“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” – Eugene Ionesco
One of my mentors has a way with asking simple, but profound questions. He asks the kinds of questions that cut through the fog of ambiguity to reveal a crystal of clarity.
He has a way of challenging me and inspiring me to realize my potential and to change the world.
And it all started from three simple questions:
- How will the world be different when you are done?
- Who is the dream team you need to make it happen?
- What is the information model?
These questions seem simple enough, right?
And yet, they really are profound.
When he asked me these questions early on in my career, they were actually frustrating because they are far from trivial to answer well.
And that’s why they were my greatest growth.
Now, I find myself drawing from these three questions, whenever I want to change the world (for real). I challenge myself with these three questions automatically, and they help me set a higher bar whenever I set out to make a difference in the world.
Let’s take a look at each question in more detail…
Question #1: How Will the World Be Different When You’re Done?
Whenever I pitched an idea, the first question my mentor would ask is:
“How will the world be different when you are done?”
This was his quick way of testing whether the idea was worth it.
He needed to see that I had passion, clarity, and focus, and a good idea about what a better future might look like.
This forced me to really practice articulating how we could change the world.
It’s one thing to have an idea.
It’s another to really be able to step into the future and paint a vivid picture of how you will change the world. And, even if you can see it in your own mind, the real key is to be able to tell and sell your vision in a way that others can see it too.
In one example I remember, I pitched an idea for a security book. I wanted to create a book that could help the world create more secure Web servers. But I didn’t want this to be like any book I saw before. I wanted this book to be as if you had a room of the world’s best security experts all helping you walk through how to secure your Web server. I wanted this to be the book that helped you stand on the shoulders of the world’s security giants.
I wanted it to be deeper and more profound than any single person could be on the topic. I wanted this book to share and scale the wisdom, the insights, and the inner thinking, these experts all have. And I wanted to share and scale the same actionable steps these experts would take as if it was their own Web server. I wanted to build a profound library of insights and actions that would change how we think about, how we talk about, and how we do security.
And it all started from that simple question: “How will the world be different when you are done?”
Well, the answer is, the world would have the collective expertise at their fingertips to be able to secure a Web server as if a team of the world’s best experts were at their side.
Question #2: Who is the Dream Team You Need to Make it Happen?
They say it takes a village to raise a child. And they say it takes teamwork to make the dream work.
Well, it’s true.
So the second question my mentor would ask is:
“Who is the dream team you need to make it happen?”
He didn’t ask, who is available to work on this.
He didn’t ask, how many resources do you need.
He wanted to know, if I knew, who are the best people in the best in the world, that would stack this project for success.
He wanted to know if I did my homework to look inside and outside the company to figure out who the game changers are, that would be able to help transform the world, in a novel or compelling way.
The big surprise here is, he would actually help me try to acquire the dream team. While we could not always get everybody we wanted, we sure came close.
This actually reminds me of Peter Drucker’s approach. Drucker would first always ask, “What’s the right thing do do?” Too many business leaders would just jump to what they thought they could do, or what they thought was feasible or reasonable. Drucker always wanted to first create a firm understanding around what the right thing to do is. Then, from there, he would hack it down to what’s possible, but at least it’s aimed in the right direction.
As you can imagine, this question about who is the dream team you need forced me to build crazy networks of experts, and to really appreciate the expertise and thought leadership of countless people.
I learned to suss out expertise by asking different kinds of questions that really get to the essence of a given subject or domain.
It forced me to really understand what makes an expert an expert, versus just another practitioner in the space. How do they think differently? What kinds of questions do they ask? What do they know that others don’t? What models and methods do they use that save them time, help them do a better job, and leaner deeper?
I also learned a funny thing about seeing the future. I found that one of the best ways to figure out the future is to know who the best authors are. In any given domain or topic, there is always a handful of futurists that are good at writing down their thoughts on how the future will evolve. And, while they may not always be right, they are informed and well-versed, so their ideas are rooted in reality.
They can at least help us explore the art of the possible.
Another interesting thing I learned is that experts are often amazing simplifiers. Simplicity is hard work. It’s this simplicity that helps them cross chasms that leave other people behind, or stuck wondering what’s on the other side of the wall that they can’t seem to get over.
Question #3: What is the Information Model?
This was the toughest for me, and yet led to my greatest growth. My mentor likes to understand how we will move the ball forward.
To move the ball forward, we need a simple way to look at the game we are playing. Together.
So the third question he would ask me is:
“What is the information model?”
An information model is simply the representation of the concepts and relationships for a given space. An information model is just like how it sounds. It is the model of how you represent the information.
We all have information models in our minds how we represent things we do and topics we think about. Some information models are better than others.
For example, an expert skier’s information model of the slopes is far deeper and more vast than the novice.
An information model can unlock the keys to profound knowledge or create competitive advantage. In today’s world, what you don’t know can hurt you. If you have a better information model, you can see things that others can’t, or take action that others don’t even know is possible.
Even better, an effective information model helps you simplify and share profound knowledge. You can learn by leaps and bounds, and you can advance the art and science for a given topic.
Effective information models can help you chunk up knowledge into actionable parts that you can deal with in better ways.
Have you heard of Charlie Munger? He’s right-hand person to Warren Buffet. General perception is that he’s wicket smart. His response is that he just has a lot more mental models than other people (something like 90+ models).
Because he has so many models, no matter what somebody throws at him, he can instantly make sense of it, organize it, pivot on it, and evaluate what’s important. With all of his thinking frameworks, he accelerates his ability to grok a space at light speed.
I’ve used information models to build better books, create frameworks for the world, create better Web sites, learn things faster, help win competitive software platform studies, and create learning frameworks that leapfrog into the future. And, my patents are actually based on deep information models for revealing, reveling, reasoning, and revolutionizing a given space.
Attempting to Change the World, Changes Your World
I never really realized how much these simple questions helped me to focus on the future more, and to be able to lead with vision.
And it was only recently that I realized that these questions really set the stage to help me go after any domain and hack it down to size.
And it was only recently I realized how it was the practice of these questions that helped me to hone in on people’s super skills and see how to form dream teams that change the world.
But here is the real beauty of these three questions:
Whether you change the world or not, you change yourself in the process.
And that change, my friend, that I speak of, is your greatest growth. Your personal growth is the by product of the pursuit of your dreams.
Whether you inspire yourself with bold ambitions or personal victories, you will shape yourself the most, by the questions you start with.
These three questions have certainly shaped me.
“Be the change you want to see in the world”, but start with, “How will the world be different when you are done?”