The Power of Questions

Most often, we do not allow our children to think. Have you ever given a case study to a three-year old? If you do, you’ll be surprised at the speed with which they answer, the quality of the response and the number of alternatives they can come up with. Ask children for their opinion on any matter, and they will have one – but no one is asking. Every question you ask a child builds their repertoire, or the mental muscle. As exercise builds physical health, stamina, resilience and strength, questions are exercise for the brain. If questions are about Math, History, Science etc, i.e. the syllabus in school, the brain will respond accordingly. Similarly, if questions are about life, the brain will answer. These answers make the “unfamiliar familiar,” constructing ever-new mental models. The more the mental models, the more the perspectives, the lesser the problems and stress and the richer the life. This positive state of being can trigger the “reward” neural circuitry, building the fortunate habit of self-rewarding, instead of being dependent on others or a system to validate or reinforce.

Similarly, at the workplace, are you asking your juniors questions or giving them instructions? Even if you have the answer, asking questions is a people-development leadership style that enables people to think for themselves. Else, they will remain dependent on you – which, of course, secures your job, but doesn’t do much for your promotion or your team’s empowerment.

We are born with the capacity to do wonders. Every child is a genius in her own way. When this capacity, or potential, as it is often called; is developed, many a times through questions, the child/person becomes able. That’s when capacity transforms into capability. The word ‘capability’ is two words, capacity and ability. When one is capable, then can we be responsible.

The brain makes up 2% of the body weight but consumes 20-25% energy. To conserve energy and be efficient, it builds neural pathways. The human brain is estimated to have 100 billion neurons which can connect in trillions of ways. The richer the exposure, the more the connections as there will be greater associations from the past to compare the new and be more empathetic toward receiving and accepting it, instead of rejecting the unfamiliar and losing opportunities. It’s these unconscious habits that directly affect our ability to make choices and decisions from the higher brain. The narrower the choices, the more we fear. Fear leads to stereotyping people and situations, narrowing opportunities to what is “acceptable.” The larger spectrum of choices provides internal psychological safety, making the individual more secure and confident. A person with a narrow spectrum will rely on external safety stimuli and will remain psychologically insecure.

Such a condition of internal uncertainty puts the mind in a state of constant conflict, mostly about the question, “Who am I?” Since the mind has not learnt to think, there is only a prescribed answer – the one we have been brought up with.

Having observed parents and how they react to their children’s behaviours, it is more often that parents are not nurturing children. Mostly they are conditioning them, that too with fear and shame; while the rest of the upbringing involves indoctrination. This psychological doctoring centers around ages-old social norms and customs of what is acceptable behaviour. The curriculum is different for girls and boys; for different economic strata; varies geographically and prescribed by religious and personal belief systems. And so the child acquires a pseudo personality, complying with what is acceptable. Others become the source of acceptability and respect, to validate the self. Thus, we get rid of the confusion and conflict aroused by the annoying question, “Who am I?”

With this comfortable formula that the brain acquires of getting respect from others and having the neural pathways conserve energy and work efficiently with this habit, we lose our ability to self-respect; or rather, that never quite develops. This ‘hanging on’ to others for one’s self-concept and identity breeds outward-looking mental models, on which we rely for reward and acknowledgement and turn into a ‘complaint’ society. Such peoples often are followers of the dictates of others.

This state of being can spread through society making most of us depend on each other for our self-esteem. Since ‘each’ has not much to ‘give’, as that ‘each’ is looking for it in the ‘other’, the alternate becomes to ‘take’. To take away from the other. I’ve seen grown men celebrate, clap, cheer when the other looses. These cheering men did not win, but they find solace in the loss of others. That is a glaring sign of a hollowness typical of a pseudo existence. Backbiting is another good method of pulling the other down so as to self-aggrandize. This becomes the neural pathway for reward.

Through history we can see such societies and even civilizations carrying on for hundreds of years in this state of survival. Many self-destruct, where the ego (the embodiment of selfishness), becomes all consuming. Such emphasis and focus on appeasing the form and neglect of the spirit, shrivels the soul, causing the entity to implode. Where are the great Greek, Roman and Mughal empires?

An indicator of fear and shame-centric societies is that they are consumers. Research and development and invention, innovation require a high level of patience, faith and perseverance, an elevated state of service for the larger good.

How can we come out of this downward spiral and become what we ought to be? Just for one day, ask questions. This requires you to acknowledge that others, too, know, and may know better. This vulnerability makes you powerful and them stronger. Be patient with their answers – remember you are facing generations of indoctrination. You cannot break neural pathways by asking once only. Keep at it. Results may not happen in your lifetime, but the transformation has begun.

The Habit to Think

Though it is an old phenomenon, of late, its severity has approached disturbing limits. The impulse to act supersedes the intellectual discipline to think. Even when time is allocated for planning, i.e. thinking through how a project or task will be done, it is used sketchily with little concern for detail and least to visualize the process and its result. Getting into the activity or implementing instructions takes precedence. Picturing the end goal – what form, shape, feel, quality it should have – is a sweeping thought taken over by confusion. With this limited clarity on the outcome, most often the process backfires and the result is unexpected with wasted resources and demoralized people. Even then, when probed to assess their performance, these people will grade themselves high. When asked, why so high, they mention the appeasing and trivial rationale of having made the effort to attempt.

Cultivating minds that think

In search of reason for such behaviors, several insights connect the dots. In childhood, parents have a ready blueprint by which their children have to live their lives, just as was done by their own parents. There is little or no thought behind the age-old prescription scripted by society to earn esteem. This blueprint gives confidence of a ‘respectful’ (izzatdar) life, to acquire an honorable status, a decent job, an attractive marriage proposal and, hence, to breed children who will be respected, will get into good schools, get good jobs, and so on. The scene is set. Having worked with the extremely underprivileged to the mentally and physically impaired, I have observed that the family’s’ desire for a white collar job surpasses the need to have any job for the sake of the dignity of being self-reliant. The same holds true for the economically middle to affluent ones. The vision to educate a generation to uplift a community or the country is far from personal reality. It is considered fanatical, idealistic and impossible. As long as the first three rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are fulfilled, life is well-spent.

Even if the naturally-inclined-to-idealism youngster wants to plan a self-professed future, hammered down upon them is the guilt of deciding contrary to their parent’s wishes. At times, they will first study as per parents’ demands, then pursue their own interests, if the luxury of time and money allows. 8 in 10 youth with depressive problems that I have counseled suffer due to compulsions by parents, mostly in matters of deciding their careers or their choice of a life partner. These youths are martyrs of their parent’s inexorable but unfulfilled dreams.

Going back to circumstances earlier in life, hardly any parent involves their children in discussions pertaining to making a plan for a picnic, a family celebration, redecorating the house, the menu for a dinner party, a shopping trip, what they would like to wear on Eid and, most importantly, the ‘why’ of all of these situations. No parent I’ve interviewed has ever asked their son or daughter “What is your opinion…..?” to enable them to connect to their ability to think, analyze, reason and express. Then we condemn the media for feeding into our minds – when the minds are empty, anything will fill it. The tremendous intelligence Pakistanis are blessed with is diverted to justifying and rationalizing why something ‘cannot be done’ and blaming others who have ‘supposedly’ not done it, instead of using it to stimulate the intellect to inspire growth.

Powers of Visualization

We are visual beings. Children are told fairy tales to spark their imagination. If this unique-to-humans quality is not stimulated, the present physical world becomes the reality forever, with all its limitations and body-centric demands. We end up living a life only placating our senses, just like any animal. With a healthy imagination, we can look far, far into the future and determine what it should be. We can build a thousand bridges over rivers and oceans of conflict, strife and struggle, and raise a civilization to the higher level it must evolve to, to avoid extinction. With imagination, combined with the mind’s other faculties of 1) Common sense, 2) Thinking, 3) Values, and 4) Memory, we are able to fight nature’s default entropic condition and advance our special inborn states of leadership and mastery.

This same milieu continues in schools, with children placed on an assembly line of regurgitating text and teachers churning out report cards. Discovering the aptitude of a child, let alone nurturing it, lies outside the realm of ‘education’. Aptitude – this God-gifted ability to be distinct – is sacrificed on the altar of subject-specific focus to get into college to, yet again, land a ‘good’ job, where ‘good’ implies status, money and security.

Thus, the muscle of visualization, and intellectual capacity to think shrivels and becomes limp. As adults, this disability plays out in most sectors of society, whether Public, Corporate, Social, Education, or as citizens. In the Government, committees plan forever, every time bringing in one more resource who may have the magic wand. Discussion is good but too much dependence and delayed decisions further adds to the limp. Whenever there is planning, too much weightage is put on the past evils and how to fix them instead of fresh creative ideas for rebirth.

Survival of the Smartest

Centuries of human history have proven that those in the survival mode will survive, while those who thrive are a different breed: they think differently. Every invention is preceded by a question. It is the quality of this question that determines the size and impact of the outcome. The human brain became powerful under conditions where thinking and motion were a constant. There are two ways to beat the cruelty of the environment: You can become stronger or you can become smarter. Humans chose the latter. It seems most improbable that such a physically weak species could take over the planet not by adding muscles to our skeletons but by adding neurons to our brains. We moved from the 2,000 who inhabited the earth to the 7 billion by:

  • Giving up on stability
  • Not beating back the changes
  • Stopping to care about consistency within a given habitat – not an option
  • Adapting to variation itself

We took on the entire globe. We didn’t become stronger; we became smarter. We learned to grow our fangs, not in the mouth but in the head. Those unable to rapidly solve new problems or learn from mistakes did not survive. We are hardwired to be flexible.

Our brains are so sensitive to external inputs that their physical wiring depends upon culture. The adult brain, throughout life, retains the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. This throws any excuse to not change out of the window, yet puts great focus on the forces in the environment. Whereas the brain is predominantly (instinctually) oriented toward ALFAL (Appetite, Laziness, Fear, Anger, Lust), it has the higher power to construct newer civilizations by altering the information it seeks and creates. The quality of this information generates physical energy, which, in turn, encodes a relationship with the self, others and the environment. It’s the number of door handles on the entrance to information that determines the content, i.e. my personal meaning of myself (my identity and, therefore, my narrative and meaningfulness); the timing at which this occurs, i.e. more useful when youthful; and the environment that encourages me to express it to build positive associations.

Let’s extract our courage from our construct – the material we are made of. Predominant in forming our nature are mirror neurons, which are: 

  • Remarkably subtle
  • Scattered across the brain
  • Self-corrective; predict error; retrospectively evaluate input for errors
  • Perceive unfavorable circumstances and call for a change in behavior

The job of the mirror neurons is to:

  • Reflect their surroundings
  • Replicate reality
  • Imitate behavior

Tied with this constant (the mirror neurons), is the immense power of curiosity.

  • From birth starts the ability to discover, which brings immense joy and is an addictive drug
  • Exploration creates the need for more discovery so that more joy can be experienced
  • An in-built reward system that, if allowed to flourish, will continue for life
  • As children get older, they find that learning not only brings them joy, but it also brings them mastery
  • Expertise through discovery breeds confidence to take intellectual risks
  • If not in the emergency room, these may end up with a Nobel Prize*

We as parents, educators, managers, and leaders are responsible for forming an environment where the mind’s natural need and urgency to evolve is facilitated. How come the Apples, Googles and the Facebooks of the world are shaking a whole industry? How come Wal-Mart tops the Fortune 500 list, above the petroleum giants, when so many others sell shampoo, meat and clothing? How come teams of researchers tirelessly and passionately, for decades, sift through atoms to maybe discover one more healing drug? What does it take for some to look up at the stars and see the galaxies beyond, to build means to get there? Or those who can see deep into the core of the earth even if it is to extract its heat to warm a home?

Yes, exactly that – ask questions. Ask, and thou shall receive. You aren’t getting because you haven’t asked. Children are natural askers of questions, and then we kill this superior ability. Thanks to those parents who guide their children at home and leaders at work who provoke their teams to remain on a quest for answers and solutions, we can look forward to next generations building their tracks on thinking, enquiry and adventure.

* Extracts from ‘Brain Rules’ by John J Medina

Ayesha Nawab

A petite yet potent package, Ayesha packs a punch with her drive, ambition and focus. With her fierce commitment, untiring energy and results-driven approach, she unfailingly impresses everyone she works with.

She completed her Bachelors from the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi, and went on to work with Standard Chartered before becoming part of Carnelian. A go-getter, Ayesha does not rest until she has results to show. And giving up? Well, that’s an alien concept for her. She embodies the spirit of determination and does not balk before any challenge.

Her candid and enthusiastic nature helps her succeed as a Consultant and leaves a strong impression on her team members and clients. Ayesha has worked extensively with ICI, Shell, Crescent Steel and Engro Corporation and her areas of interest include Organizational Diagnostics, Competency-based Performance Management, Branding, and Project Management. Her recent assignments have included Women’s Tolerance Cricket League — a large-scale youth initiative that focuses on fostering harmony through sports — and the Pakistan launch event of Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), in which she focused on topics such as growth, teamwork and design thinking.

Ayesha likes to write and is also interested in the media industry; she wants to leverage these interests and skills to produce documentaries that focus on pertinent issues that impact society.

Haris Fudda

Haris’ energy drink is helping people in need, building communities, and doing good for the nation. He believes strongly in the idea that every individual is good; it’s just the mental state that needs cleansing every now and then, and he wishes to be the anchor of that boat.
Graduating from the Lahore University of Management Sciences in 2017 with a degree in Political Science, Haris worked at family textile business and helped set up a Dyeing Unit, after which he worked in the health sector, and later joined Carnelian. He is currently a client consultant and has worked extensively with Roche, Maersk, Matco, PSO, Al Karam, and many more. His areas of interest include team building, communication, sales excellence and coaching.
Haris’ vibrant nature, go-getter personality and willingness to learn everyday align perfectly with the Carnelian equation.
In his free time, Haris likes to meet people, spend time with family, read Urdu poetry, and explore different cities of Pakistan.