideas about what the answer might look like. Your assump­tions are tested under various condi­tions. While the final answer may not necessarily be the answer you sought, it may still be of value. The quest for a new sea route to India culmi­nated in the discovery of America.

Some people lose their ability to ask questions during their childhood and their youth. Respon­sible for this are adults who, in their role as caregivers, are unable or unwilling to educate them. If that is the case, you have to relearn how to ask questions, no matter how strenuous or incon­ve­nient this may be. After all, living means disco­vering the world, finding your way around it, achieving selfrealization.

Learning to ask questions in the right way is something you learn as a child if your parents are smart.

Parents are familiar with the develo­p­mental phase in which their children ask questions nonstop. This is a very important phase for the children. If their parents do not deal with it properly, they can do a lot of damage. On the other hand, if they are smart in the way they respond to their children’s thirst for knowledge, they can create ideal condi­tions for their further development.

If a child’s thirst for knowledge is adequately quenched, she will gain more and more insights that will stimulate her to new disco­veries based on new questions. Children’s questions must be taken seriously, and must not be consi­dered dumb. The answers have to be honest, be as close to the truth as possible; however, they also must not overwhelm the questioner.

Incorrect responses on the part of parents during the phase in which their children ask questions inces­santly can have the following consequences:

  • quick resignation
  • low self-confi­dence
  • passi­veness
  • anxiety toward myste­rious surroundings
  • imagi­nings that are not based on reality
  • defiance
  • commu­ni­cation disorders.

We should all check whether we are plagued by these sorts of impairments.

Constantly improve the funda­mentals of what you do!

When you are a young adult, before you storm out into the big wide world all full of energy and ambition, it is useful to pause for a moment and ask, What am I good at? Where do I need to improve?

  • Am I able to organize my learning myself?
  • Can I admit gaps in my knowledge?
  • Do I tend to think that other people are smarter than me?
  • Am I afraid to embarrass myself?
  • Do I often blurt things out?
  • Do I become aggressive when people don’t take me seriously?
  • Do I only speak when I am asked something?

For most people, staying abreast of new develo­p­ments in their area of work is a given. They read the relevant journals, are members of profes­sional associa­tions, go to confe­rences, attend conti­nuing education courses and share their experi­ences with their colleagues. But our lives are more than our careers and are more than our profes­sional expertise. A great deal has to do with our charac­te­ristics. And they can be changed and improved. We are citizens, voters, partners, mothers, fathers, community members and neighbors.

In order not to appear with “borrowed self-esteem” in our web of relati­onships by not daring to break out of the patterns of the majority, we need self-assuredness, which grows out of knowledge and life experience.  We acquire knowledge and life experience by observing and commu­ni­cating, by reading and experi­encing, and by reflecting and forming opinions.

The two big question areas

There are two areas in which we should constantly review, improve and expand the state of our knowledge and our ability to take action:

  1. Politics, business and society, as well as
  2. Everything related to inter­per­sonal relationships.

The latter point has a great deal to do with our feelings. Conven­tional wisdom, examples from history and literature, research from the social sciences and events in our life context help us deal with these feelings.

We experience the areas mentioned in the first point in the way they impact us. We feel like victims if we have no idea why develo­pment goes the way it does.

Observing, perceiving, questioning and reflecting constitute the first and direct level of infor­mation and experience. The second level is the virtual world with the infor­mation it offers. In order not to drown in the flood of infor­mation, we have to be able to diffe­ren­tiate between what is important for us and what is not. Direct your attention!

Otherwise, we will fall prey to anything and everything that appears to be interesting. In dealing with our surroun­dings, we need to keep a critical distance and have exact ideas of what fosters and enriches us and allows us to be independent.

The criteria for our store of knowledge

There are criteria that tell us when our store of knowledge is suffi­ci­ently large and up to date:

  1. When it comes to infor­mation, we recognize whether it is completeor if something essential has been left out. This is because we know the facts and the context.
  2. When it comes to presen­ta­tions, especially with argumen­ta­tions, we recognize whether they are consistent or whether they contain contra­dic­tions.
  3. When it comes to problem-solving, we recognize the alter­na­tives and can weighwhich arguments speak for and which ones speak against the different possibilities.

If we meet these criteria, not only are we able to discuss the topics in question, but we can also meet the requi­re­ments for using our current knowledge to develop our own scenarios, as well as to make carefully consi­dered decisions and put them into practice. This opens up the scope for a self-deter­mined life.

The three practice areas

Any skill that is not practiced will atrophy. For the skill of asking specific questions, there are three outstanding ways to practice:

  1. creating sets of questions,
  2. conducting inter­views and
  3. using a time planner.

Sets of questions:

Each of us has projects that we would like to carry out. Always be planning one of them, a trip, for instance! To do this, you need to create detailed sets of questions – for everything and everyone that can be asked for infor­mation you need for the trip. Structure the questions, work through the answers by asking new questions, use a mind map to create associa­tions, set priorities – and conti­nuously: questions and answers. This is how you work your way into any project.

Inter­views:

Obser­vation alone does not suffice if you want to get to know other people. You have to have conver­sa­tions with them and cannot be afraid to ask questions. If you do this tactfully and unobtru­sively, most people will perceive such questions as interest in them, in their work and their circumstances.

If you for your part also share something about yourself, the conver­sation will not deteriorate into a one-sided cross­exami­nation. If you have the impression that the person you are speaking with knows something about the areas you are interested in, you can ask them if you may interview them at some point. For this purpose, you should put together a dozen or more questions.

Furthermore: On a regular basis, choose a prominent public figure and prepare a ficti­tious interview that you would like to conduct with him/her.

Time planner:

An organizer, i.e., a calendar for the months, weeks and individual days of the year, helps you to keep track of your activities. Similar to physical exercises you do every day, you can use the organizer to train your capacity to ask questions: Every evening, write down what infor­mation you have solicited through your questions during the day. Likewise, write down what you would like to ask the people you have an appointment with the next day.

Keep track of what questions you did not receive a response to, or only an unsatis­factory response, and what questions you should have followed up with but which didn’t occur to you at the time. Keep in mind: Conver­sa­tional situa­tions vary and require different questions in each case. Small talk is not the way to elicit responses to business questions.

Gaining self-assurance: Personal impro­vement processes are nothing other than acting from an answer position secured by experience and at the same time opening up new possi­bi­lities for action by asking questions.

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