Questions are keys that unlock new doors of connection and discovery.
I have been fascinated with questions for many years, both the internal questions we use to make decisions and the questions we ask others. Whether you are being interviewed for jobs, meeting clients for work, or just spending time with friends, a thoughtful question can move both sides toward a trusting relationship and concrete action.
Author Stuart Firestein wrote, “One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.” To live this type of generative, exploratory life, building a habit of asking questions is an important first step.
So how can we practice asking better questions in conversations? A genuine interest in the other person is key, but it doesn’t hurt to have a few questions up your sleeve. Here are a few of my favorites.
What are a few moments in your life have you felt most alive?
What is one way you want to grow over the next few months?
Who in your life do you most admire? Why?
Do you consider yourself a creative person? How do you express your creativity?
What little things have brought you joy recently?
What is a new skill you want to learn or topic that you want to study?
What advice would you give to your (insert age 5 or 10 years younger)-year-old self?
What does an ideal Saturday look like to you? What about an ideal work/school day?
If you had to start a company or organization of some type, what would you start?
What are some childhood moments that you remember clearly? What childhood events helped shape you into the person you are today?
These questions offer entryways to conversation, but no specific question is as powerful as a deep curiosity and excitement about the life of whoever you find in front of you.
As I approach the 60th episode of my Voices of Santa Clara podcast, I’ve realized that the best stories and insights often come from asking follow-up questions when a guest hints at a meaningful time in their life. What did you learn from that experience? How did that experience make you think differently moving forward? Why did you pursue that path? The greatest questions aren’t found on the list above, they come when you fully listen and ask about an insight the other person raises.
This type of conversation can help build stronger friendships, and start a mutually beneficial learning process. The asker learns about the other person, and the answerer can reflect and clarify their growth process and values. One hallmark of a great conversation is when someone hears themselves saying something they feel or believe, but have never clearly articulated before.
Which of your relationships could benefit from this type of questioning? What question have you been meaning to ask someone? What would you add to this list?
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” - Soren Kierkegaard
I love solving problems. So much, in fact, that I want to devote my career to problem-solving for companies. Whether I end up pursuing consulting, design, analytics, entrepreneurship, or some combination, I will essentially be spending my waking hours discovering and fixing problems. And I wouldn’t want it any other way – problem solving is deeply intertwined with creativity and purpose. My brain craves a central motivating challenge to occupy my thoughts as I go through the world.
But I wonder if my focus on problems will ever detract from my presence in everyday encounters. How can I “live in the moment” while studying the past to create the future? If there is always a new problem to solve, will I ever be able to rest in a sense of enough? That I’ve done enough, contributed enough? That I am not a problem to be solved?
This past fall while studying abroad in Bologna, Italy, I loved the variety and freshness of every city I visited. However, while taking easier classes and removed from my rhythm of busyness at Santa Clara University, I struggled to find a problem to solve! I looked left and right. Should I be thinking about next summer? Personal branding? Creating a website? Learning a new skill? Sure, I could enjoy walks around Bologna’s ancient cobblestone streets, practicing my Italian, eating pasta again, but those activities felt a bit empty after a few months.
Ultimately, I think the answer is not a 50-50 balance of “solving” and “being,” but a full fusion of the two each day. I can begin the day rooted in my identity, open to serendipity and seeking to listen to others. Problem-solving can become what I love to do, not who I am. And prioritizing presence with people, be they coworkers, clients or friends, can lead me to new ideas in my work.
I may never fully be able to separate problem-solving and presence. But I can continue to learn that although I want to spend much of my life creating solutions that move the world forward, my life is not a problem. I am not in a state of failure until I meet my ever-expanding goals. My life is much more like a day in a theme park – endless options, sometimes tiring, lots of mundane lines, a few roller-coasters, and ultimately about the people I experience it with.
And just like that I’m back! Dad picked me up in the airport and we headed into the valley, fueled by a nostalgic Panera salad. I semi-successfully countered the effects of jet-lag, so I could appreciate the heavy wafts of cow air encircling the car.
Upon arriving back home, I found my town, my house, my room all pretty much the same as I left them. After living out of a suitcase for the past two months, I was shocked by the amount of clothes, empty boxes and random plastic things stored away in my room. I’ve resolved to collect nothing except books and experiences (which I think are pretty similar), so I have some cleaning to do.
The past week of traveling in Germany and Norway definitely helped my transition home. Arriving in Davis same day as waking up in Bologna might have been more shock than I could handle. The space and time between the two cities has added to the mystical fog that now encircles Bologna. Was I really just there? Was all this real?
But you didn’t come here for confusing contradictions or existential rambling. You want some something simple and profound. What did I learn? Here are 3 things.
Find the Inside Connections
Many of the most memorable experiences of my time abroad came from local immersive experiences that I wouldn’t have gotten from being a normal tourist. Eating dinner with an Italian family, making a documentary about a local organization, spending time with Italian students, and the day at a farm in the Tuscan hills were all possible bemuse of friends and program connections.
Even when visiting a city for just a few days, having a local friend or guide show you around can make all the difference between aimless wandering (important but gets old fast) and experiencing the true soul of a city.
Balance the Present and Future
Despite the magic of my months in Bologna, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Though I did just barely enough studying to justify the title “studying abroad,” endless travel doesn’t mesh well with my internal drive to be productive. And it can be tiring! As my friend Ashley wrote, “Travel is not inherently fulfilling.” Much can be learned from simply strolling around a new place, but after 20 European cities, properly appreciating each new one can become difficult.
Preparations for internship applications, my English as a Foreign Language program internship, and the documentary film project (watch it here) all provided some opportunities for creativity, but I often felt like I needed a meaningful project to work on. Perhaps later in my life I can get the best of both worlds: working part-time remotely from new countries as I travel. But I certainly have no regrets, because I learned about myself. I can survive pillows of all shapes and sizes, half-marathon walking days and even long plane rides, but I do best with creative challenges to let my mind solve in the background.
Appreciate the walks
I averaged about 16,000 steps a day (7 miles), with some days crossing the 16-mile threshold. Some of the fondest memories of Bologna were formed just walking into the city center and back. I watched trees change colors alongside the winding streets lined with orange buildings. Around seemingly every corner, another alleyway, restaurant or shop beckoned. In new cities, I walked even more, from one attraction to the next. Walking serves another purpose as well: it helps me think. The walks to and from, coming and leaving, were in many ways just as important and memorable as the destinations.
So that’s it, dear reader. Thanks for following along in my journey. Travel is pretty cool, so maybe drive to a new place next weekend, or find somewhere new in your town.
Finally, here is my 1-Second video of my adventures.
I’ve had my fair share of missed appointments, awkward pauses and microphone failures, but I’m proud of how far the show has come, from just my family tuning in, to over 1,200 listens and dozens of summarized transcript articles published in The Santa Clara student newspaper. Through exploring the travels, career paths and origin stories of many incredible people and innovative ideas, I have noticed a few patterns in the answers of my guests.
1. Good ideas and forward progress come from collaboration across disciplines
One of the goals of my podcast since the beginning has been to connect the different academic departments at Santa Clara through sharing ideas and putting the spotlight on students and professors doing great work. Santa Clara provides many opportunities to collaborate across disciplines through events, research showcases and on-campus centers. However, each academic department and set of professors and students still occupy their own intellectual and physical niches around campus.
How could I break down these barriers and share ideas from all corners of the school? I knew I would need to find a diverse array of guests. So far, professors interviewed on the show have represented finance, child studies, history, computer science, psychology, management, English, communications, theater, art, religion and physics. In upcoming months, I’ll be able to add economics, civil engineering, and entrepreneurship to that list. The students and staff I’ve interviewed have come from equally dispersed areas of campus. I was fascinated to find that across the guests I interviewed, common themes emerged of compassion, personal discovery and embracing scary opportunities.
Although colleges are particularly vibrant idea ecosystems, anyone can get access to the power of cross-disciplinary thinking by reading about an intriguing topic, picking up a new hobby or talking with interesting people. As art history professor Kathleen Maxwell put it, “We tend to pigeonhole ourselves by disciplinary clichés that are quite meaningless. Life is much more interesting on the borders and the boundaries between disciplines.”
Life is much more interesting on the borders and the boundaries between disciplines.
2. Say yes to travel
While exploring the pivotal moments that shaped students and professors into the people they are today, travel experiences constantly came up in conversation.
Ignatian Center Director Father Dorian Llywelyn spent two years in the Peace Corps in rural Egypt, then four more in Indonesia. He said that, “living in places of economic disadvantage really shaped how I look at the world,” and that his experience in Indonesia “made me aware of cultural issues, and what it means to be an immigrant in a culture.” Today Father Llywelyn promotes opportunities for students to take immersion trips in locations from San Jose to India to, “burst the Santa Clara bubble and get out into different realities.”
Recently-graduated class valedictorian Athena Nguyen spent a summer in Myanmar as a part of the Global Social Benefit Fellowship through Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship. She said the experience, “altered how I view myself as a leader and advocate for others. I would love to work for an organization that has social impact, and the people that I met in Myanmar constantly inspire me.” Like several of the other graduating seniors I interviewed, Nguyen will continue to serve and travel after college, teaching English in Vietnam on a Fulbright Fellowship.
The type of travel experiences that transformed the lives of my guests weren’t weekend vacations to Hawaii. Immersion in the local culture, community involvement and space for relationship and reflection were common threads among guests' influential journeys.
3. Listen to the stories of others
One of the shorter questions I like to ask at the end of each interview makes even the most talkative guests pause and think: “If you could send a message to every person in the United States, what would you say?”
Santa Clara President Father Engh echoed a similar theme to many other guests, saying, “Listen to other people with different opinions. Listen with the ears of the heart. Listen to the burdens other people carry to understand what they’re struggling with, then reflect as to how best to live.”
We don’t learn from talking, we learn from listening. Starting with a question rather than an opinion can get you to the human story at the center of every issue or idea.
As history professor and pro discussion facilitator Naomi Andrews told me, “We don’t all agree, and we don’t need to agree. Exposing our disagreements is a very productive way to learn something about our own assumptions. Our friendships and relationships get better if we dig into differences.”
After a year of high school AP Physics, I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between physics and design thinking. One of my favorite ways to get inspired is to connect seemingly unrelated ideas, so I’ve compiled a list of physics topics and applied them to the design thinking process. Enjoy!
Without friction, you wouldn’t even be able to walk across the room, much less drive a car or ride a bike. However, too much friction can make it difficult to move. Similarly, constraints are incredibly useful when developing ideas. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, more narrow questions often yield a greater number and range of ideas than wide-open questions. It is important to find the right balance of constraints in order to encourage but not limit ideas.
2. Potential and Kinetic Energy
Stationary objects high off the ground have lots of potential gravitational energy, but no motion, or kinetic energy. After a brainstorm, you may have dozens and dozens of ideas floating around. These ideas have enormous potential, but right now, they are just potential. You need to convert this energy into kinetic energy by giving the ideas velocity and turning them into actionable prototypes. The transition from ideas to concrete prototypes is one of the most difficult and vital parts of the design thinking process.
When two objects collide and stick together, it is called an inelastic collision. If the objects were moving in similar directions, they will now move together with even more speed than either had by itself before the collision. Similarly, sharing and mixing ideas can give them even more speed and potential for impact than they ever could have achieved alone. Calling ideas “new” is a bit misleading; all ideas are really just collisions between past experience and previous ideas.
The amount of inertia an object has depends on its mass. The more massive the object, the harder it is to get it to change speeds or move in a new direction. This idea has manifested itself in our modern society as small and agile start-ups have overtaken large and bureaucratic organizations. When prototyping an idea, it is crucial to start small and get feedback in the real world before you go big.
5. Rotational Motion
Circles and cycles play a big part in design thinking; you could argue that the whole process is one big cycle. More specifically, the cycle of prototyping, testing and learning is necessary to validate your ideas. At any point along its path, an object moving in a circle has velocity pointing straight ahead, but has acceleration pointing towards the center of the circle. When designing, it is important to constantly be pivoting, moving and learning, all while keeping the center goal and purpose at the forefront of your decisions.
6. Torque and Equilibrium
An object in equilibrium must be feeling equal torque, which is a combination of a force and a distance from a pivot point. Equilibrium, or balance, is critical to many stages of the design thinking process. It is important for design researchers to consider both human stories and larger data trends. It is important for new products to balance ergonomics, price and usefulness. Another interesting note is that forces applied far away from the pivot point have more torque than forces applied close to the pivot point. Backing away from a problem can often accomplish more than zooming in.
Convergent and divergent lenses have the ability to either spread light out or bring it together. Similarly, both convergent and divergent thinking are necessary during different stages of the design thinking process. Divergent thinking is used during brainstorming, when teams think of as many ideas as possible and pull inspiration from a wide range of places. In the implementation phase, it is necessary to narrow down all of these ideas and converge on one concept to implement.
8. Phase Change
When a block of ice melts into liquid, then evaporates into steam, the temperature doesn’t increase at a constant rate. Instead, there are long periods where energy is put into the material, but no temperature change is achieved. During these phases, the energy is helping to break down bonds within atoms- a crucial but invisible process. The design thinking process is hardly linear, and long periods where seemingly nothing is accomplished are inevitable. Progress isn’t always visible, and important parts of the process may be long and tedious. However, once you put in enough energy, your ice block will be ready for the next phase.
When a wave, like sound or water, encounters a new medium, it changes direction based on the shape and material of that new medium. Similarly, when new ideas are implemented in the real world, they may behave very differently than previously hoped or expected. This often ends up turning out for the better, but it reinforces the importance of testing ideas in a range of environments.
10. Pascal’s Principle
French philosopher Blaise Pascal realized that the pressure (force per unit of area) applied to a confined fluid increases the pressure throughout the fluid by the same amount. This implies a very interesting thing: small inputs can yield big outputs. It’s possible for a small downward force on one end of a pressurized tube to generate enough pressure to lift a whole car on the other end. Sometimes small changes in products or services can make huge differences in the lives of the users of these ideas. It can be tempting to believe that design thinking should always produce radically new and different ideas, but sometimes this isn’t what is really needed.
11. Opposite Charges Attract
In most areas of our lives, we naturally congregate with people that have similar looks, interests and passions as ours. However, in the design process, teams with diverse backgrounds and skills can be crucial to developing a wide range of ideas. Individually, we can take a lesson from every atom in our body and make an effort to seek out inspiration and skills from unfamiliar places.
12. Magnetic Fields
Magnetic fields are weird. First off, a charged particle in a magnetic field won’t even feel the field around it unless it moves. When it does move, the particle will feel a force that is perpendicular to its motion, not in the direction of the field. It can be tempting to sit still with ideas, fearful of the way they will be directed by the world. Testing ideas can be uncomfortable and unexpected, but it is ultimately the only way to make progress.
13. Wave-Particle Duality
Light has properties of both a particle and wave, a phenomena that should be impossible. Just because two conflicting ideas seem impossible to convene, doesn’t mean they are doomed to be separate. More work and less time? More human-centered and with more technology? It can be done. Embrace the “and.”