Question Yourself

One of my favorite websites, Brain Pickings, recently turned 13. The reason it’s a favorite is because it offers content that is challenging intellectually – but not to the point of not making sense to humble minds like mine. The logo creeps me out a bit, but the breadth and depth of subject matter is amazing.  To commemorate that anniversary, Maria Popova authored a post on 13 lessons from the 13 years.

Two of those lessons, the somewhat-related numbers 1 and 11, connected with me more than the others.

Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.

Question your maps and models of the universe, both inner and outer, and continually test them against the raw input of reality. Our maps are still maps, approximating the landscape of truth from the territories of the knowable — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.

Like all of us, I grew up within a framework of ideas and values provided by family, friends, and community.  They were simply accepted as correct and true.  And, like most of us, I went through a rebellious phase where I shed those ideas to try the opposite, then soon matured (or so I thought) and came back around.  Rebellion at that age is generally not based on true reflection and questioning, but instead is driven by a simple, basal, desire for independence.  Coming back around is often due to a yearning for what is known and stable while dealing with the chaos of adulthood.

Later in life, sooner for some and probably later for most of us, we begin to question again.  Perhaps it is driven by confronting mortality through our own or family medical situations, or by realizing that the fast-paced career isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  The questioning impacts both our personal and professional lives.  Are the values of my community really my own?  Are the engineering concepts I was taught (decades ago…) really valid?  Perhaps there’s a better way to lead?

I know far too many people who simply follow the values and opinions of others, without questioning or “continually testing against the raw input of reality.”  And even if they do, and they discover gaps and differences, the are afraid of “the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.”  And I also know far too many leaders that simply follow the precepts and guidelines of traditional management philosophy.

Lean teaches us to always question, to ask why… and why… and why (and why… and why…).  It tells us to throw traditional thinking on its head to understand and support the value of people rather than their cost, to process in units of one instead of a batch, and to play the long game of creating value from the perspective of the customer instead of chasing shareholder approval each month.  The framework of our youth, the “we’ve always done it this way,” is a barrier that must be breached.

Question your maps and models, and have the courage to change your mind.

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