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.
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.
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
- anxiety toward mysterious surroundings
- imaginings that are not based on reality
- 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:
- Politics, business and society, as well as
- 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:
- 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.
- When it comes to presentations, especially with argumentations, we recognize whether they are consistent or whether they contain contradictions.
- 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:
- creating sets of questions,
- conducting interviews and
- 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.
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.
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.