Asking The Right Questions

Yesterday felt like an avalanche.

All started seemingly well — I pulled out my blue notebook where I record notes about team members’ time on different projects so I can make sure everyone is properly paid and got to work on payroll. And then I tumbled down the rabbit hole…

Payroll lead to the discovery that some team members weren’t tracking time properly, which lead to the discovery that some team members were neglecting key tasks for their positions. That means loss for my company overall in different ways.

There’s two things that happen in situations like these, because they’ve come up for me in business before and they’re bound to come up again.

First, I give myself some space to feel my emotions — the anger, the upset, the disappointment, the frustration, the loss, the confusion. My emotions tell me something is wrong, so I watch them, listen to them, ask them to teach me.

Second, I look at all sides of the situation. If balls were dropped by someone else, what needs to happen to ensure that doesn’t happen again? If something was unclear, how can I make it more clear? What has to change to make things better for the future?

(Third step usually involves chocolate because those emotional remnants linger!)

It’s not about blame, it’s not about someone being wrong and someone being right. It’s a flaw that needs to be fixed.

That doesn’t mean a warning shouldn’t be issued to a team member; that is necessary at times. But I’ve inevitably found that good people rarely fail on their own when it comes to business — there are situations and circumstances that lead them down the wrong path. Maybe it’s a missed message or a question that was never asked.

Yesterday’s events made me realize that I’ve been asking the wrong questions of my team members. Usually in a projects update meeting, we review the stages each project we’re working on is at. Instead, I need to ask not “Where are we?” but “Why are we there? What’s important for me to know?”

And even more importantly, it’s time to clearly define what a successful project looks like from all angles.

I think it will all start by asking better questions, digging deep to find “Why” rather than just “What”.

There’s a tool my first business coach Christine Kane gave to me and fellow masterminders during a retreat. It’s called the 5 Why’s.

You start with the problem. Take, for example, something like a project budget not being recorded properly.

Ask: “Why?” Wait for the response.

Then go deeper and ask “Why?” again.

And again, until your five Why’s deep. There, likely, is the true problem that needs to be solved.

Planning for an Uncertain Future

One of my closest friends (and business partner) recently shared her 5-year plan with me. It wasn’t anything wildly specific, but she did note her desire to move back to the East Coast, to spend a year living abroad, to support her husband as he grows his business.

She inspired me to create my own list. But when I sat down to write, I was stuck: how do I create any sort of plan when the future is so uncertain?

An example: One of the big items on my list is to own a home, which ideally would not be in New Jersey. Not that I don’t love where I grew up in many ways; it’s simply too expensive to own a home here, especially when I want acres of land. I have my sights set on Pennsylvania or North Carolina (or whatever other possibilities pop up). But in many ways, I’m currently tied to New Jersey at the moment: my mother’s health has been poor over the last year and she’s been in the hospital multiple times, and my brother just had a baby (they live in Hoboken).

In many ways, while I can create a rough vision for my future, I can’t be as specific or detailed as I would like to be. I can’t plan the exact timing or location.

All I can do is be clear on what I want and how I want to feel. I can know what’s on my checklist to help me ensure all my needs are met, and I can take little steps towards the vision I create.

Map one feel, one vision at a time and toss it to the sky…

The Beauty of Failure

I caught up with a good friend from high school last night. We spoke on the phone for almost 2 hours, chatting about everything from Black Panther and Marvel movies to education in America to business.

She and her husband are trying to have children, and she admitted that she’s not sure what to do about education when she gets there.

We were lucky enough to grow up in a community where education was important. Our high school was ranked one of the top in the state, and we were both good students, pushing ourselves in classes. I sat behind her in Calculus, where we both discovered that not only were we good at math, but that solving problems and puzzles was fun. I carried that into my post-secondary school education and eventually ended up minoring in mathematics twice.

But there’s something I didn’t learn in school, that I had to learn in life, which I think is one of the most beneficial lessons we can learn: how valuable failure is.

Failure and mistakes can often be our greatest teachers. We don’t set out on an endeavor or project to see what can go wrong, but it happens in the process sometimes. We persist despite mistakes and we use what we learn to transform how things are done.

But in school, it’s all about getting the answer “right”.

I had few classes where we could truly experiment and make mistakes. There was always a formula, an expectation, a way to do it to yield the intended result.

Business and life are much messier than that. We try what we think is best. Sometimes it does work and sometimes not.

I was one of those kids that graduated high school with a 4.2 GPA, thanks to lots of As and honors and AP classes. But school turned me into a perfectionist, with my identity so crucially connected to getting it “right”. I kept myself in academia for years, because it reinforced this identity.

It took business to teach me the beauty of failure and to embrace all the mistakes next to everything that does work well. My team and I can refine thanks to mistakes, we make it better, we put more systems and processes into place to prevent a mistake from happening twice. We improve it for everyone.

And that attitude is what has allowed me to try new things, be open to new experiences, to adventure into the unexpected and know that whatever I encounter will help me grow.

Over the weekend, my boyfriend and I went on a hike. At one point, I faceplanted onto the trail, thanks to a tree root that my foot caught. Epic fail. And an epically good reminder to pay attention, be in the moment, and watch the trail for little things that could trip me up.

STEM: Adding a silent P

High school for me was defined by two things: time spent discovering I rather excelled at physics and mathematics (and genetics too) and time acting and singing onstage. When it came time to apply to colleges and universities, I had trouble choosing between my love for the arts and the wonder I felt in science and math classes. In the end, I tossed out a bunch of applications for both and landed at New York University where I began my post-secondary school career as a theatre and physics major.

Now neither stuck for very long. I ended up graduating with a BFA in Theatre, with minors in Physics and Mathematics, before enrolling in Rutgers University for Religion, Philosophy, and (of course) Physics.

So why return to Physics again?

I was looking for something: a way to make the world a better place. Despite the freedom of being able to be different characters in different plays, theatre felt so constricting to me. The business side of it was a challenge and the plays I loved most were the ones rarely produced.

The Arts — theatre, music, painting, and beyond — have so many reasons for being. But as a naive 20-something who wanted to find some way to make a difference, I struggled between the Arts as societal and political commentary and the Arts as entertainment. The best Art, I believed, told us a story that simultaneously entertained us and made us question our lives or the world around us.

And so, down an unexpected path I went, eventually settling on Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Physics as specialities. These were new perspectives on science for me, ones that went beyond equations to look at how we draw distinctions between living and non-living things, between observer and experiment, between different spheres of our lives that influence what and how we believe.

There’s been a lot of talk about whether STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) should rather be STEAM (add in the Arts), but what I want to proposed is that either is still missing a crucial component: the silent P out front, for Philosophy. Because while the STEM fields do require artistic insight and the Arts are made richer because of STEM advancements, if we’re not asking Why, if we’re not seeking to understand what we create at all angles, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

Technology and scientific breakthroughs address immediate problems, but are part of a bigger picture. We can no longer create in isolation, focusing solely on what small problem we’re trying to solve. We need to think about bigger implications, we need to think about long-term impact – on humans, on our society, on other creatures, on the environment.

We need big picture thinkers who can stand both inside and outside the real of creation to engage with it as well as to question it.

And the reality is we may not have answers to the questions we ask, but at least we’ll be asking questions and challenging ourselves to think differently.

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Jane Reaction

(logo and original branding) is a graphic design and art director who works with with small businesses and creative entrepreneurs, creating cohesive and interesting brands and websites.

Carrie Coleman

(photography) is a wedding photographer, whose goal is to capture the visual expression of a couple's love through timeless, organic images. She is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.