The Questions We Ask

The last two-three weeks have been a blur.  Between conversations, queuing up in airports and running hard to keep up with my calendar, time evaporated.  But even as it did, it left behind conversations to savour.  Today, sitting 36000 feet above Earth,  I write about one such conversation that got me to ponder over the questions we ask. 

The man stood there with a shy grin as he handed me some tissue paper in the airport washroom.  He was a janitor in the airport washroom. One of those washrooms that is in a forlorn corner. We ended up speaking for a bit. 

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We spoke of our origins before meandering to the present. And then we drifted to our plans and our homes. We even spoke of our nation and where we think it will be. He was shorn of pretence and filled with curiosity. Above all, he asked some great questions. I realise, I told him things that I hadn’t told many people! 

The questions we ask.

The young man had such a compelling gaze and an intensity to his questions that my feet wouldn’t allow me to move until I had answered him. He wasn’t afraid to ask them and he wanted to genuinely know.  He listened to every answer I could pull together and asked a thought-provoking question or two without fanfare. Above all, he stayed interested in me and my world. 

It was a refreshing time. For the world that I frequent is one that is given to reading emails, tweeting thoughts and having inane conversations.  Asking questions and staying interested in a conversation with strangers is beyond most of us now.  

As I write this I am reminded of Dale Carnegie who said,  “To be interesting, be interested”.  And questions pack a punch to that end.  That conversation with that young man taught me a thing or two about curiosity, courage and humility that I miss sorely in some business leaders I work with.   

To me, curiosity, courage and humility form the axis of learning and progress in our lives. They are so simple and obvious that we seem to think we practice them as part of our living.  Often, we are a good distance away! One easy measure of how well we are doing on the axis of progress is to think of the questions we ask. 

A quick exercise. 

Take a paper and pen and write your answers. 

a. In the past week, what are the top conversations you enjoyed having? 

b. What are the best questions you asked last week? 

c. What were the questions you wished you had asked? Why didn’t you ask them in the first place? 

d. In the next three days, if you were blessed with a bounty of courage and humility, who will you want to sit down and have a conversation with? What questions will you ask? 

Let me know how that went for you. I am happy to chat on this further with you. We must mull over the questions we ask. For they lead to the answers in the air. Not the answers we seek!

The young janitor at the airport washroom taught me a lesson or two. They brought alive for me his world and through his world, I could see mine differently. Thank God for questions! 

For this edition, here are five pieces for you to soak into. 

1. A few weeks ago, I attended my Business school reunion. One more reason why this piece from a Harvard alum caught my eye. “So it came as a bit of a shock, when I attended my 15th reunion last summer, to learn how many of my former classmates weren’t overjoyed by their professional lives — in fact, they were miserable.”

Well, read on

2. Speaking of B-school education, here is a story of someone who discovered Calculus and Mandarin and college education whilst serving a prison sentence. And while you are there, check out the website too. ( “We tell stories that reveal that there are, in fact, a surprising number of reasons to feel cheerful.”). So there! Read here.

3.  Close on the heels of cheer, here is a list of pioneering companies that adopted radical management styles and have had a crash landing of some sort. Take a look. We need to learn from what didn’t work too. 

4. A conversation with an entrepreneur who wants to scale his business fast, reminded of this piece. Heres a quick primer on network effects

5. Finally, Burning Man. Burning Man, happens every year in a temporary city in a desert in Nevada, USA. This year, it ended on the 3rd September. Do take a look at the 10 principles for the event. If any of them resonate with you, well, play more with them.  (The image above is a radar image by TerraSAR-X, a German Earth Observation Satellite)

And burn a part of your previous self to become a new one.  That’s that for this edition.

Even as you race ahead, I leave you with Ernest Hemingway’s quote, “There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

May I invite you to get better. However good you are!  


Curation for the 39th Edition of OWL

1 Comment
  • Reply Abhijith Balakrishnan

    September 14, 2019, 4:22 pm

    Very relevant. I have walked away from this very ‘story trigger’ many times. Every time I have had a smiling janitor hand me a tissue or open a door, I have maybe smiled and thanked him. Never stopped to talk.

    The art of conversation, specially that of listening, is a dying art. The innumerable distractions make it that much harder. In these days when everything is black and white, we walk into conversations with prejudice. We don’t listen and we walk away feeling better because we were louder and forceful; not really having gained anything out of the conversation.

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