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Asking The Right Questions
James E. Ryan is the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Holding a JD law degree (Juris Doctor), he is an expert and author in law as it applies to education. His latest book is Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions.
In the book, he discusses 5 major questions we can use to help ourselves in our lives–
1 – Wait, what?
Spoken or unspoken, this question asks our busy selves to stop and think. We need to slow down and make sure we are understanding what is attempting to be communicated. Are we rushing to judgement before truly understanding and considering the subject at hand? Clear communication allows us to prevent needless conflicts. Invite in-depth conversation by asking good questions and allowing others to tell their stories. This creates deep bonding.
2 – I wonder (why)… OR I wonder if…
Instead of assuming, and continuing with old thought patterns, keep your curiosity active by asking why. Pause to appreciate something mysterious or miraculous. Keeping a child-like curiosity and listening to your inner urges to understand things helps you open to possibilities.
3 – Couldn’t we at least…?
Finding common ground and focusing on forward movement, even without perfection, can lead us to more progress and more joy. This question can help us overcome initial inertia and get started on solving issues or problems. Once the ball is rolling, answers tend to show up. Pick a small, reachable goal; have some success; then tackle bigger goals.
4 – How can I help?
Helping others is noble and welcomed if it truly fits someone’s needs. Asking “How can I help?” and then truly listening allows the other person to guide you in how you can be of best service. This helps you form a connection with the other person while allowing them to feel respected. Asking “how” can also help bring better solutions. Slow down, be sincere, and allow magic to happen.
5 – What truly matters?
Ask yourself this question on a daily basis in respect to big plans and small things in your life. What is most important to you and how can you best achieve that? Break that down into various aspects and determine the specific steps of action you need to take.
Continue to ask these questions regularly. The answers will change over time. And that’s OK!
– Welcome back to The Urban Monk. Dr. Pedram Shojai here, to ask some big questions. Someone told me the other day, and it was really interesting, because I’m in that age, you know, kinda pre-Millennial, whatever the hell you call guys like me, where I was around when the first Apple computer showed up, and now, I run a website. But, in this age of Google, really, answers have become free. Answers have become commodified, in a way, where it’s just like any idiot can Google something on a phone, and get the answer. And really, the wisdom is in asking better questions. And so, to me, that’s a very profound statement. Because, you know, all the spiritual training says ask bigger questions, and keep asking questions behind those questions. And so, my guest today, is the dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, delivered a kick-ass commencement address that really kinda took a lot of people by storm. And it’s really about asking better questions. Book is called, “Wait, What?: And Life’s Other Essential Questions.” And today, we have James Ryan hanging out with us, and we’re gonna ask bigger and better questions. Welcome to the show.
– Thanks very much! I’m delighted to be here.
– So, what year was this commencement address that got so much hoopla over at Harvard?
– It was just last year, of last spring.
– It was last year? Yeah, excellent. And what drove you, I mean, had you been already, I’m assuming you’d been in the work that you’re doing here. And then, did you just kinda take the top line wisdom of that work, and deliver it in that commencement speech?
– Well now, it’s funny you that you say that. I mean, I think of a commencement speech every year, because I’m the dean, and this was my third speech. And I wasn’t quite sure what I was gonna talk about. And I started to get questions from friends about what are you gonna talk about this year? The first year, I talked about time, which was not very original. And then, the next year, I talked about the sin of omission, which has always been a fascination of mine. And so, and people ask me about last year’s speech. I said, well, that’s a good question, I’m not sure. And then, I realized, when I was on a run one morning, that talking about questions would actually be a good topic, because I’ve been obsessed with questions most of my life.
– So, questions. You know, so, there’s the Socratic method, right? And there’s a lot of ways of questioning. What drove you into being obsessed with questions?
– I think it was just curiosity. And then, I think I had a natural inclination to be Socratic. So, I think, like most kids, I was curious. And so, asked a lot of why questions. But, as I got older, I would ask my parents a lot of questions, probing at their beliefs. And I remember a lot of question-filled dinner conversations with my poor parents, where I grilled them, on questions, large and small. And, and I remember my dad telling me that I had better become a lawyer, because he couldn’t imagine me doing anything else. I had no practical skills, at all, unlike him. And, I ultimately followed his advice, and went to law school, and then, ultimately, became a law professor, in part, because I think it was the one job I was well-suited for, because I liked asking questions.
– Amazing. So, you’ve played to your strength. I’m sure your parents must’ve been so exhilarated, whenthey got why questions about everything.
– [James]Yeah, yeah, right! Yeah, my dad used to always tell me that life is not a great debate.
– And that it’s not so important to be right, which was his way of saying stop the questions.
– Enough, right, enough. I got, my eldest, my son is that way. And it’s just, you know, it really keeps you on your toes as a parent, man. And it’s just like, wow. That is a good question. And Daddy’s late for something right now, and you’re asking me to stop, and dig. So, so you–
– I’ve had payback with my own four kids, who have asked me a lot of questions along the way.
– So, karma is what it is, right? It’s back. So, you got life’s five essential questions that you’re talkin’ about in this book. And I’d like to get into them. And the first one really revolves around the title of the book, “Wait, What?” So, what is “Wait, What?” Like, how do we get into these essential questions, with that first stop, stop, pause statement?
– [James] Yeah, yeah. So, as I was writing the speech, and thinking about it, I thought, rather than talk, just in the abstract, about the importance of asking good questions, I would try to give good examples of questions that I thought were really important and useful, in all sorts of context, which led to these five questions. And I started with, wait, what, in part, because it’s a question that my kids ask all the time. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought, it’s an incredibly important question, in part, because it is really a question that is asking the person who’s speaking to slow down, to make sure that you understand what they’re saying. And I think that this is absolutely critical. And I feel like we, too often, rush to judgment. Too often, we feel like we understand something, before we truly do. And so, the fact that the question is asked, wait, what, rather than simply, what, to me, it’s sort of a great way of signaling that you want someone to slow down and explain what they’re saying, because you really wanna understand what they’re saying.
– [Pedram] Interesting. Yeah, ’cause when I hear that, I think, I visualize a teenager, right? That’s such a teenage thing. “Wait, what,” right? But, there’s something also very respectful in that, in that I know so many people, that will be given an answer, and then just simply nod their head, and pretend they understood, partially, because they don’t care, partially, because they don’t wanna look dumb, partially, because, what, what, what, right? But, what that does, is it just ends the inquiry right there. There is no exchange of ideas, or information. There’s just, you know, the conversation is lost to some dynamic, interpersonal drama, or whatever it is, that keeps that conversation from going. So, it’s perfectly appropriate here, to stop someone and say, hey, what are you saying? What do you mean? I wanna understand.
– [James] Yeah, exactly! And I think it, it doesn’t have to be accusatory either. I mean, it can be respectful, and a sign that you are genuinely interested in understanding what someone else is saying. And I think it’s really useful, to avoid needless conflict, to be honest. Too often, we get into arguments, because we assume we understand what someone was saying, before actually understanding. And if, before you advocate for a position, one way or another, if you ask someone to explain their argument, or explain their position, you often find that you have more common ground than you might’ve thought, at first blush.
– There’s also the climate we live in right now, where everything’s so damn polarized, right, where people are just waiting to attack each other’s positions, without hearing. And black, and white, and gray, gray is where all the good stuff happens. You know, it’s fascinating to me, that there isn’t more of this, right, in our culture. And just stopping to really ask, ’cause one of the most respectful things you can do, is ask somebody to speak where they’re coming from, because most people are so busy being disrespected and cut off, that it’s one of the easiest ways to honor somebody, and really open up a conversation, and just good people skills.
– I totally agree! You know, we’re at a time, like you said, of great polarization. And there is an awful lot of discussion about how to have conversations, how to bridge the various divides that plague our country. And it seems to me, a really good way to start a conversation, is by asking some questions, and asking a version of wait, what. I mean, wait, what, is a proxy for asking someone to explain. Asking someone a version of, wait, what, is, in a sense, inviting them to tell you their story. And you’re right, that that is a great way to create a bond, and to start building bridges. And it’s an incredibly respectful thing to ask someone to tell you their story.
– Some of the best conversationalists I know are people that will empty themselves, and allow the person across from them, to just genuinely express. And even if it’s for 30 seconds, man, it really starts to create a human bond, in a way that, I think, is missing on the streets of America right now. So–
– I think you’re exactly right! I couldn’t agree with you more. And you can also tell when someone’s asking you a question that’s sincere, and they really wanna hear the answer. My wife and I, we’re often on debrief, after we’re at a cocktail party, or something like that. And we always notice, when we’re talking to someone who hasn’t asked us a single question.
– It’s funny. And then, the people that are on-stage, selling themselves the entire time, waiting for you to shut up, so they can keep talking.
-Right, right! Right, exactly.
-Basic conversation skills. You know, actually, you’re in Boston. You’re in Boston, right? You’re at Harvard right now?
– [James] Yeah.
– Yeah, and so, every time I go to Manhattan, you know, I do a fair amount of Uber-ing around. Nell’s switching over to Lyft. Here, it’s just, I wanna know who this person is for a second. You know, tell me. And you’re giving someone an opportunity to shine, and share wisdom, creates a human connection in ways that most of us have lost, right? We don’t talk to people. So, that’s the root of all understanding, is that first question. And then, you jump into the heart of all curiosity, with another question.
– [Pedram] Your second question.
– Yeah. So, the second question is, I wonder, which I recognize is not a full question, but it can be paired with why, so I wonder why, or it can be paired with if, so I wonder if. And asking I wonder why, I think, is a way to remain curious about the world. And this is a question that you can ask others. But, I think, in some ways, is just as important, if not more so, to ask it yourself. I mean, I think a lot of us, as we grow older, we start our lives, by asking why all the time. And then, as we grow older, we fall out of the habit. And so, you could say that curious people ask why, but I think if you ask yourself, or remind yourself, to ask I wonder why, it’s a good way to remain curious. So, instead of just looking around, and assuming things have always been the way they are, or not pausing to notice something mysterious, or, again, not pausing to ask someone who sits next to you a question, I think prompting yourself to ask I wonder why, is a good way to remain curious.
– You know, it reminds me of the old Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, you know, classic.
– [James] That’s one of my favorite books! It is absolutely one of my favorite books! I think the only book I’ve read cover to cover, twice.
– [Pedram] Wow, yeah! It is amazing. First time I read it, I was too young, and it was too dense, and I hadn’t crystallized enough drama in my psyche yet. And then, when I started to understand the crystalline matrix of what starts to gel in this personality, in this world view, that, then, just becomes this prison of who you think you are, right? And all that comes from not wondering anymore. So, it really invoked that for me, just reading this bit in your book, because, you know, that why pierces through all of that, and really keeps creating an expansive world view that allows you to be in that wonderment, of the zen mind.
– Right! It’s so funny that you mentioned that book, because I think about it all the time. And the image that sticks with me from that book, is the tug at the sleeve, where he talks about paying attention to the tug at your sleeve. And in a way, that is a message of asking why. So, being curious, not ignoring something that is bothering you, but is not screaming in your face, that you should pay attention, but something that’s nudging at you. And if you pause to ask, I wonder why I’m feeling tugged this way, you’re likely to explore, and then, discover what it is that’s tugging at your sleeve.
– You know, it’s funny, so many people in our culture right now, are looking for meaning, and looking for purpose, and going to workshops, and trying to figure all this shit out, right? And, at the same time, they’ve learned, they’ve unlearned the ability to follow the breadcrumbs that are right in front of them, right? And all these little things that are there, are just powerful lessons, waiting to be unpacked, in that curiosity is really the door that you step through, to get there. And so, when you start doing this, you’ve been teaching your, obviously, you’re with young students. Well, you’re at the Graduate School of Education, so, a little older students. Are you working this methodology into how they approach their, their curriculum, their teaching, their lives?
– Well, so, I started as a law professor. And now, I don’t teach as much as I did, because I’m the dean, and my day job keeps me out of the classroom, more than I would like, frankly. But, when I started law school, the very first class I had, very first day of law school, this old law professor, a great southern gentleman, said to all of us, “There’s one all-important question in law school. “And it’s a question you should always ask yourself. “It’s a three-letter question. “And the question is why?” And he went on to explain, that that is the way to drill down, to truly try to understand something, is to ask why. Why was a case decided this way? Why was an argument posed this way? And I think that question can, just as easily, be asked in the context of an education school. And in some ways, when you’re asking a student to defend a particular proposition, or an argument, you’re asking them, well, why do you feel that way? Why would you make that argument? Why would you say that? So, yeah, I think it’s absolutely, absolutely critical. And then, I also think trying to engender that same kind of attitude in your students, to get them to ask why, is one of the best lessons you can pass along, and one of the best habits.
– Yeah, and something I would probably add to that, is, you know, you have so much of these programmed mimetics, that are coming through the media right now, and through the political systems, and all these kinds of things, is a lot of times, I’ll talk to someone who has some sort of position they’re taking on something, and just asking the question why, really kind of stumps ’em, because they don’t actually know why. They haven’t explored their position at all.
– Right. Yeah, I know, I think that’s exactly right. I mean, asking someone why they hold a particular view, is a great way to force someone to think about it. And that’s really useful for students. But, I also think to go back to our earlier conversation, asking someone why do you have that particular view, in a respectful way, is again, a decent way of trying to bridge a divide. So, why, you know, someone, who has a different view of life, or different view of politics, instead of assuming that they must be ignorant, or they must be evil, right, which is what we often do, when we come across someone who’s views are very different from our own, ask why would you believe that, or why do you believe that? And you might be surprised by what you learn.
– And I think that we are in dire need of more of that, right now, in our country, in the world, right? It’s just that basic kind of human probing, into figuring out what your position is. ‘Cause I think a lot of these positions are contrived. Most people are in some camp, because they need to belong, and it’s more animal brained, than individual brained. So, that to me, is huge. And curiosity, if curiosity could make a comeback…
– Yeah, I know, I know! The cats might be upset. But, everyone else would be happy.
-That’s funny. So, next one, beginning of all progress, is kind of the question number three. What is, how do we get into that question?
– [James] Yeah. So, this question is, couldn’t we, at least? And, again, like I wonder, it’s the beginning of a series of questions, rather than a single, complete question. But, it is a series of questions that, I think, help you get unstuck, help you get started, help you find consensus. So, couldn’t we, at least, agree, or, couldn’t we, at least, begin? And the reason why I think this question is so useful, and it’s a question I can tell you, I ask all the time, is because progress is often halted, because we’re waiting for a perfect solution. Or, progress is often halted, because we spend too much time focusing on where we disagree, and not enough time, focusing on where we agree. And so, if you think to pull this question out, when you’re stalled in making a plan, or you’re stalled in a discussion, and you just ask, couldn’t we, at least, agree on these basic principles? Or, couldn’t we, at least, just get started on this, even if we’re not sure where it’s going to end up? I find that that is, often, a really great way to get unstuck and actually make some progress. You may not know where you’re gonna end up. But, if you, at least, agree to get started, I mean, oftentimes, the hardest thing in life, is to just get started, whether you’re talking about going for a run, or whether you’re talking about starting a multi-year project at work, or going on a long trip.
– Okay, so, in context of working in some sort of bipartisan conversation, or something, find some common ground, couldn’t we at least agree, then, you have some conversation rolling, then you have some camaraderie building, you build some human capital, some human relationships, and move forward with that. How would I apply that in my personal life? Say, I’m 40 pounds overweight, and I’m just trying to run out of excuses to get going on something.
– [James] Right. Well, you might say… Well, couldn’t I, at least, get started by… By planning to exercise for ten minutes a day, for the next five days? Or, couldn’t I, at least, get started on eating a little bit more healthily, than I have before? And not feel like you have to plan out your whole exercise, plan your whole diet plan. But, just commit to getting started, understanding that, if you commit to getting started, you know, as Mary Poppins, who said, “A job begun, is a job half done.” I mean, she had magical powers, so, it was easy for her to say. But, I do think that actually getting started, is often, at least, half the battle.
– [Pedram] Interesting. So, we’re talkin’ about setting up micro-behavioral change, and setting up some sort of quick, incremental progress, to get the ball rolling, because look, as you say, look, you know what, I’m not gonna go do a boot camp this week. But, let me just walk up and down the stairs. And then, that becomes your negotiated position into a new way of going.
– I think that’s a really nice way to put it, yeah. And I think that I actually, you would surely know better than I about this. But, my sense is that that’s a pretty effective way, to get started on something. More effective, I would bet, than starting out with really ambitious, completely thought through goals, that once you fall short of them, you feel like, okay, well, I tried that, and it’s not gonna work. But, if you start by saying, well, I don’t know what I’m gonna do next week, but I know, this week, five days of it, I’m gonna walk ten minutes a day.
– [Pedram] That’s it. And you know what, you look at all the studies, you look at the work of BJ Fogg, over at Stanford, and all these kind of behavior labs out there, it’s really just that, right? ‘Cause, you know, the farce out there, is that you’re sitting on your ass, and then, you go do some sort of Crossfit boot camp, and you have six pack abs within three months. And everyone, they hurt themselves, they failed, they proved to themselves that they can’t do it, and it becomes a negative spiral. So, this is really like behavior change 101, is where do I start?
– Right, right, yeah.
– So, couldn’t we, at least, walk up the stairs? Couldn’t we, at least, eat a breakfast, and have less dinner, or whatever it is? Love that.
– I also think it’s a decent question to ask, to help you overcome fear. You know, this is a question I used with my kids a lot, when they were younger, and they were worried about, or resistant to do something. Instead of asking them to actually do it, I would ask them a version of, couldn’t we, at least, walk up to it? So, when I was teaching my kids to ski, which now, they love to do, when they were really young, they were really nervous about going on a chairlift. So, I asked them, well, couldn’t we, at least, go over and take a closer look? Not, well, let’s just go up the chairlift, and you’ll get over it. But, couldn’t we, at least, just go take a look? And that was enough to get them to realize, okay, it’s not threatening to me, to go look at a chairlift. And once they took a look, it didn’t seem so frightening. That doesn’t always work, but it’s still, again, the idea is, you pick a smaller goal, that you feel like you can reach, that is then, hopefully, going to lead to achieving larger goals.
– [Pedram] I love it. I love it. And that’s really it, is people build such mountains, around their larger goals, that they’re insurmountable. You just, you get to the point where, I’m not going up there, right? So, you don’t do Everest first. You just climb your local hill, right? And, eventually, you get there. And so, yeah, and I’ve seen that thousands and thousands of time, with thousands of people in our community, that do these things called gongs, which is a hundred-day practice, and it’s not like run a marathon everyday. It’s just do a little something for yourself everyday, right? And in doing so, all of a sudden, you see huge, quantum leaps in people’s lives, because once you’ve proven that you can do this little thing, and you have a win under your belt, they’re like, what else can I do?
– [James] Right, right, yeah.
– [Pedram] Love that. Question number four, how can I help?
– [James] Yeah. That’s a good question.
– So, this question… I think it’s really important, because, obviously, helping others is one of the most noble gestures you can make. But, I also think it’s important to think about how you help others. And, think too often, there is, a sense of… What some people call a savior complex. So, you have a desire to help someone less fortunate than yourself. And that’s, like I said, a noble gesture. But, you might think that you know exactly what that person needs. And you might view yourself as a hero, who’s gonna come in and change that person’s life. If, instead, you think about asking whomever you wish to help, how can I help, you’re offering that person an opportunity to actually tell you, and offering that person the opportunity to remain the expert, in his or her own life. And that person might tell you, well, there is actually nothing you can do, which would be fine to know. But, it’s also an opportunity to form a connection with someone, and to help them in a way that recognizes that it’s a reciprocal relationship. That is, you are just as likely, I found, anyway, you’re just as likely to be helped, in many ways, by anyone you’re trying to lend a hand to.
– You know, it’s interesting is, if you lead with that, and you mean it, everything in life gets so much better, right? It’s like I’ve had people come in for this tit-for-tat exchange, and you could see it’s contrived. But, if you actually mean it, it is so heartwarming, to have someone genuinely offer their help, and it’s rare! It’s odd that it’s rare, but it’s rare in our culture.
– [James] Right, right. And, again, if you’re sincere about it, and you’re actually sincere by asking, well, how can I help… You’re right. I think that everything is easier, after that, because people understand that, if you’re gonna ask that sincerely, and you’re gonna ask it in that way, you actually do care. You care enough to not only help, but you care enough to be respectful about the other person. It’s also useful, I think, for prompting people to figure out for themselves, what the problem is, and name the problem, so that if you can help, they can tell you how. So, I ask, again, I ask this question of my kids, who might be complaining about homework. And instead of saying, well, let me take a look, I mean, not that I could help them with their math homework, once they were beyond second grade. I will ask them, well, how can I help? And that forces them to think about what the real problem is, and whether I can actually help, or not.
– That’s funny. It’s just one three-letter word, again. You know, why was the first one, and now we’re on how. But, that how becomes such a different kicker into the sentence, because it’s, once you ask how can I help, it’s interesting, because the presupposition is, that, already, I’m in. I’m here to help. And so, you already have my support there. So, now, I need you to tell me how. And, again, that leads to a much deeper inquiry, into the problem.
– Yeah, I know I think that’s right. You know, so often, people will say, as a sort of throwaway line, well, let me know if I can help. You hear that all the time. Well, let me know if there’s anything I can do, let me know if I can help. And it’s sort of a signal that you don’t expect, that you’re gonna hear from a person. But if, instead, you look at someone, and you just ask them, well, how can I help–
– [Pedram] I’m here, I’m here.
– That is a very different way of entering into a conversation, and sometimes, in entering into a relationship.
– [Pedram] You know, what’s interesting, is you’re really kind of on the cutting edge of linguistics here. And really, we’re not really asking questions that are different than what we hear in our lexicon, but it is really important how some of these things are framed, and sequenced, with very specific qualifiers in the sentence, that really does change everything. Can I help, or let me know if I can help, versus how can I help, is night and day, because there’s a lot of buy-in with how can I help.
– [James] Right, yeah. Well, I’m delighted to hear I’m on the cutting edge of linguistics. It’s the first time I’ve been told that.
– [Pedram] No, it’s really good, because, I think the lexicon has changed in such a way, where most of us are, most sentences are throwaway sentences, and no one really thinks about the core of what they’re saying. You know what I’m saying? So, you get into the origins of words and sentence structure, and some of the most intelligent people have very, very methodical sentence structure, and you know that what they’re saying, they’re meaning, and it’s well thought through. And so, slowing down, a little bit, to say something the right way, makes a big difference, and I notice that in people a lot.
– That’s a really nice point. I think you’re right. So, it is a difference between a line that has become a throwaway, and is sort of a signal as a throwaway, let me know if I can help, versus how can I help, which breaks through the… The typical line. That is a throwaway line. Yeah, I think that’s a really powerful observation.
– [Pedram] Yeah, thank you. And so, you put your hand on someone’s shoulder, you look ’em in the eyes, you ask that question, it is a night and day difference. Yeah, you are now connected to a human being across from you. So, I really do appreciate that. And so, number five, your question is, what truly matters?
– Yeah. So, this question is one that ought to be obvious, on any list of essential questions. But, it’s one that, I don’t think we ask often enough. And by that, I mean… It’s not just a question that you would ask when you’re on vacation, and taking stock of your life, although you can. Or, when you’re thinking about getting married, at these momentous occasions in your life. It’s certainly useful for that. But, it’s also useful on a more day-to-day basis. I mean, to ask yourself, on a daily basis, okay, what truly matters today? What do I actually need to accomplish? And why do I want to accomplish what it is that I’m trying to set out? What do I ultimately wanna get out of this day? And I don’t think we ask ourselves that question nearly enough. We get involved in routines. We rarely ask why we’re spending our time in the way that we are. And we just, sort of go along, and then wonder why, why one day after another, it’s not been that satisfying. And if instead, we ask, well, what truly matters? Not just about the big decisions, which is obviously really important, but about the sort of small decisions that you make on a day-to-day basis.
– Yes, I have a few people in the business efficiency realm, who are always taking all of these workshops, and all that. And I got guys on the C level, CEO-level guys that are like, okay, I’m only allowed to do one thing today. What’s it gonna be, and really making you ask that question. It’s not a refinery, it’s a distillery. It’s distilling your ultimate best use of time, into that one thing. Now, that one thing might be five things for someone else. But, what is that? Where is your energy best served, and where is your highest leverage?
– [James] Right. Yeah, I know, I think that’s exactly right. And it is really useful. To get back to the other set of issues, I think it is really useful, obviously, to ask that about the bigger questions as well. So, I think asking what truly matters, instead of making New Year’s resolutions, is not a bad practice. To do once a year, decide, okay, I’m gonna take stock of my life, and ask, what truly matters? And I think what you would find, is there’s a lot of commonality across the answers. People would typically, I would assume, answer, well, family, friends, being satisfied at work, being kind… But, you still have to probe a little bit more, and start asking, okay, well, what about family? What about friends? What about work truly matters to me? Am I acting in a way that’s consistent with what’s most important to me?
– And so, getting granular, and saying, you know, saying family is important, is such a throwaway sentence, again. Like, everyone’s gonna say that, or else you sound like an asshole.
– Right, right, right, exactly! So, yeah, it’s to get beyond. So, yeah, of course! My kids truly matter to me. That’s not where you stop. So, what truly matters to me, with respect to my kids, is that I am able to spend time with them. And then, I’m able to be involved in their lives. And that I understand what they’re going through at school, in any given week. That’s a very different orientation. And gives you a lot more direction about how you should be spending your time, rather than simply saying, oh yeah, of course my kids are, my kids are important to me. They truly matter to me.
– It’s funny, I had a moment with my son, when he was, I think he was probably two, or something, at the time. And I was, we were in the middle of a movie lunch, and I was just bangin’ away on my laptop, workin’ from home one day. And he keeps trying, he’s just gettin’ more and more fussy, and just more and more ornery. And he’s grabbin’ at the laptop, and tryin’ to hit my keys. And it’s just, you know, I finally just stop, and I’m like, dude, stop! And I looked at him, and he’s just lookin’ back at me, and I just got it, in that moment. I was telling him, that whatever’s on this laptop, is more important to me, than him. And it was this real make or break moment, where I just closed the laptop, and was just like, I’m so sorry.
– [James] Right. Yeah, I know. So, I think that’s a wonderful story, and it took me longer than it took you, to make the realization that kids wanna talk to you on their time, not on your time. And you need to recognize that. And if you wanna have serious conversations with your kids, if they come in and interrupt you in the middle of something, and it’s clear they wanna talk about something serious, you don’t tell them, well, let’s talk about it later.
– [Pedram] It’s moved on, yeah. They live in the now. They’re in that mood, that emotion, all of it.
– [James] Absolutely.
– Yeah. Yeah, and if your stated goal is to spend quality time with your family, what qualifies as quality time with your family, and when’s the last time you did it?
– Yeah, no, that’s exactly right.
– And that’s hard. That’s hard for a lot of people to reconcile, because it’s easy to make those throwaway statements. I care about the environment, okay. What have you done for the environment? What are you reducing in your carbon footprint? I care about my family. Well, what do you do with them? And so, these are easy things to say, harder things to be present with. And so, again, I love the inquiry. I love the questions. ‘Cause the questions don’t really have answers. They have more, more questions behind ’em.
– [James] Right, right. Yeah, and again, I think there are questions that are useful to ask, all the time, and across a number of context. And you’re right, not everyone’s gonna have the same answer, obviously. But, if you ask the questions regularly, and you answer them honestly, and specifically, I think they are a really useful guide to living a more fulfilling life, frankly.
– And also, and I’d love to get your opinion on this. Answers change. I can ask the same question, year after year, and get a very different answer.
– Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. That’s, again, why I think it’s not a bad habit to ask yourself, at least once a year, it doesn’t have to be on New Year’s Eve. But, ask yourself, at least once a year, what truly matters to me. And you’re right, it’s gonna change from when you’re 25, to when you’re 55.
– [Pedram] Yeah, yeah. And what I see, all too often, in people, who now, have their personalities crystallized, as you will, is they may have asked a question in their 20s or 30s, and come up with an answer that’s now become the thing they’re wearin’ on their sleeve. And it’s gone unquestioned for three decades.
– [James] Right, right. Yeah, no, that’s exactly right. It’s a good way to force yourself to question assumptions as well.
– [Pedram] Yeah. Yeah, it’s like and everything else, you have these irritative processes, in business, and you’re always looking to grow, and adapt, and learn, and pressure-test things. But, we don’t do it with our own personalities. We don’t do it with our own fundamental beliefs. We don’t do it with things that matter the most in our personal lives. And those things are what affect everything else, from our marriages, to our children, to our careers. And so, yeah, I really appreciate this perspective. The book is called, “Wait, What?” by James Ryan. And it’s a quick read. It’s a delightful read. And it’s a great little book. And I highly recommend. Get your hands on it, and just building questions into your operating system. Having an orientation towards inquiry that’s driven by questions, that allow you to unpack and open up to inner truths, that are just right there, underneath the surface, but it’s just so counter our current culture, to do these types of things, and I think this is, really, the energy we need to kinda come back to our humanity. We’ve lost the script a little bit. And so, I really appreciate the language. It’s not all hippy-dippy. It’s very… So, you get a lot of self-help things that try to go there, but they’re hard to follow. So, you’ve got a really easy, simple format for this, that gets you to the intended inquiry, which is, I think, the most important piece in all of it.
– Well, I appreciate it. Yeah, I know, I was not aiming for hippy-dippy. So, I’m glad to hear that.
– It’s like I’m wearing a collared shirt at Harvard, man. We all gotta stay in our lanes, that’s it! Hey listen, thank you so much. Good luck with the book. I think this is great. And I’m gonna follow your progress. I like the work that you’re doing.
– [James] Well, I really appreciate it. Thanks for having me on. I really enjoyed it.
– [Pedram] Cheers, thank you! Let me know what you think. I will see you next time, on The Urban Monk.