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On the importance of asking questions

After a few years of being an entrepreneur, I’ve learned that all business relies on the same simple principle: sell something for more than it costs you to produce. Along this line, I may have distilled the pair of necessary activities that any entrepreneur must master: know what you want, and ask for it.

Last year, I had the privilege of attending a special session of the Alltech Symposium, geared toward entrepreneurs. During this session, Jim Host and Pearse Lyons (two members of the Kentucky Entrepreneur Hall of Fame) shared the journeys that led them to launch and grow their successful companies (Host Communications and Alltech, respectively). During his talk, Dr. Lyons dropped a nugget of wisdom that resonated with me. “Ask questions.” Dr. Lyons recounted a story from his youth, about being the kid who always asked questions. He annoyed his parents by always asking, “Why?” He questioned the establishment, in asking his boarding school administrators if he and his classmates could clean up after the school’s bingo nights. While it was nice to score some Be Good Points, what he really wanted was to collect the leftover beverage cans and bottles, knowing that he could recycle them and pocket the deposits. Even on his first sale of feed products (which would become the basis for Alltech), he wasn’t afraid to ask his customer (who had almost backed out on the purchase) if he would like to double his order! From his talk, it seems like much of Dr. Lyons’ success has come from the simple fact that he was willing to ask for what he wanted.

So, if there is value in this skill (asking the right question, of the right person, at the right time), what are we doing to ensure that our children are developing this skill? Based on my experience…not enough. With the increased emphasis on standardized testing, we’re pushing kids to get better at answering questions, but not at formulating their own questions. This seemingly small shift actually requires a major change. Asking good questions requires creativity, a skill that we’ve not yet gotten good at measuring. I will concede that iit take a lot more effort than measuring whether the correct answer was provided for a given question. In the story The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a society is seeking the answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything“. They pose this challenge to the a powerful computer, Deep Thought, which after 7.5 million years of computation, (spoiler alert) spits out the answer “42”. While living on in geek infamy, the number 42 is mostly useless without knowing the question to which it is an answer. When prompted for the question, Deep Thought is not powerful enough to render it, but proposes that a more powerful computer, called “Earth”, be constructed to resolve the Ultimate Question.

While my friend Luke Murray was guest blogging for Virgin.com, he wrote a post about how Sir Richard Branson wasn’t afraid to ask big. The result: he bought an entire island for less than 1/10th of the listed price…just because he asked the owner if he would accept a smaller sum. While the process of learning “question-asking” may seem without precedent, there is actually an excellent structure provided by one of the greatest inventions of human history: The Scientific Method. This method provides a framework for formulating questions based on what someone wants to know. And while most people are terrible at asking questions, it is a skill that can be learned. Yet, knowing how to ask questions does not mean that the process of asking is easy. As musician Amanda Palmer points out, “Asking makes you vulnerable.”

How can you do this in your own life? My friend Evan became frustrated when a vendor was supposed to send him some printed graphics but was running late. As a result, he didn’t want to pay the shipping fees for their product. Rather than just being mad, complaining to friends, or posting bad reviews about the company, he asked the vendor a question: “Will you give me free shipping?” Surprising to Evan, their answer was yes. I am still early in my journey as an entrepreneur, but the times that I have succeeded when: I knew what I wanted, and asked for it.

But you don’t have to take my word for it. Just listen to Steve Jobs.

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  1. 2013/06/05 at 1:35 pm

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