“Now I’m one of the adults.” The look on his face reminded me of a conversation I had with a former colleague a few days earlier. I realized they also used the exact same words; “Now I’m one of the adults.”
Maybe you’ve said or thought it too?
What it means is that people look to you for answers.
Growing up you trusted your parents and teachers to know what was best for you. As a young adult you had coaches, professors, and managers telling you what to do.
But now others trust and expect you to lead the way.
Whether you’ve looked forward to this moment and welcome the fact that it’s your turn to guide, coach, and manage other people, or you’ve dreaded it and wish you could stay a child forever, you are facing a truth that none of your mentors taught you how to deal with.
The truth is that no one — not even the adults — has all the answers.
In fact, you probably find yourself having more questions than ever and fewer opportunities to ask for help.
If that’s the case, these five tips are for you:
1. Congratulate yourself for being human
Having more questions than answers means that you are learning and growing as a human being. If you had all the answers to your questions, you would have no reason to explore and experiment with new ways of understanding and solving problems.
You wouldn’t feel a need to seek inspiration, connect with others, play around with different ideas, reinvent yourself, and challenge your assumptions about the world. You would not be inclined to improve the way you do things or have an incentive to innovate.
Having more questions than answers means that you are learning and growing as a human being.
It is by having more questions than answers that you help create the future rather than clinging to the past. It is by asking questions that no one knows the answers to that you prepare yourself and your family, community, and company for the unknown.
And it is by being curious, courageous, and creative that you cultivate the traits and acquire the skills that help you stay human in a tech obsessed world.
So, congratulations — you are exactly as you should be!
2. Decide which team you want to play for
If my first tip made everything sound easy, I’m sorry. It is not. If it was, you wouldn’t need courage, and I wouldn’t have to ask you to make a decision.
Having more questions than answers doesn’t only mean being curious and creative. It also means feeling confused, clueless, anxious, insecure, and a lot of other things most of us prefer to avoid.
That’s why you must ask yourself whether you want to play for Team Question or Team Answer. Either way, your life will be full of both questions and answers, but there is a huge difference in how you deal with uncertainty.
If you play for Team Question, you endure and maybe even embrace uncertainty as an essential part of the game of life. That’s what Albert Einstein did when he allegedly declared that if he had an hour to solve a problem and his life depended on the solution, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once he knew the proper question, he could solve the problem in less than five minutes.
A lot of present leaders play for Team Answer.
I sometimes translate this into the 92/8 Einstein Rule saying that to solve important problems, we must spend 92% of our time asking questions and 8% answering them.
However, having collected and analyzed more than 30,000 questions asked by professionals from across the globe I see the exact opposite trend; the more complex and important problems people are in charge of solving, the fewer questions they ask.
This means that a lot of present leaders play for Team Answer.
They might value human courage, curiosity, and creativity, but they struggle to deal with the uncertainty, doubt, and anxiety that comes with it. To avoid lingering too long in the unknown, they promote quick answers (that’s part of the reason they invest so heavily in AI), and they prefer a bad solution today over a better solution tomorrow.
But now that you are one of the adults, you can help change this trend. All you must do is make a decision to always embrace the questions that make you human.
3. Own your 3 E’s
The 3 E’s are the Existential, Ethical, and Epistemological questions that no one — least of all a machine — can answer for you. It’s the questions that help you figure out who you are, what you should do, and how you deal with what you (don’t) know.
To own your 3 E’s you must be good at recognizing these questions every time you come across them in your personal and professional life.
The 3 E’s typically present themselves as:
Existential doubt or crises, e.g. “Who am I if I cannot have the career, I thought I would have?”, “Can I do bad things and still be a good person?”, “Will I still be the same if I change how I live my life?”
Ethical dilemmas, e.g. “Should I still pursue this opportunity now that I know it will have a negative impact on my family?”, “What consequences will it have if I choose not to speak up?”, “Would I expect others to take action if they knew what I know?”
Epistemological challenges, e.g. “Is it responsible to make this decision when I lack important information?”, “How much of what I think I know is based on assumptions that I ought to test before I move on?”, “Could I be wrong?”
The 3 E’s are the Existential, Ethical, and Epistemological questions that no one — least of all a machine — can answer for you.
In addition to recognizing the 3 E-questions, you must also pay attention to the answers:
When and why do your answers to these questions change? What makes them change? And what do you need to change to stay true to what you believe in?
To sum up, owning your 3 E’ means making a pledge to yourself never to leave the responsibility for the existential, ethical, and epistemological questions to anyone but yourself.
4. Trust what you were never taught
This one is tricky.
I previously mentioned that none of your mentors taught you how to deal with the truth that no one — not even the adults — has all the answers. That might sound harsh, but don’t worry, it’s not because they didn’t want to.
It’s because the nature of having more questions than answers is exactly that; something that’s in your nature and thus something no one can teach you how to handle.
“The act of questioning cannot be taught. Nor does it require a teacher. The first question arises early in the life of every healthy child, from the very roots of its existence. We are able to ask single questions because we are questioning beings at our very core.”
What this means is that you already know how to deal with the truth that no one has all the answers. You’ve dealt with it your whole life, and you will continue to deal with it until you die.
“The act of questioning cannot be taught. Nor does it require a teacher.”
But, as another German thinker, Hans-Georg Gadamer, put it, “there is no such thing as a method of learning to ask questions, of learning to see what is questionable.” On the contrary, he said, “the important thing is the knowledge that one does not know.”
As I said, this is tricky, and yet it is as simple as can be.
All it means is that if a question occurs to you and you have a feeling that it needs to be asked, but you don’t know why and how this feeling arose or who taught you to feel this way, trust it.
You know that you don’t know, and that’s all you need to ask.
5. Find your crowd
1–4 is quite a mouthful if you must do it alone. Fortunately, you don’t have to. Having more questions than answers, being human, making tough decisions, owning your 3 E’s and trusting what you were never taught is a team sport!
To win in life you must surround yourself with people who consciously or subconsciously have made the same decision to stay curious as you have and who are playing to learn and grow as humans.
If you are not already surrounded by these people, use your questions to inspire, attract and bring out the innate curiosity, courage, and creativity in people you meet — and will meet — at work and in life.
That’s it. These are my five tips for how to win when you have more questions than answers.
The good news is that you already have plenty of experience doing what I recommend you do. Now all you must do is trust your experience and team up with those who are willing to explore your questions with you.