Asking Better Questions

[Excerpt from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy]

“O Deep Thought computer,” he said, “the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us….” he paused, “The Answer.”
“The Answer?” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to what?”
“Life!” urged Fook.
“The Universe!” said Lunkwill.
“Everything!” they said in chorus.
Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection.
“Tricky,” he said finally.
“But can you do it?”
Again, a significant pause.
“Yes,” said Deep Thought, “I can do it.”

[7.5 million years passes]

“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“Tell us!”
“All right,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question…”
“Yes..!”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything…” said Deep Thought.
“Yes…!”
“Is…” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Yes…!”
“Is…”
“Yes…!!!…?”
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.”

Moral of the story being – if you don’t ask the right question, you will never understand the answer!

Lately, I have been doing a series called “career chats” with individuals both within – and outside of – Lyft that have been successful in their careers.  Although it is an AMA (ask me anything) style chat, the core question almost always seems to be, how do I get to where you are? Or to use the above analogy, what is the answer to life, the universe… everything!?

From self-help books to TED talks, we are in constant pursuit for the answer but rarely stop to ask ourselves what our question is. And the reality is that an answer given to a bad question rarely is the answer we want. Deep thought (the most highly intelligent computer in the book designed to give the meaning to life) gives the answer “Forty-two” to the question almost reluctantly… “you really aren’t going to like it”.

How do we stop looking for the answer and get to better questions?

A few thoughts (note, this advice is focused on career questions):

  • Focus on self – Before coming to the conversation, ask yourself what do I really want? The quick answer to this might be – more money, a promotion, to be recognized for my work, more flexibility in my hours or to learn new things. All of those are valid answers (and I think everyone would say yes, I want all of those things!) If you reflect more deeply, you might really care about one of those, and using a technique like the 5 whys might bring you to the realization that your job is really a way to focus on and fund your other passions. Focusing on self and investing time in understanding your motivations, passions and desires helps you ask better questions and in doing so, helps others understand how to help you.
  • Focus on others – generally the people answering the question do not know enough about your specific situation to give you the answer. Even if their career journey looks identical to yours, their answer to a specific question about your journey might sound like “42”! Great questions acknowledge and understand the difference between my journey and yours and seek unique perspectives on their journey. Great questions focus on the why versus the what. Why did they take that step in their journey and not… what should I do at this point in my career?
  • Ask what you should be asking – when we focus purely on what we want to know, we miss on the general wisdom that those further along in their journeys bring. Some of my favorite questions here are “what advice would you give a younger you” or Guy Raz’s “Does your success come from skill or luck?” or even a simple “What question hasn’t been asked that you believe should?”

Let’s not stop searching for the answer, let’s just make sure we understand our question first.

Ambiguous loss

I first heard about the concept of ambiguous loss from the podcast “On Being” with Krista Tippett interviewing Pauline Boss. “With ambiguous loss, there’s really no possibility of closure. Not even, in fact, resolution, whichever word you prefer to use.” This is what the families/relatives of prisoners of war or those with dementia or Alzheimer’s experience. Someone is there, but *not quite* there. We are a culture that likes the finite. The vast majority of stories and movies involve a main character who experiences conflict and then over time, resolves that conflict. It doesn’t matter if the conflict is resolved negatively or positively; the story ends and there isn’t ambiguity about what happened to the characters. There is just an end.

The most difficult stories (and life events) to process are those without resolution. I distinctly remember the story of a woman whose mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and subsequently moved in with her and her husband. For the husband, his whole relationship with his mother-in-law was marked by Alzheimer’s. Every day, they (the husband and mom with Alzheimer’s) would have the same conversation. Share jokes, talk about the weather, eat breakfast. He liked to do improv comedy and would test his jokes with her – if one failed, she would forget! Alzheimer’s was a reality – not a loss. For the woman, having her mother there – someone with whom she had a lifetime of shared experiences – was entirely different. Her mother was physically there, but mentally was a different person from the strong, amazing woman who raised her. This conflict is played out day after day without resolution. This is ambiguous loss.

Into the dark is podcast that follows the story of Jacob Wetterling, a missing child whose case was not resolved for over 27 years. Although he was abducted in 1989, his body wasn’t recovered until 2016 when his abductor collaborated with authorities as part of a plea bargain and lead them to the site of his rape and murder. For those 27 years, Jacob’s parents searched, created advocacy groups for children’s safety, and even had Jacob’s details on milk cartons (he was one of the original milk carton kids). For 27 years, they experienced this ambiguous loss – never knowing if he would come home or was truly gone for good.

I had the opportunity to hear therapist and author  Esther Perel speak. She shared that she is seeing an escalated number of the symptoms of ambiguous loss in people across the United States today, but interestingly especially from individuals that DON’T have any of the common types of root cause events like the ones above. What is happening?

Esther started asking the audience questions. My answers are in bold.

  • How many people have their phone within 3 feet of their bed? Yes
  • How many people touch their phone before they touch their partner when they wake up in the morning? Sometimes
  • How many people check their email before 7am? Yes
  • Of the parents, how many parents will pull out their phone for a text/email/call when they are playing with their kid? Yes

It feels like we are losing each other because we *are* losing each other. Striving to be constantly connected has caused us to lose out on real connection!

Aziz Ansari’s latest Netflix special “Right Now” reflects how difficult it is to see his grandma who has Alzheimer’s (ambiguous loss), and asks the crowd to remember their last weekend at their parents house:

Think about everything you did. Hone in on your most cherished memory. And when you’ve got your memory, just raise your hand. There’s, like, five hands right now. You know why? ‘Cause we all had the same shitty weekend, okay? I know what you did, ’cause I did the same thing. You show up late on a Friday like, “All right, well, I better unpack my stuff and get to bed.” “All right, we’ll see you in the morning.” Day one done. Then, you wake up early the next day at like… 11:30. go in the kitchen, making coffee. “Oh, you guys got a new coffee machine.” “Yeah, we like it.” Conversation done. The rest of the day, everyone’s on their phones, computers, doing whatever they can to avoid eye contact or any kind of deep conversation. …Just as you’re leaving, one of your parents finally looks you in the eyes. And they’re like, uh, “Is your life okay?” And it never is. But you’re just like, “Yeah!” ‘Cause we’re completely incapable of having a real conversation with these people we’ve known our entire lives. We do this whole song and dance 59 more times… And then they’re dead.

This is modern day ambiguous loss. We are experiencing loss of in our relationships because we are trading off small dopamine hits from likes on social media for real interaction with the people we love. It’s not that smart phones or social media are bad; we have just used them as an excuse to replace our relationships entirely. Someone is there, but not quite there. We are together, without really being together. Like Aniz’s weekend with his parents, the conflict – our story – is never resolved, it plays out day after day and year after year. We know what we lost and still seem unable to make a change. How tragic that the characteristics that the families/friends of prisoners of war, abducted children, and Alzheimer’s experience also marks the way we experience relationships today.

“The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” – Esther Perel

How we decide to engage (or not engage) with those around us determines the quality of life we live. Let’s put down our phones today and try to have one more real interaction than we yesterday and connect with those that we love!

Building

When we purchased our home in Nashville, we imagined our backyard not with a shed filled with rot and termites, but a beautiful greenhouse. I started dumpster diving around the neighborhood whenever I would see a construction project – fishing out cast away windows and glass doors of all sorts that I imagined cobbling together into a spectacular web of light.

I imagined lemons and tomatoes. Peppers and herbs. Greens of all sorts. A table in the center where we could have dinner surrounded by greenery hanging from the ceiling. Outside I was going to grow potatoes, squash and carrots in neat little lines. I imagined Lucy pulling a knobby carrot covered in dirt out of the ground and offering it to Jack to sniff.

I researched hobby greenhouses and the best times to plant in Tennessee while Andi looked at paint swatches and lights.

It began slowly, with the act of destruction. The sweeping away of the old piece by piece. There is something satisfying about this act. It is quick and final. It feels like you are moving forward but really it is quickly backward as you clear the way for what is next.

Once the old was cleared away, each of the windows was arranged like a puzzle. This door here, that window sash there. A frame was constructed and each piece added slowly gave the structure more strength. With each wall, the structure looked more like the greenhouse in my vision (or Andi’s Pinterest board).

Each step new, each plan written and revised. Building was harder than tearing down. A window cracked. The foundation wasn’t even. A small letter containing code violations and trips to Metro Codes to get a permit. The hammer was heavy and the measurements always just an eighth of an inch short. But slowly it is taking shape.

The act of creation – of building something new – is frustrating. You might see some results, followed by some setbacks, followed by a little more progress.  Pride accumulates with each board connected and each setback overcome.

Destroying something is easy. Building something is hard.

 

 

Attention, Interest, and Values

columbus__article-hero-1130x430.jpgIn Kogonada’s movie Columbus, the main character Casey and a coworker talk early on about perceptions of attention and interest. The example is of a professor whose son loves playing video games, but can’t sit for 10 minutes to read a book. Conversely, the professor can read for hours, but can’t seem to sit with his son and play video games for more than a few minutes.

The son gets labeled as having a short attention span and then probably something more official sounding like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – and prescribed medication, but doesn’t the professor doesn’t? The coworker then states to Casey that the problem is much less one of the ability to pay attention — the son obviously can and does pay attention to video games for hours, but one of interest. The professor is interested in reading, so he reads. The son in video games, so he plays video games.

The real problem then is not about short attention spans, but about the perception that we are losing interest in things that matter. The conversation dialogue between Casey and his coworker ends with that question, “Are we losing interest in everyday life?”

The question at the crux of this conversation is about what matters and what should we be interested in. Both of these questions feel highly subjective. You could be the professor and value knowledge and reading, or his son and value playing video games. Each person has their own version of what matters most and the answer to that question drives their own interest(s).

Although these questions feel subjective, there is one common answer when you ask people at the end of their lives what they regret most.

Put simply, when I asked one person, “Do you wish you accomplished more?” He responded, “No, I wished I loved more.”

Andi recently sent me this article (quoted above) on the subject and when I read it, the answer now feels less subjective and more clear – what matters most as we look back on our lives is not what we accomplished, the number of books read, or the number of video games played, but the quality and depth of the relationships in our lives.

If we agree that one of the things that matters most is life are our relationships with those around us, the question (“Are we losing interest in everyday life?”) from the movie feels like the wrong one. We aren’t losing interest in everyday life. We are getting distracted. We haven’t lost sight of what we value. We are spending our time on things that we don’t value.

For me, those distractions take the form of binge watching Netflix, scrolling aimlessly on my phone, and feeling the urge to pick my phone up whenever it lets me know that someone, somewhere wants my attention. Apparently I’m not the only one.

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Other studies show that the number of minutes spent on phones has continued to rise approaching 4 hours and 15 mins in 2018 in the US. 4 hours and 15 mins. We are increasingly acting in ways that are counter to what we value most — investing in the quality and depth of relationships of those around us — to….what? To see that I have been friends with someone on Facebook for 7 years? To immediately see the Bed, Bath and Beyond coupon that always makes it past my spam filter because of one purchase 5 years ago? To obsessively check my email?

To change my own behavior, I needed to understand how distracted I really was. I downloaded an app called Space (try Moment for iOS!) that tracks how much you use your phone and what you are spending your time on. The first day, I blew through their suggested goal – I unlocked my phone upwards of 150 times and used it for 2.9 hours. And day after day, I would do this consistently. Doing something 150 times a day is the definition of addiction. I set my goal to cut my usage in half –  to get less than 75 unlocks and 1.5 hours, daily.

To get there, I deleted a bunch of apps off my phone, stopped checking my phone as I woke up and have tried to leave my phone behind when I don’t need to bring it (like on this afternoon’s walk, for example). I don’t know that I’m no longer addicted, nor can I attest to feeling any differently at the quality of my relationships, but it’s a start.

All I know is that when I’m 90-something, I don’t want my big regret to be spending time with my smartphone over my wife and daughter.

What do you value? Is it the same thing as what you’re interested in? Are you paying attention to what you value, or like me, giving your attention to things that don’t matter?

Criticism and Connection

One of the easiest ways to connect with someone is by criticizing someone else. One of my earliest memories of friendship was hearing criticism from a kid in the neighborhood about another weird kid in the neighborhood who came from a Jehovah Witness family. Being a scrawny, short, home-schooled kid myself with not that many friends, I joined in, “YEAH, he IS such a weirdo.” I was desperate to have a friend and if I made fun of someone else, I was no longer the odd man out…right? And maybe I’d finally have a friend (in the person who originally criticized the other weird kid).

I did end up having a friend, and then a few more, and the lesson stuck. If I criticize someone else for being the outsider, then I am no longer the outsider, right?

As I have started dissecting my behaviors on criticism — both as a child and today, the only motivation is that criticism creates the perception of human connection. In every relationship, there is inevitability something that frustrates both individuals. The propensity to then share what those things are, not with the individual but with others is a strange aspect of human nature. We trade the social capital of one relationship for perceived social capital of another.

We justify the behavior in numerous ways — we are trying to help the person in question, and just need advice on how to help them or we are trying to make a new friend.

“Contrary to lay perceptions…most negative gossip is not intended to hurt the target, but to please the gossiper and receiver.” – Elena Martinescu.

Guilty. I didn’t want to hurt Jason – the nice boy who lived three houses down and whose family just happened to be Jehovah Witnesses – I just wanted a friend.

As I think about others doing the same thing, their act of criticism has the opposite impact on me. I remember thinking in that moment…if he thinks Jason is weird, I wonder what he says about me? At least Jason is good at sports and goes to a regular school! When you hear someone else devalue, belittle, or blame others in an attempt to connect, you think – if they are doing this to others, could they be doing it to me too?

“Criticizing others is a dangerous thing, not so much because you may make mistakes about them, but because you may be revealing the truth about yourself.” — Harold Medina

We find two incongruous behaviors in play. First, we perceive that we connect more quickly with others when we criticize someone else and second, we don’t trust critics because it reveals that you are not immune to their criticism–you just aren’t hearing it about you right now.

How do we break the cycle of criticism and work to create real connection? I’ll admit that I am not particularly good at these, but I’m working on it. And, I’m constantly looking to improve, so please give me feedback if you hear me responding in a way that is misaligned with any of the below:

  1. Start with self
    1. I have noticed that I am far less critical when I’m on vacation or after a run. When I am emotionally balanced and free of stress, I am less negative about myself and others. Increase my levels of stress, prevent me from exercising for a week and suddenly, everything and everyone around me is a problem. Investing in self by mediating, practicing the attitude of thankfulness, and being conscious to remove myself from overtly negative situations helps to create a criticism free environment.
    2. Criticism (most of the time) starts with you statements. “You did this” or “you made me feel that”. It is an attack on who the other person is and assigns feelings/behaviors/identify to that individual rather than looking inward to assess your role in your own feelings. Start by asking yourself “what do I really want?” By creating focus on the end game – for example, I want a new friend or I want to connect with this person more deeply – once you do, you realize how you get there is never by being negative or critical.
  2. Adapt your communication strategies – start by listening. Most of us are so eager to share how we feel and think that we miss opportunities to understand the people around us. Venture outside of the superficial – I recently met someone who asked me what I was most proud of instead of where I worked. We had an amazing conversation and connection just because we skipped all the superficial BS that governs how we talk today.
  3. Create an environment of safety – people are less likely to display negativity and more likely to be open to connecting when they are in environments in which they experience psychological safety. We can create these environments by being honest, eliminating criticism of others and displaying consistently in our actions, words and behaviors.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed and rare.” ― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

Memory and Ego

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One of my favorite podcasts right now is Revisionist History with Malcolm Gladwell. Although I have loved his takes on Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw style (Season 1) or why McDonalds fries just don’t taste as good as they used to (Season 2), two episodes of Season 3 (episodes #3 and #4) on memory have been the most substantially life altering.

Any summary will not do them justice (so go listen!), but the gist is that our memories are extremely unreliable. In his Free Brian Williams episode, Malcolm talks through the memory of his own experiences on 9/11 and how his story differed substantially from his neighbor who told him about the attack! After 9/11 took place, a number of researchers interviewed people on what they were doing at the time of the attack, and then followed up at 1, 3, and 10 year intervals. They picked 9/11 because it was a “flashbulb” event; where you were and what you were doing at that precise moment is seared in your brain (or is it?).

What they found was that the majority significantly changed their story after the first year and were extremely confident that their new story was actually what happened. Through a process of memory consolidation – moving from short to long term memory, we rehearse these memories and the memories become extremely vulnerable to change. What is crazy about this process is that we accept the new memories as truth even when confronted with evidence to the contrary (in the case of the 9/11 study, written evidence for what they said had happened at that time)!

These two episodes on memory share the incredible stories of the “world’s greatest harmonica player” and the Brian Williams story. Both stories feel like famous individuals grasping for further fame as they re-write their own history. Brian Williams’ story goes from riding in a helicopter in Iraq to taking fire and being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq. He eventually recants the embellishment (he only heard about another helicopter going down the same day), but even the helicopter pilot who did take him couldn’t remember if they took fire. The story feels wrong and self-promoting. But is it? Or is it just a fault of his mind consolidating multiple memories – the story of riding in a helicopter in Iraq, the story of taking fire and the story that he heard about a helicopter going down?

I consider myself to have a fairly good memory. Not infallible, but definitely better than most. I can recall events/dates, precise locations of objects in a room or on a page, and memorize things very easily. This over time has built up an Ego (yes, intentional capitalization) where I will pick my memory, my story over that of anyone else and immediately issue judgement if the other party disagrees with what I remember.

Because my memory is that good right?

Or what if it really isn’t?

What if all these memories – or at least the majority – are just stories that I have been telling myself? Maybe there are pieces of truth, but the events…in precisely the way that they have been laid out in my head…are just how my memory has consolidated over time?

Based on all of this, this is how I think I should show up differently. How will you?

  • Shut up my Ego. No, I am not perfect, so don’t act that way.
  • Listen first, speak second. If I jump immediately into my story, how do I give space to hear and understand others?)
  • Give others the benefit of the doubt What actually “happened” matters less than how I engage with my friends/family/coworkers in their own story

 

Tools of Titans – Review

If you prefer not to read, I’d highly recommend the podcast where Tim Ferriss has most of the interviews in the book. The book is organized into three sections: healthy, wealthy and wise and Tim has managed to get the habits and perspectives from an absolutely incredible cast of people.

At first, I was super skeptical – Tim Ferriss is the guy that does the “4 hour” books (week, body, chef etc.) and just the title of those bothered me. Want to get rich, strong fast kids? Just be like me…

All that being said, the prior COO at Lyft (Rex Tibbens) recommended this to me a few years back so finally took the time to read it, and it did not disappoint! Highly Recommend. I think I annoyed Andi for weeks talking about the different interviews, habits and perspectives of all these amazing people as I was reading them.

Must read (or listen!) interviews:

  • Jocko Willink – Navy Seal, all around badass who when faced with adversity says “Good” and faces it head on.
  • Jamie Foxx – “What is on the other side of fear? Nothing…When we talk about fear or a lack of being aggressive, it’s in your head.”
  • Rainn Wilson – “I was cast in a Broadway show when I was 29 or 30 years old. It was my first Broadway show and I sucked….after I finished that show, I thought: ‘You know what, fuck it. I’m never doing that again….Life is too short. I’ve got to be me as an actor.”
  • Reid Hoffman – “I have come to learn that part of business strategy is to solve the simplest, easiest and most valuable problem”
  • Gabby Reece – “I always say that I’ll go first…That means if I’m checking out at the store, I’ll say hello first. If I’m coming across someboady and make eye contact, I’ll smile first. [I wish] people would experiment with that in their life a little bit: Be First, because–not at all times but most times– it comes in your favor.”