The Smartest Question You Can Ask

Are you asking it already?

I am obsessed with a certain question. I think you should be too.

The question is: What am I missing?

I started thinking this way when I was a newspaper reporter in my 20s. It was literally my job — to go into a situation, or investigate some matter, and be constantly alert to what was important but overlooked.

Eventually, however, this question started shaping other parts of my life. Some of this was positive: If a friend ghosted me, for example, I wouldn’t immediate think they’re a jerk. I’d ask, What am I missing?, and consider what else might be going on in their lives. And if someone made a claim that seemed strange but believable — say, some political something-or-other — I’d wonder, What am I missing?, and go learn the context behind it.

The question became my “dominant question” — a phrase I learned from the renowned brain coach Jim Kwik.

We all have a dominant question; it’s the question we constantly ask ourselves, and that becomes filtering mechanism for our lives. Jim advises that we identify it, and also be aware of how it benefits and holds us back. When I told Jim about mine, for example, he said it can help me be more thorough and analytical, but also lead me to a lot of FOMO. That’s totally true.

(For more on this, by the way, pick up my book: I devote a chapter to this subject.)

Recently, however, I came across another powerful use of my question. And it all began with a big, ugly mess on Twitter.

Here’s a tweet that went viral:

Cute, right? What a fun couple! Truly, my favorite part of weddings is when the couple bring their full, funny, playful lives into their vows.

But when people on Twitter read this tweet, they went crazy.

"The amount of utterly deranged responses from strangers accusing [her] sister of being abusive is astounding,” wrote Ryan Broderick on his Garbage Day newsletter, which is where I first heard about this. He highlighted one, by way of example: A wellness author tweeted that “no matter how much they love each other, these communication styles signal a short marriage.” To which Rosie Nguyen, the author of the tweet, replied, “you were not at the wedding also you don't know these people.”

What is happening here? Why do so many people see something, take it wildly out of context, and then make very large assumptions about other people’s lives and intentions? It’s an important question, because of course, this is not an isolated event on the internet. It happens all the time.

Ryan from Garbage Day has an interesting explanation:

I think there are two things happening here that have become so prevalent online that we don’t even really register how weird they are anymore: One, we assume that everything we are seeing in a piece of content is somehow representative of the entire situation. And, two, weirdly enough, we also think there must be more to the story than how it’s being portrayed and that if we dig into the piece of content deeper we can reveal that truth.

It's a compelling point, and you can see how these dual instincts can drive conspiracy theories, internet pile-ons, hate mail, and more. People assume they have all the information they need, and also that there is something hidden that requires exposing.

Now just imagine how much of this could be shortcut if people asked one simple question whenever they saw something curious or confusing.

Imagine if people asked — yes, you guessed it — my big question: What am I missing?

Does a tweet about some wedding vows confuse you? Well, what are you missing? Here are some things to start: You don’t know literally anything else about these people’s lives. You don’t even know what else they said during their vows. You don’t know if humor is a key part of their relationship. Start to list out everything you don’t know — everything you’re missing — and you start to see how impossibly foolish it is to render any kind of judgment from afar.

All of which is to say: The question What am I missing? leads us to greater understanding of each other, because it creates a moment of pause. It forces us to consider.

Now imagine applying this at work.

Sales are down — what are you missing about your customers?

Someone on your team is suddenly underperforming — what are you missing about their work, or life, or your own leadership?

You’re feeling stuck in your role — what are you missing about the opportunities around you, either in or out of your job?

Sure, this question isn’t perfect. It comes with downsides too. You can spend your life looking for what’s missing, instead of appreciating what’s not. But on the whole, I think it’s a good dominant question. It has served me well. And if something’s missing from your way of thinking, maybe this question is it.

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Cover Image: Unsplash / Pierre Bamin