Cultivating a Questioning Mindset

Einstein’s theory of relativity. Gandhi’s vision of nonviolent resistance. Jung and the collective unconscious. Those Big Ideas upend our beliefs and expectations and make us see the world in new ways. To create them, a genius is struck with inspiration—Newton gets bonked by an apple, Archimedes shifts in his bathtub—and in an instant, it all becomes clear. Right?

The truth is a lot more complicated. Big Ideas aren’t hatched by a rare breed of intellectuals living in isolation. Instead, they come from regular people who are willing to ask the right questions and stay open to new ways of looking at the world. To assume that creativity is something that other people do—that you aren’t capable of it—is an abdication of responsibility, says Professor David Burkus, author of The Myths of Creativity. It’s incumbent upon us to open our minds and try, rather than shutting down before we even begin to engage.

True thought leaders are driven by asking questions that others have not, and question assumptions others take for granted. Of course ulcers are caused by stress (an accepted medical “truth” until an obscure Australian doctor shunned by the medical establishment proved—by infecting and then curing himself—that they were actually the result of a bacterial infection1). Of course something as high stakes as space flight should be run by the government (until entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson began aggressively creating successful private ventures). And of course the only right way to teach college classes is by having a professor lecture in front of a small group of students (until Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun gave up his tenured teaching position to launch Udacity, an online MOOC provider, after seeing that his first pilot course attracted 160,000 students—more than he could reach in dozens of lifetimes teaching in a traditional classroom).

Finding the next Big Idea is about cultivating a questioning mind-set. It’s easy to accept established wisdom—which is usually, though not always, correct. But it’s in those moments where conventional wisdom fails that the biggest breakthroughs occur. Thrun had no idea how many students would register for his first class, but when he saw the overwhelming results, he was willing to jump on board and explore. Barry Marshall, the intrepid Australian doctor, couldn’t be 100 percent sure of his hypothesis until he drank the H. pylori concoction himself, but he was willing to step forward and test his beliefs. In this chapter, you will learn how to challenge the implicit assumptions you’re making, and test whether something is really impossible—or just difficult enough that most people haven’t bothered to look further. We’ll examine the importance of asking what’s next—a critical question in a rapidly changing world. It’s easy to see what’s right in front of you, but if you broaden your perspective and think critically about the next year, or five or ten, you can add real value to the conversation.

Every field has useful guiding assumptions. Received wisdom saves time—you don’t have to reinvent the wheel—and stops you from pursuing fruitless leads, but it can also be a trap, preventing you from exploring new ideas. To find a Big Idea, you have to question the assumptions that are keeping everyone else in check. You don’t succeed by following the rules and thinking exactly like everyone else; you need to ask “what if?” and “why not?” Try to put yourself into the mind-set of an outsider, who doesn’t know all the rules. What would they make of how things are typically done? Are there practices they might find counterintuitive or outmoded? Might there be a new or different way of doing things? Finding that answer could be the seed of your Big Idea.

Just about everyone can see the really big picture. The Internet is becoming more important every day. Mobile computing will decimate desktops. India’s and China’s economies are expanding dramatically. Yes . . . and what does any of it mean for us? We know the wave is coming, but how do we make use of that information? How can we prepare to succeed in the new economy? Too many people pontificate about what’s happening now, and don’t shed any light on the implications moving forward.