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Hello, listeners, welcome to the Furnham Street podcast called The Knowledge Project.
I'm your host, Shane Parrish, the curator behind the Farnam Street blog, which is an online community focused on mastering the best of what other people have already figured out.
The knowledge project is where we talk with interesting people to uncover frameworks you can use to learn more and less time, make better decisions and live a happier, more meaningful life. On this episode, I have Warren Burger, author of the book A Beautiful Question.
I was so curious to talk to Warren because I wanted to learn how we can ask better question. After all, questions enable us to innovate, solve problems and progress. They allow us to gain perspective, come at things from a different angle and hone in on the variables that really matter. To get the best outcomes, you need to start with the best possible questions. And yet, in reality, questions can be dangerous. A lot of leaders see questions as inefficient.
These leaders think that questions slow them down. And in some organizations, asking a question can even come with a career risk.
And yet improving outcomes is so often tied to asking the right questions, the questions that challenge the conventional wisdom, the questions that challenge our assumptions, the questions that allow you to see something in a new life far from slowing you down. These questions propel you forward. Questioning isn't really taught.
It's not something we learn how to do. We just do it. And because we do it without being conscious about how we're doing it, we never really get better at it. We don't have a question, Coach. And as we'll explore, asking great, great questions is as much ah as it is science. In this conversation, Warren and I explore not only asking better questions, but also overcoming failure. Common advice he thinks is wrong and in small habits that make a big difference.
Let's dig in.
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Warren, I've been looking forward to this conversation for a long time. I'm so glad to have you on the show. Thank you. It's great to be here in your career. You've gone from writing about business generally to writing about advertising and design and finally towards writing about inquiry or questions.
How did this progression in your career and your professional interests come about over the years?
You know, I think it was really just following my interests. Well, I guess in terms of originally, it was probably practicality. I started out as a business journalist because I don't know, it seemed like that's where the work was. And and then within the business journalism world, I tried to I gravitated towards things I found interesting. And so I started to go towards the creative side of business. And that got me really into deeply into the world of marketing and advertising and how creativity is used in the advertising world.
And that was a big kind of obsession of mine for a long time. And then from creativity and advertising, I started to move into design because I noticed a lot of interesting things were being done by designers. They seemed to be sort of within the creative world. Design was becoming more and more important in the business world. So so I started to talk about design and then the the leap from design to questioning was really just because as I started to analyse design and design thinking, I kept coming back to questioning.
It always seemed like questioning was at the center of everything. It was it was it was how designers tended to think and how they how they solve problems and how they framed a challenge. So so I just kept noticing that questioning was such a central issue and I felt like it hadn't been talked about. It certainly has been talked about in limited ways. You know, you see a lot of books that have a chapter on questioning or you see a lot of articles written about the importance of questioning.
But I couldn't find a book that had really gone into it the way I thought it deserved. So so I did. And that led to a more beautiful question. And now I'm kind of hooked on it. I think I'll be you know, I'm calling myself a question ologist and I just feel like, okay, with this, I'm going to stay with this subject for a while. I think I'm finishing up my second book on it now. And, you know, there's just so much to do within that subject.
I really want to talk a lot about questioning and we're going to get into we're going to kick out on that a little bit. But I want to go back to something that you said earlier, which is you were a freelance business journalist.
And I was wondering, what do you think of the state of freelance journalism today?
Well, I think it's a very mixed, mixed bag. I think in some ways you have more opportunity than ever before because there are so many outlets. I also think you can if you're a self promoter, which I'm not really, but if you have a little bit of self promoting capability, there are ways to promote yourself as a freelance writer now that you never, ever had before, using social media, using blogs, using podcasts. I mean, you can really get yourself out there and get your name and your brand as a freelance journalist out there in a way that, you know, in my early years of my career, it was just you just there was no possibility of doing that.
The only way you got your name out there was your byline. That was it.
You can go right to the customer now. Yeah, exactly.
Like getting your name out to to readers, but also to potential outlets, clients, people that might hire you to write. So I think that's all changed and that is a huge change for the better, just the ability to to get yourself out there. What has changed for the worse is, I think, a devaluing of the content, because it's so easy to get yourself out there because there are so many outlets. It feels to me like, you know, the content is often seen as not being worth as much as it was years ago.
You still have some magazines that are hanging in there and and paying well for for content. But, you know, more and more, you know, we're moving into this digital realm where the the pay scale is totally different and and the valuation of your writing is just completely different. And I guess it has to be I guess that's the way the economics work. But but, you know, that has definitely been a a negative. Side of all of this, with all of this information out there, I'm curious how you personally filter and read and consume not only journalism, but more in-depth research and articles and books?
Yeah, I tend to have a very haphazard consumption of media. I have I have certain blogs that I follow pretty closely. And then from there I just kind of bounce all over the place. And I have certain print publications. I still I still read regularly The Times, The New Yorker, things like that. But I'd say my media consumption is is is kind of all over the place. And I feel like there's there's so much media out there now that I feel like it's dangerous.
I just feel like, you know, one of the things I'm talking about in my newer book is, is creativity and how you can use questioning to spark your own creativity. But to me, one of the biggest issues confronting or putting a damper on creativity now is all of the stuff that's coming at us all the time. And I think to me, that's it's an enemy of creativity. Know it can at times inspire creativity because you can come across something that triggers a thought or an idea, and that's really good.
But more often what it's doing is putting you into react mode. You're just taking stuff in and and just reacting. And I think that makes it harder to shift into create mode, which to me is a whole different thing. When you're in create mode, you really have to put everything else aside. And it's not about taking in stuff anymore, it's about output. And and I really think that there's a there's a problem right now. And I know I have it firsthand.
I have it myself pretty badly. But I think a lot of people do of just not being able to get away from the the constant stimulation of of incoming incoming stuff. Tell me a little bit more about that.
You had two paradigms there. Create mood and kind of react mood. Are there other moods to you and to them? Do you have a routine around them? How do you think about that?
Yeah, what I do is I now try to separate my day into an online portion of the day and an offline portion because I found I can't do I just find the online part of my day just takes over and it will dictate my behavior in ways that I can't even control. So so what I have to do now is I will spend, let's say, the morning dealing with lots of Internet searches, lots of catching up on stuff, responding to email, communicating with people, maybe doing some interviews, things of that nature.
And then I try to create a block of four hours, five hours where I am actually cut off. I have no Internet contact and I do it in an office where I, I don't have Internet connection there. And and so I have decided it's like a cave. I've created a cave for myself and that's what I've been doing for the past six or seven years in various different locations. But I always try to have a cave that I can go to and I feel like it's, you know, it's the only thing that that works for me because once I go into the cave, then I'm no longer looking things up or or bouncing around from one block to another.
Now I am I have no choice but to actually create something because otherwise there's nothing to do. You're focused. So so that's that seems to work for me.
That strikes me as a little bit counterintuitive. Can you talk to me about why react mode would be in the morning and not the other way around?
That's just the way I've done it. I think probably to be honest. I think you'd be better off flipping that because a lot of people are more creative in the morning. And and also, you know, there's that whole thing about the waking dream, the idea that when you've been sleeping, your your mind has been making a lot of your subconscious has been making a lot of connections and there's been a lot of interesting stuff going on. And so some people feel has never really worked for me that much.
But but some people feel that if you can kind of rise out of bed and just go straight to your creative workspace and start writing or creating, you will be able to tap into some of that nightime creativity. And so. So I would I would think it would be perfectly fine to do your your creative block in the morning, in fact, it might even be advisable. I think, really people have to figure out for themselves what their creative peak time is.
It's probably different for different people. You know, it probably depends on your biorhythms or something. But I think in the morning I'm a little slower and I feel like that's a good time for me to be doing the Internet stuff and just kind of catching up. And then I kind of build up to that afternoon period where I just go and that's when I'm going to work on basically until I burn out. And and that's and that's the end of my work.
I think that's fascinating. I mean, I think the important thing is we all come up with our own routines that work for us individually. There's no prescription what works for everybody and adapts to the context of their lives.
Yeah, I think that's it. And maybe there are some people that can work while they're connected. It's possible. You know, I'm sort of with an older generation, so I may not have that split attention span thing or whatever, but but I find that in my case, it doesn't matter what time you do it or when you do it. But I think this idea of creating uninterrupted blocks is is really is really interesting. I saw I heard an interesting I came across an interesting quote from it was written by the guy up in Silicon Valley.
His name is Paul Graham program. Yeah, well, I don't know him. I know who he is.
Yeah, he's he's with the incubator company out there, a startup incubator. But he also writes a lot about he writes essays about creativity and stuff. And he had an interesting thing about how people are either on a a manager's schedule or a creator's schedule. Yeah. And, you know, and then when you're on the manager's schedule, you're scheduling everything hour by hour. And it's it's all like meetings. And and I'm going to do this for an hour and then I'm going to do this for an hour and this for an hour.
And then the other type of schedule is where you create these big blocks and you just try to arrange your schedule so that at some point in the day you have a large block that is uninterrupted and it's got no meetings, it's got no phone calls, it's got no nothing. And and that I subscribe to that theory. I really think we need to create those blocks somewhere in our day and then really stick to them like don't don't get up and leave if if in the first hour you're having trouble because you have to sort of commit to the three hours or four hours.
And if you do that a lot of times midway through the three hour block, all of a sudden things will start flowing. At least that's the way it is for me.
When you lose your focus, how do you how do you get it back? What do you do? What's your habit or your routine or questions you ask yourself?
Or I may just get up and walk around a bit. I find walking helps a lot, but I try not to allow myself to stray too far, you know, like, I'll give myself a maybe a short break, but then I'm committed to coming back to my chair and and taking another crack at whatever I'm working on because I just find that it's so easy to give up. It's so easy to feel like, oh, it's just not flowing today.
I just don't have the I don't have the right vibe today, so I should just pack it in. And I've just seen so many instances where I have that feeling. And if I can get past it, if I can get past that that hour, that difficult hour, then all of a sudden things will start, things will start clicking. So but it's really hard to get through that hour because everything in you is telling you it's not going to work.
You don't have it today. You might as well just pack it in. And it's really hard to get past that that tough period I found.
One of the things that most people have to deal with is saying no. So they just don't get over well. I mean, their default seems predisposed to say yes to things.
Yeah, absolutely. How do you end up saying no to people? How do you weigh opportunities?
That's a hard thing for me, because I always feel like everything I look at, everything is an opportunity. That's just my mindset. So like every person that comes to me and says, Oh, I'd like to talk to you or I'd like to do this or that, I always, like, think, oh, that's interesting that that could be a good opportunity. So I got my yeah. My default position is definitely to say yes. And what I what I've tried to do is to say, OK, I will I will at least create this sacred time bloks.
And what I'll say is, I'm not going to do anything after, let's say, two o'clock, three o'clock in the afternoon, because I know that from two to seven or whatever, three to seven, that's a sacred block. And so so at least I say no. In terms of that kind of stuff, I will keep that block fairly uninterrupted. But I do say yes to a lot of stuff otherwise. And so I'm saying yes to a lot of stuff in the morning and in the other parts of the day.
So I'm probably not a good person to ask about that because I don't think I have a huge amount of discipline when it comes to saying no.
Well, that's interesting in and of itself. When you say yes to something and you feel regret. What are those opportunities like that you are like, man, I shouldn't have said yes to that. Is there any consistency to them or do they have any traits that they share?
I think a lot of times it has to do with saying yes to like I don't usually regret saying yes to say an interview or something like that because it doesn't take that long. What I have regretted saying yes to is going somewhere or an event or and a lot of times it's because the event, as it's being described to me, is different from the reality. The reality ends up being something a lot less scrutinized or less. You know, like I did an event in Seattle that was billed as like, you know, it was going to be at Seattle Town Hall.
And it was it was being organized by someone who was in the Seattle city government. And it was going to be this amazing event bringing together all these great people. And I got there and it was like 12 people that Seattle's City Hall and our town hall, Seattle town hall. So and I just got there. I thought, oh, man, wow. I really I really spent a lot of time on this and it's just not going to amount to anything.
And I've had a few of those kinds of things where where I am now. I try to be really careful about, you know, traveling to an event and try to make sure that there's enough going on. There's going to be enough people there. There's going to be enough energy there that it's at the end. I'm going to feel like it was worthwhile.
I like that a lot. I mean, so often travel is one of the things I regret to in hindsight, you go you do an event is an extra night. It just consumes so much time getting there, so much time coming back. And like you said, it's it's often not what it's kind of it to be. And I want to drill back just into a little bit about your habits around reading or how big of a reader are you?
I'm not a huge reader. I tend to these days. I'm doing a lot of reading online. I'm reading online magazines online. I'm reading blogs. I'm reading, as I mentioned earlier, some magazines and then books. You know, I will usually be working on one book at a time and I'm having a lot of trouble. I just have a lot of trouble getting through books. It takes me a long time because I'm a slow reader. So so it's it's just a weird thing.
Like, my wife is an amazing reader. I mean, she knocks off a book in like one or two days. And I'm just I'm just not built that way. I seem to read very slowly and deliberately. I kind of pore over sentences. Nothing wrong with that. I seem to take a long time to read. I think it's part of it is a good thing. I mean, I'm paying I pay a lot of attention to what I'm reading.
But part of it is just that I'm slow to I'm a slow reader. And so a book is a major a major undertaking for me. And and it usually takes me quite a while.
How do you traverse this world between books and online? Like, how do you collect and organize your notes when you're in the process of writing a book?
I am just constantly taking things anything interesting I find off the Internet and just sourcing it and printing it. And then I still use paper files. I'm somewhat of a dinosaur, so I am bulging files based on subject. Anything to do with you know, if I'm if I'm if I'm writing about decision making, then I'm just collecting tons of tons of articles, tons of posts, interviews, excerpts from TED speeches, just whatever. And I'm just getting it all printed out and keeping gigantic bulging files on on that that subject.
And then then I have to go through those files. And and a lot of times what I'm doing is trying to just take all these. Is that, first of all, figure out which pieces are really the ones I want to use and then figuring out how they all fit together and fit with my larger theme or my vision. So a lot of times I feel like I'm putting puzzles together and the information that I've gathered or the little pieces of the puzzle.
So it's just like, what do you do with this really interesting bit of information that you have? It might be one line that somebody said about something. And and what do you do with that piece and where does it fit with your larger narrative?
I want to keep it just for one second on this. When you're reading these file folders, are you doing this constantly? Like, is it you pick them up once a week, you kind of go through them or as you read, are you taking things like, oh, this isn't relevant anymore with this new direction that I've gone in?
Yeah, I, I will sometimes read the out or I'll put or I'll create a second folder that's sort of like B level stuff. Like once I start to think something might not be as relevant, I'll put it into the B folder, which means I'll probably never look at it again. But I might, I might remember something and say, oh, you know, I had an article on that and then I'll I'll want to go back into the B folder.
But your brain knows it's there, so it doesn't have to be there. And of course, I should be doing this in Evernote or something like that because, you know, it would be so much easier to access it digitally by putting in a keyword or something. But I just am you know, I'm just kind of more comfortable with working on paper. I still work on paper a lot. I even do I do outlines on paper. I do outlines where I'm just scribbling and writing outlines longhand on paper and then going to the computer and putting it into my into my document.
But it's amazing how much I work on paper and I don't know, I feel more creative on paper and I don't know why I've heard other people say that too. I just feel like when I'm in that really rough stage of things, I want to be able to scratch things out. I want to be able to use arrows to point this over to that. And it just works better for me. And then when I get it on the when I'm on the computer, it's more like I'm in writing mode.
Now I'm actually writing and I don't know, it's it's two separate stages to me.
The way that I think of it, that is it's easier to play with ideas and digest them on paper because you can kind of manipulate them.
You can manipulate structure a lot easier than you can on the computer with arrows or diagrams or just scribbles.
It feels more visual, like it like those like you can do visual thinking. And one of the things also that I need to do, and I seem to need to do it more and more these days, which maybe is a sign of aging, but I seem to need to see everything in front of me at the same time. So when I'm when I'm creating outlines, a lot of times, you know, I may have information spread out over 20 pages, but I need to figure out how to get it into a form where I can look at two or three pages side by side in front of me and see everything, see all the ideas that I'm playing with.
And then I can will get ideas about structure. At that point, I'll say, oh, OK, this is obviously the structure is I need to take this stuff that I talk about and shift it up here. I have trouble doing that on the in the document. When I'm typing in the document, I have trouble doing that kind of structural thinking because I need to see it. I need to see it in front of me. And so and so I do a lot of playing with outlines, sometimes on oversized sheets of paper, all kinds of crazy stuff.
So, yeah, that seems to be a visual thinking thing that I'm doing.
What was kind of the last thing that you read that maybe changed your understanding of the world?
Well, the last thing I read that changed my understanding of the world. Um hmm. Well, I'll tell you the last thing I experienced that changed my understanding of the world, and it wasn't it wasn't reading. It was it was Ken Burns is Vietnam, which I just finished. I just finished getting through that the other day and eighteen hours. Never seen it yet.
It was intense and it changed my my understanding of of that whole period. And it was so amazing. I think it was I thought it is really a work of art that he created there in terms of the way he, he put together the elements of it. And so that was something that definitely that definitely changed my my thinking completely. Let's see, what am I reading that has changed my thinking lately? I'm reading an interesting book called Get. Schooled, I've been trying to get into the mindset of teachers these days because I talk to teachers a lot and there's a book I'm reading by by a teacher in New England, Garrett Garrett Kaiser is his name.
And and he wrote a book about his experiences teaching in a rural community. And and it was just it changed the way I thought about teachers. It gave me a different perspective into the into the mindset of of of a teacher that I just I just never had before. So so that's basically everything I read. I feel like changes my thinking, if it's any good. It's it seems like anything that is is well done. And you read it.
I just feel like it it shifts your your whole understanding of a subject or a person or a perspective.
Do you stop reading if it's not good or do you feel some sort of guilt. Yeah.
No, I stopped reading. If something is if something is not good, I definitely you know, I can't I can't waste my time on something that isn't, you know, compelling to me. Yeah.
I feel the same way. I mean, I just put stuff down. I'll often come back to it and they'll say I'm not ready for it, but or if it's just complete garbage, then I'll kind of like give it away or something. But what would you like.
I'm so curious about your habits now.
Like what would you say is the smallest habit you have that makes a big difference?
Smallest habit? That makes a big difference, I would say outlining in my work as it is a habit that makes a big difference. I'm always producing outlines, as I said earlier. And I think what that does is it helps me really organize, organize like complex subject. Well, and so that's a that's a kind of a little a little habit. Walking is a habit that that helps me. I try to walk like every day if I can.
How does that help you? It helps me to put thoughts together and it helps me make connections in my thinking. So I'll do a lot of walking in the morning and and I'll I'll come up with ideas. And then a lot of times I'll sort of, you know, put the idea I might write it down when I get home or I might just kind of store it. And in my brain I'm pretty good at, you know, if I come up with an idea, kind of remembering it later.
And so I find that walking is is a big, big a big, big plus, but it helps to do it outdoors. Treadmill is not as good. I just find with a treadmill, I'm you know, there's too much stuff coming at me and there's a TV in front of me and there's people all around talking. And if I can get out into the outdoors and walk, preferably in a park or in the woods, that seems to work really well for my creative thinking.
I'm guessing you don't have, like, one of those new modern treadmill desks. No, I don't use that.
I think it's a it's a good idea to have a treadmill desk, but from for health reasons, I don't know if it would help with what I'm talking about with creativity. It's probably just good for your circulation, you know. But but I do think that for me, anyway, outdoor walking seems to be seems to do the trick for some people. It's taking a drive or or some people it's doing the dishes. And it's it's different for everyone.
Seems to be you need to do some kind of a low, low and activity that that immerses where you become immersed in the activity, but not so much that you can't think and daydream. And so that's sort of the sweet spot. Finding those activities where you're obviously going to a movie doesn't work right. Because you get too immersed and you and there's no room for your own thinking.
So you need to find those activities where you're a little bit immersed, but you can still have your own thoughts, a little bit immersed and no distractions, no distractions and and maybe even seeing something stimulating but not so stimulating that it takes over.
So walking out in nature, the trees are stimulating, but they're not so stimulating that it's like you're in an action movie or something. They're not going to take over. You're full your full brain. So the same with going to a museum and going to a museum. There's a great quote from George Lewis, advertising guy I got to know pretty well. But he said, museums are the custodians of epiphanies. And so what he what he was saying is that.
Well, he meant that on two in two ways, number one, museums are full of things that were epiphanies for the people who created them. But at the same time, you have epiphanies in a museum because you're exposed to these great influences and ideas. But it's not so overwhelming like a play or a movie that you can't do your own thinking. So for me, you know, if you can find that that kind of an environment, that's that can really help with your creativity.
Sounds like you've done a lot of work on the creativity. What's the most surprising thing that you've discovered as you started diving into it? Well, I don't know.
Let me think about that.
The most surprising thing about creativity or something that's counterintuitive, which you thought one thing and you've discovered something completely different.
Well, you know, I don't know if it's counterintuitive, but I find it interesting the research showing that creativity seems to decline as we as we like, where we're incredibly creative as as children. And then it is it seems to be on the decline after that which which is also true of questioning. And they probably go hand in hand, curiosity, creativity, questioning. And what was surprising to me was to learn that these things start to drop off fairly quickly.
At least some of the research indicates that. And we we move away from that kind of thinking into much more predictable patterns of thinking. And we start to do it very early. We start to do it in grade school. And, you know, and it's it's that to me was when I as I learned that and started to look into that, that was a big surprise for me. I don't think I realized quite what was going on in our in our education system or in our culture or both where we are.
We're not doing a good job of fanning the flames of of creativity and curiosity that we seem to be born with. I mean, we seem to have this from age three or four. And, you know, it's just there. Nobody had to train us to be curious and creative, but it seems to decline. And that suggests to me that we're not doing a good enough job of nurturing that and allowing that to be expressed. And then gradually it just gets kind of suppressed.
I want to talk a little bit more about that. On one hand, you have the fundamental role that questions play in enabling us to innovate, solve problems, and kind of just progress in life. And then, on the other hand, you have this rapid decline, as you've just talked about, in terms of our other ability to ask questions or a shyness around that, or why does that drop off? I have no idea.
Well, it's I don't know that anyone has the full, complete answer to that. I think it's about five or six factors that are all coming into play with each other. Part of it is probably biological. There are interesting things going on in our in our brains at a young age that have to do with the there's a there's a mode when we are in total absorption and expansion and then we kind of go through this synaptic pruning stage where we're where our brain is, is trying to consolidate all this amazing amount of stuff we've been learning and maybe trim some of the things that seem unnecessary.
So so I think, you know, there are definitely a neuroscientists could could probably explain this a lot better than I could. But there are things going on in our in our in our brains that probably affect how how curious and how questioning we are at certain ages and why it might seem to decline a little bit. But but I think there's also several other things. I mean, I think that we will do whatever we are rewarded for doing and we do not get rewarded for questioning.
We basically the message we send to children at a very early age is that the reward goes to the person who has the answer, not to the person who asks the question. So I think kids internalize that pretty early. And and it's like the question gets eventually gets seen as a distraction. It is a distraction from taking care of business, whatever the. Isn't covering the material we have to cover in class, answering the teachers question, whatever the question is a distraction.
If someone asks a question at the end of the lesson, it extends the lesson and it keeps you from moving on to the next thing. So it's again, it's seen as this negative thing and that continues right into adulthood in the business world, where people who ask questions in a meeting are often seen as they're slowing down the meeting, they're slowing us down. We should be moving on to the next item so it can be hazardous to your career to ask questions.
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it is definitely seen as inefficient. That's what that's the word that Clayton Christensen at the Harvard Business School used when he was I talked to him about questioning and he said the attitude among business leaders is that questioning is inefficient, that we would be much better off using our mental resources to answer things instead of asking questions. And of course, that's crazy because you can't answer something until you have a question. But but that's just the way that they perceive it.
They perceive that the answers are going to fall from the sky and you don't really have to bother asking questions. So so I think this message gets ingrained into young people. And then as they get older, not only is it seen as as something that's inefficient or that the teacher may not want or the other students may not want, it gets seen as really uncool. I've talked to a lot of high school kids about this, and if you ask questions, you are a revealing weakness, right?
You're revealing you don't know something. Maybe you're showing that you care and you're not supposed to care that much.
You know, when you're when you're in high school, you're supposed to be like, if I care about it, then I already know it. And if I don't know it, then I don't really care. And so so that attitude tends to make questioning uncool. It's like something that nerds do or or people who are just out of step. So. So anyway, you've got all these factors coming into play against against curiosity and questioning. It's just isn't seen as the thing that's going to you're going to get anything out of it.
It's going to make you look bad. And and what's the big reward? What's what's what's the payoff for doing it? So I think all of this all of this conspires against questioning. And then lastly, of course, what conspires against questioning is knowledge. Knowledge is if we feel we know something and we don't have to ask. And so as you get older, you start to feel like, oh, I know, I know what this is all about.
I get it. I get what the game is here. And and so you don't feel that you have to ask. And then that continues again straight into the business world where we all become experts within our own domain in our job. And we don't feel we necessarily have to ask questions about it because we've we've got to figure it out. We've been doing it long enough. We've got it figured out. And, you know, what I discovered is innovation is about being the person who asks those questions instead of going through the routine.
And and but it's difficult for a lot of people.
Let's dive into that for a second. I mean, what is the payoff to asking better or more difficult questions? Like what's the relationship between the questions themselves and maybe being more creative or coming up with better solutions to problems? How does one lead to the other?
Yeah, well, I think that the the question enables us to to tackle the unknown. You know, there's a great definition that I came across from this group called the Right Question Institute. They're a nonprofit group that studies questioning and they describe questioning as a as a tool that enables us to organize our thinking around what we don't know. So there's a lot of stuff out there we don't know. And through questioning, we can attack it. And the different form of question you use will allow you to come at this unknown thing from a different angle.
But key to that is admitting you don't know.
Yeah, well, that's it. I mean, and even even being aware that you don't know, I mean, you could say that awareness of what you don't know is one of the real measures of intelligence. Right. Because people that are that are less intelligent are completely unaware of what they don't know. They they kind of feel like they they know they know all they need to know and they don't care about what they don't know. So so I think, first of all, having the awareness that there's a lot of stuff out there that you don't know and caring about it, caring about the fact that there's a lot of a lot out there that you don't know, that's almost a starting point for questioning.
And then what the questioning will do is enable you to move forward in the face of the unknown. It's almost, I think of it almost like an app. You know, it's like an app that we all have that allows us to proceed when we don't really know what the heck is we're dealing with or what we're doing. And this is why innovators, it's such a key tool for innovators of any kind in any area, whether it's the arts or business or whatever, because what they can do is look at an area that is unknown.
Nobody has ever done this kind of thing before. How do I how do I dive into that? And the way they dive in is through questioning. They they dive in by saying, well, you know, why am I interested in this vast, unknown area and what do we know about it already? And why hasn't someone figured out this this this particular take on it that I'm interested in? And what if you took this little bit of information we have on it and combine it with this other bit of information that maybe is from another field or another area?
What if we put those two things together? So I think what the innovator is doing is just using questions to attack what is unknown. And then through questioning, you begin to shape things. You begin to frame the problem you want to work on. You frame the challenge maybe that you want to take on. And and then the question keeps changing as you're working on it. Maybe you realize I framed it, but I didn't quite frame it. Right.
I didn't my question wasn't big enough or it wasn't small enough. Maybe I need a more specific question, you know? So I just think that that ends up being the way that that innovators move forward. They use questions to to move forward into the darkness. And what's interesting about that is a lot of people think exactly the opposite about questions. They think questions keep you from moving forward. I think questions paralyze you if you ask too many questions.
You're just not you're not going to know what to do and you're going to be paralyzed. And exactly the opposite is true, at least from my experience.
I kind of think of good inquiry is a sort of meta skill that helps me improve every other skill that I have, because a good question leads me to learning something. But I'm probably asking questions incorrectly. Now, how can you coach people to improve that skill?
You know, I don't really think there is a right or wrong way to be asking questions. I think that interestingly questioning you know, I've studied taxonomies of questions and I've seen a lot of people categorize questions by my type and higher order questions versus lower order questions. And I mean, I understand the why that's done. That's done a lot in the academic world. And, you know, I think there's there's a there's a reason for doing it. I guess there's a purpose to it.
But I come out questioning very differently. I mean, I think of I don't try to categorize questions that much and I don't try to say this is a this is a lower order question and this is a higher level of question, I think. OK, for starters, a good question is a question that's rooted in curiosity. OK, that's the only that's the only thing that standard that I put on on something being a good question. It has to be it has to stem from authentic curiosity.
A lot of times people ask questions that are not that are just how are you or what were you thinking when you did that? And they're not really based in in in questioning. They're more like criticism in disguise or.
Yeah. Or or they ask questions. They knew the answer to you. They know that. They just want you to confirm what they already know which which is is OK in certain instances for clarification. And it's OK for if you're doing sort of Socratic teaching then. In that kind of questioning is fine, but generally, I believe a good question should be rooted in curiosity, and if it is if there is authentic curiosity behind it, then I sort of welcome all questions.
Now, of course, the question will get better. If you have the more informed you are, the more informed your question will be. So if you have curiosity about something and you've started to do a little bit of learning on your own, a little bit of research on it, then you're probably going to be able to ask a better question about that particular subject than someone who is a is a complete outsider. On the other hand, there's something to be said for the outsider question, because a lot of times, as you start to do research on something, you immediately start to gather assumptions together.
You're gathering together the assumptions that are out there, kind of the conventional wisdom that's out there by people who've already studied this thing. And and so you you start to get steeped in their expertise and their conventional wisdom. And that starts to inform your own thinking about it. Right. Whereas the outsider, the total novice, can come in and ask, you know, why are we why are we doing it that way? I'm not part of the on the accounting field.
But why do accountants always do this system that they do? And there's a huge benefit to that type of question because the people inside the accounting field never ask it. They are way too steeped in what they're doing, their way too close to it. So when they ask questions, they're asking really technical questions. But the outsider can come in and ask the totally naive why question the way a four year old child would ask it. And it's amazing how often that leads to something dramatic that can lead to that.
That can just cause people to step back and say, whoa, wait a minute, you know, we really do need to rethink what we're doing here because we haven't thought about it for the last 10 years. So I think there's a real value to both kinds of questions, both the informed, the informed question and the uninformed outsider question.
I like that a lot. I mean, that's how we get away with it. There's this cultural it's OK for you to ask questions because you're new. But how does somebody who's been there for a long time balance this? You need to ask questions to learn something. And it's coming from a good place with not coming across like a knee jerk skeptic or a pest or a bother.
Yeah, I think the only way you can do this stuff is through conversation and trying to create a culture and the culture by culture. And could I could be talking about a group of four people that that are part of a team working together, or it could be talking about a household or we could be talking about an entire company. But I think there has to be an understanding that questioning has value and that all types of questions that are rooted in curiosity have some value.
So if if if we if we can get that idea out there, then all of a sudden when someone who is an expert asks a novice question, instead of people taking taking the person's head off and saying, you know, you should know better than that, you've been in this field for ten years. What do you do in asking a question like that? If you've developed this understanding with your peers or your group, they will say, oh, I see what you're doing there.
You're asking you're asking us to step back and look at this from a from a fresh perspective or an outside perspective. And it will generate a worthwhile discussion. Right. So I think the culture you have to create a culture where people understand what's going on, when these questions are being asked, instead of having a knee jerk reaction and saying, oh, gee, that question, that's a waste of time, or that's that's a naive, stupid question.
There needs to be a better understanding of the value of questions and what questions do. And then I think people will be less likely to have that kind of gut reaction to it.
So what should parents do? Like what should I do in my seven year old? It's just keeps asking questions all the time. What would your advice be or what should a teacher do?
I think what you want to do is encourage the questions, possibly give focus to. Them, if they need if they need more focus and direction, I think you don't have to answer them. I think sometimes you may want to answer questions from kids, but sometimes you don't. Sometimes you want to encourage them to take ownership of the question and and and figure out how they would answer it if it were up to them. What steps would they take?
And I think that can be, you know, I hear all the time parents and teachers, by the way, are worried that they're not going to have the answers for all these questions that kids come up with and they don't have to. You know, that's not necessarily the job of the parent or the teacher in that situation. They're not supposed to be answering machines. We already have an answer machine at our fingertips with with Google, you know, so you don't have to you don't have to be in that role.
The role that that you should play as a parent or a teacher is more like a coach. And just to say that's that's an interesting question. And the reason it's interesting is because of this, I find it interesting because X, Y, Z and I don't really know the answer to it, but there are some ways you could you could look into this. Do you have any thoughts on how you would you would look into this if you wanted to find out more about it?
And have you thought about maybe, OK, go online and start with start with this and then is there someone you could talk to offline? So I think the that would be one of the greatest services you could do for a young person is to teach them that questions are really valuable and they should take ownership of the really good ones. They should they should stick with them. They should explore them and they should have fun with them.
And it means you start looking into it and doing some sort of appreciative inquiry into what that answer is. Exactly.
Ownership of a question is what every innovator does. Every innovator starts out with a question like why hasn't someone come up with a better way to do X? OK, and most of us, when we ask that question, you know, we're using our snow shovel and it doesn't work well enough or whatever. We ask that question almost reflexively, why hasn't someone come up with a better snow shovel and then we don't do anything about it. So we just we just let it go.
We let that question just float away into the ether. And what the innervated what the innovator does is they ask that question and then they take ownership of it. They say, OK, I'm going to find out why someone hasn't come up with a better shovel. And and then I'm going to work on what if you made a shovel that did this and that and how would you do that? So so that's all part of the innovation process is just taking ownership of a question and staying with it until you work your way gradually, hopefully to an answer.
And if you don't get to an answer, you've had fun. You've probably had a fun journey anyway.
Explore what do you consistently struggle the most with, with other questioning other people or answering other people?
I think, you know, one of the things I struggle with is and I'm just learning about this now, it's going to be in my next book. But the idea that then I think when I'm asked questions, sometimes I try to give to too much of a definitive answer just because I feel that that I'm supposed to do that. And what I've learned is that what's really interesting to do with questioning is, is when you are when you're asked a question is to explore the question with the person who asked it of you and sort of turn turn the question back around to like, you know, well, you know, basically, what do you think about that?
And then in groups, a lot of times I get asked questions in groups when I'm giving a talk or something. And my habit is to always just answer the question. Right. But but what I've realized is it's really interesting if you invite the group to help you answer the question. You know, there's an interesting dynamic that happens there where you say, you know, you might say, well, I think I think I tend to think this or that.
But what other people feel about that, what have other people found out about this question? And you get some really interesting group thinking happening then. So so that to me is a is something that I'm going to I'm trying to get myself to to not so reflexively answer questions, but. To to sort of turn it into more of a conversation where I'm getting input from other people in the room, and it's not just me trying to answer answer the question, it seems like I mean, we need other people to go with us to accomplish anything significant.
Right? So we need other people, not only on our team, but often working on the same questions. How do you how do you get a group of people to work towards the same question?
Yeah, I refer to that as collaborative enquiry, and I don't know if I'm the first one to use that term or not, but I just started using it when I was working on the book. And I think collaborative enquiry is is really, really important. And it's the idea that we're going to work on questions together and we're going to share big questions and we'll pursue them. And obviously, scientists are doing this all the time.
Lots of people are doing this is not a startup is effectively. Yeah, it is. It is. But it never gets really it rarely gets explained that way or articulated that way. You know, it's usually like, oh, we're all together. We're going to change the world. We're all together. We're going to make a lot of money. And but really, yes, that's what a startup often is. It's about it's about a group of people trying to answer the same question together.
And I don't know that, you know, I don't know that startups always put that idea out there to everybody working within the startup. They should, but I don't know if they do. I think maybe the partners know they're working together on a question. The top four or five people know that. But when you go down the line to some of the people further down, the further down the food chain, and then you start to get into that thing of, oh, this is your job, OK, we are working on this big question, but your job is to take care of this little function here.
And if you do that, then we'll be able to hopefully answer the big question. And what I think is that the companies should be doing is making sure everybody feels they're part of answering the big question, because if you do that, you'll get them. There will be so much more engaged. You know, one of the things I said in the book is a more beautiful question is I said that companies should forget about mission statements. They should have a mission question.
And the mission question should begin with, how might we and whatever it is they're trying to do in their field that they haven't gotten to yet, the really big thing, the really big accomplishment that should be phrased as a how might we question? And it should be shared with the entire company. And the purpose of everyone within that company is to contribute to answering the how might we question do you know anybody doing that? Since I came out with the book, there have been several companies that have said they're thinking about shifting their there was one small company that actually did it.
And it was interesting. They had they had interesting reaction that people really liked it. I've had a number of companies say to me, we we might do that, but we don't know. And so it's been kind of bouncing around in the business world. And I think companies are a little hesitant to mess with mess with their their mission statement or their value statement. They kind of feel like it's this sacred thing and they're a little bit uneasy about the idea that they might be attaching uncertainty to their mission statement.
Yeah, it's it's almost a preposition where there's no upside. I mean, if they do it. Yeah, I think that's what they're worried about.
I don't see it that way. You know, I see it as a very courageous and confident I think a company that is able to ask a mission question which would signal to the world that they are extremely confident and they don't need to brag about what they've already done or or or make some statement about something they haven't done, which sounds like an advertising slogan. They don't need to do that. They can be honest and they can be humble and they can say, well, here's what we really want to do.
I mean, we really want to change the world. And by doing X, Y or Z, and how might we do that? And that's what we're that's what we're aiming toward. I think it would be a very positive thing. But, you know, I do understand that companies are very worried about how shareholders are perceived. And I think the employees would love it. By the way, every company I've spoken to when I talk about mission questions, the employees absolutely love it.
Right. The senior management is like, well, maybe, maybe. But the employees always think, yeah, that's great. I would love it. The employees generally say I. The mission statement, I just didn't pay any attention to it, it's boring, it's I don't even know what half of them don't even know what the mission statement is. But they say a mission question. I would love that. I would love to be able to have this question that represents what we're trying to do.
I like that a lot. That was a great conversation about questions and how it can get better at asking questions and how we can do better as employees and parents. I want to end with a couple personal questions for you, which is who had the most impact on you intellectually when you were young and how has that changed as you've gotten older?
Let me think. I would say the most impact on me intellectually when I was young, probably I would say probably I had an older sister who went into journalism and I was still, you know, in in high school. And I was trying to figure out what what I could do with my life and and had no idea. And she became sort of a model for me of this way of life, of being a journalist. And and it kind of inspired me.
I thought, well, that's something I could aim for. I could I could do that. And it became this sort of this tremendous influence on me as a as a as a young person. So I would say that was that was probably a big a big influence on me. As I've gotten older. What has influenced me, I think a lot of the people I meet and interview end up having a big influence on me. When I wrote that book, Glymour know, I spent a lot of time with several designers.
One what one was Bruce Mãe and but there were several others too. And they all ended up really changing the way I think, you know, I could see something in their way, the way they saw the world that then changed the way that I saw the world. I just almost embraced a little bit of their philosophy or their culture, their way of looking at things. So I think I'm I hesitate to say it. I like to point to one person because I think it's it's always changing and it's always someone new will come into my orbit.
That is a fascinating person. And I will come under the influence of that person for a while and they will begin to change me in some way.
I like that a lot. I mean, if you're in tune with people, it's hard not to learn or change from just being around somebody. I mean, you're evolving. They're evolving. Can you tell me about a time where you failed and it set you up and at the time it felt like you were, you know, the world was over and how how you got out of that and how it made you stronger?
Yeah, well, I mean, I've had a bunch of failures, but one that really shook me was when I did that book, Glymour, which was back in 2009. And it was it was an interesting case where I'd I'd I'd written this really great proposal for the book. And then the book ended up getting a it was like a bidding war between all these publishers, top publishers. And then it got bought by one of the top publishers, Penguin.
And and it was just great. I was just like really riding high. And and then the book came out. And for all kinds of reasons, I'm sure it was partly my fault. It was partly the publishers fault. It was partly everyone's fault, but it just didn't connect. And so from a commercial standpoint, the people who read it really liked it, but it just wasn't connecting in the marketplace. It just wasn't getting any traction. And so that was really that was really hard.
I mean, that was really hard for me because I felt no one I'd had I'd had really high expectations and so did the publisher. And they were just dashed and the book was just not selling at all. And so, you know, I kind of went didn't know how to react to that at first. And I thought, yeah, I'm probably not going to do another book because no one who's going to publish me this book just tanked. And so I'm probably going to have trouble getting another contract and all.
And and it's somewhere along the line as I was going around talking about. And giving little speeches here and there, I noticed that everyone was interested in one chapter of the book about questioning if and and that was that interest among people just sort of put the idea in my head. Well, you know what? What if I mean, I still love some of the things I was talking about in Glymour, but maybe I was talking about too much.
You know, I was talking about all the way designers think. And I was I was just exploring a lot of different directions. And maybe if I just zero in on questioning, you know, that could be that could be a more focused approach. So I went back I went back to the publishers. My original publisher wanted nothing to do with me. But I you know, I even my agent was kind of like if I found another agent and I said, look, I think even though this last book didn't do well, I think there's something still there was a potential within it.
And I got another agent to help me get it out there. We got a new publisher and the book's done great. So I think there is a there's a lesson in their own. Another important thing I should add is a lot of the things that I didn't do in marketing glymour I then did in marketing this next book, I realized, oh, you have to get you have to get started early with doing blog posts. You have to do a lot of your own marketing and publicity.
You've got to really take things into your own hands. Don't just count on the publisher. So I, I did that with this, with the newer book as well, and it made a huge difference. So I think the lesson is, you know, within that failure, a lot of times there are seeds for a success. There are seeds for a follow up effort. And you have to be willing to go back and revisit that failure, which is really hard to do because we want to run away from failure.
We want to just like, say I have I'm not going to think about that again. I'm not going to I'm just going to leave it leave it behind. But sometimes there is good reason to go back and extract whatever you can from that failure. Any lessons you learned about, gee, I did it this way. What if I'd done it a different way or this part of the thing failed, but this other part seemed to do pretty well?
What if I focus on this other part? I think there are tremendous lessons you can pull out of a failure.
Were you always resilient through that process or were you having highs and lows? Oh, I was definitely low when it was when it was happening. When I was first realizing that the book was not going to succeed, I was like very low. And I was feeling like, again, like I should just drop this, get as far away from it as I can and go on to something totally new and totally different. But I got myself again, mostly by reacting to what audiences were telling me.
You know, I was able to gradually get myself to become interested in this in this new idea that was pulled out of the old idea. And and I think it was it was definitely a process. It definitely took time. And, you know, you are going to have to lick your wounds when you when you have a failure. There's going to be a period where you're just not going to you're not going to feel great about it. I mean, I think there's a little bit of a false thing out there now around failure of that, that we should be happy about failure and we should just embrace it like it's the greatest thing that ever happened to us.
You know, I'm sorry that that does not strike me as a realistic failure is always going to hurt a little bit. Whenever you don't do what you set out to do and you don't achieve exactly what you set out to do, you're going to feel disappointment. And I don't think we can we can just like mask that or hide that. I think that is that's a human that's human nature. You know, you're going to feel that way. So I think what we have to the more realistic way to talk about failure is, you know, yes, embrace the suck, as they say, are, you know, feel the pain at the time, but be willing to lick your wounds and examine the failure and see what you can see, what you can pull out of it, see what you can gain from it.
So Ray Dalu said on the podcast that pain plus reflection equals progress. And you had mentioned about going back and looking at your kind of failure and learning from it.
Did you do that in the midst of the failure or did you wait until some amount of time had passed and then start evaluating?
I think it was some time had passed. I think that it was at the time I was failing. I was just desperately trying to save that project or do whatever I could. To salvage that project, and gradually it became apparent that this just if a book doesn't get on the radar at a certain point, it's just really hard and you can't suddenly going to put it on the radar. So, you know, it took a while before I even acknowledged or admitted to myself that this was not going to be a successful book.
You know, I was fighting against it for a long time. And and I think it takes a while. And then again, as I said, there was a period after that where once you do accept that it's not a successful project, then there's a period where you say, I want to distance myself from it. I don't want to be associated with it because I want to get away from it because it's a negative. It's totally a negative negative thing.
So I think I think that's that's part of that's that's part of the time, the process that has to happen before, at least for me, I could go back and think about, OK, what is here that I can use? What can I learn? What can I what is what is possibly some good stuff within this failure that I didn't get used as well as it should have, but still has potential. You know, I think if you can look at your failure and almost you're almost trying to pull the gems out, the things that got buried in the mess, but that were good, they were good things, you know.
So if you can pull those those good things out and figure out, OK, you know, how do I take what's good there and come at it in a fresh way?
And when you go back, I mean, you have more perspective. Your life isn't over. You know, you didn't all of these fears that you might have at the time probably didn't play out.
So now you can go back and be like, oh, that didn't play out. You get this relief and now you can start evaluating, you know, kind of your role in what happened. Because just because it was a failure doesn't mean you didn't do the right things. Yeah, exactly.
Right. Right. And that's that takes time. I mean, it takes some perspective. You know, you need the the perspective of maybe a little bit of distance from the actual event or the actual realization that things were not going to work as well as they did. You know, you tend to be in a negative mindset when that first happens. And, you know, it may just take a little bit of time before you can then look at it with.
And that's not such a a negative mindset.
Totally. I think that's worthwhile. All too often we avoid going back and reflecting. Last question.
What's a common piece of advice about business or creativity that you're not buying a common piece of advice about business or creativity that I'm not buying?
Well, I think I just named one right there about the idea that failure is a wonderful thing. I don't think it necessarily is. So that would be that would be one thing. I think, you know, the the idea there's an idea that is out there in the in the business world about creativity that suggests, you know, some people are are very creative and everyone else isn't. And we should create a separate department or a spin off within the within the organization for the creative people or the innovators.
We should create a skunkworks or or something. That is where the all the innovators will will reside. And I'm not buying that. I think that I think that everyone is creative. And I think if you if you create a division within an organization that says these people are creative and the rest of you aren't, I think it's sends a bad message to. Oh, yeah.
Basically says creativity is not part of your job and that's not part of your job. Anybody who's who's ever done that has probably never worked successfully in the software or engineering culture because you take away creativity from people. And then not only that, you tell a certain group of people they're innovators, they come up with a solution. And the more interesting thing for me is like they throw it over the fence. And if things don't work, you just get this finger pointing between these two factions in the organization where the so-called innovators are saying, well, it's the implementers who messed it up and the implementers are saying there's never work to begin with and you can't really hold anybody accountable for those.
Yeah, it's a big mistake. And yet I see people do it all the time. And I saw it in the advertising industry, of course, where you were either in the creative department or you weren't everybody else was just something else. But but the people in the creative department were the creatives and. And, you know, it just always struck me as an odd and odd division, and I understand people have different skills and I understand some people are going to be more involved maybe in in the copywriting than other people.
But I just thought that broad division of creative versus non creative never made sense to me. And I see it now playing out in lots of other organizations where, you know, they will they will basically say, this is our innovation group. Well, what does that say to the rest of the company, the rest of the companies, the non innovation group? So I think this is this is an idea that is you know, I think it's it's it's definitely not a great not a great idea.
One other thing that I'm not totally sold on is I think we're starting to see a backlash against it is the whole open office culture, which I think is makes sense up to a point, but I think it's been oversold. And and I think the idea that nobody needs any private space or or their own space, I've always felt that that's kind of a mistake. And I feel like it's a real struggle with office cultures to get the balance right.
But I think there's some kind of a balance you have to achieve that that somehow has a lot of interaction and openness, but also gives people the space they need to think and to and to work and to create.
Would you say, based on your your research with creativity, that the open office can have a negative impact on an organization's overall creativity?
Yeah, I think it just I've seen it. I've seen it happen. I've seen it. I've seen companies go to an open model and it's it's been a disaster. And and I think what happens is that it's not respecting the individual. It's not it's saying that, like, when we're here at this company, everyone just has to be part of this this blob, you know? And it's like, yes, there are times when you want that sense of of of communal behavior and interaction, but you don't necessarily want it all day long, every day.
And I think it's it's, you know, a lot to be to be frank, a lot of times when companies are doing this, it's a real estate decision, too. I mean, you know, it's a lot easier to put an office together that is an open office because you need a lot less space. And so, OK, if if they have to do that, well, all right, maybe that's a reality, but don't try to sell it to people as we're we're we're creating this utopian environment for you because we want it.
We want to do that. If it's a real estate decision and you can't afford to have individual offices, OK, be honest about that. But but what I like is what I want to see companies do is, is try to balance it with some type of a hybrid, a hybrid architecture and structure that that has both open spaces and closed spaces. I think you're seeing a number of companies do that now. I think I'm starting to see that sort of mix, and I think that's a really good way to proceed.
Listen, Warren, this has been a fascinating conversation. We'll end it here. But I really appreciate you taking the time and hopefully we can do this again.
Yeah, no, it's a really great shame. And so so look forward to talking to you again soon.
Hey, guys, this is Shane again, just a few more things before we wrap up. You can find some notes from today's show at F-stop blog podcast. You can also find out information on how to get a transcript there. And if you'd like to receive a weekly email from me filled with all sorts of brain food, go to F-stop blogs newsletter. This newsletter is all the good stuff I've done in the world that week, and I've read and shared with close friends the books I'm reading and so much more.
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