Habitually ask yourself this productive question
Ask yourself at the time — or later, as you reflect on an incident or exchange
One difficulty in learning from experience (despite its awesome power as a teacher) is that we often are so involved in the experience that we don’t step back — during the experience or, more likely, later — to ask ourselves “What does this tell me?”
I learned from a friend how useful the question can be. When I would describe some puzzling behavior I had observed in someone, she would ask, “What does that tell you?” — not implying that she already knew the answer, but to get me — who had seen or experienced the behavior— to figure out what it implied.
I’ve found it useful to ask the question even about my own actions and attitudes. A trivial example is how I figured out which razor is my favorite. I write about double-edge shaving, I would occasionally get a comment asking which razor in my collection is my favorite. I always replied that I did not have a favorite, but then I noticed that when I traveled, bringing only one razor with me, I always picked the same razor. What did that tell me? Clearly, that razor was my favorite in terms of getting the job done.
A less trivial example: A friend who likes movies hated “Groundhog Day,” the movie with Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, and Chris Elliott. His wife and his friends all liked the movie, so he wondered why he disliked the movie so much and asked himself, “What does this tell me?”
As he thought about reasons for his reaction to the movie, he realized that he was himself in a rut, going every day to a job he didn’t like — but he was trying to ignore that and soldier on. The movie presented a situation of guy hating his job and being stuck in a rut, and that tapped into the negative feelings he was trying to ignore. He disliked the movie because he didn’t want to face the feelings. (After he realized this and thought more about it, he did in fact get another job.)
His experience is similar to findings from studies of extreme homophobia, which show that the negative reaction occurs because such men are trying to ignore and suppress their own homosexual longings. Thus, they dislike anything that arouses or reminds them of those feelings, feelings that threaten their efforts to be heterosexual.
The same question — “What does this tell me?” — is basic to scientific research. Indeed, such research generally consists of observing something, asking the question, and then testing the answers that come to mind. But the work begins with asking oneself the question, the spark that starts the fire. (Isaac Asimov noted that the most common comment related to scientific discoveries was not “Eureka!” but “Huh. That’s funny. Why did it do that?”)
Beyond scientists, people in all professions find the question an essential tool: historians, biographers, marketing managers, office workers, lawyers, detectives — any who seek to understand will rely heavily on the question.
And for any one person the question will apply in many contexts. For example, teachers will find the question useful as they interact with students, with fellow teachers, with administrators, and with parents and the public. The question helps to get to the root of issues and to discover reasons for success or the source of problems. The question applies to both deeds and words — perhaps even more to deeds, since truth is proverbially found in actions.
So whether you ask the question about your own behavior, the behavior of others, or corporate or organizational behavior, figuring out answers will be enlightening. The answers you formulate will probably not be definitive, but they will suggest good avenues for further thought and observation. Striving to understand often leads to understanding — one can understand on purpose, not just by accident.
Think of using the question as a skill, and thus acquired through practice. The first steps always are halting and error prone, but experience is a great teacher. Find fun in the process and your skill will improve.