If You’re Looking For Deep Answers, Linger With Your Questions


Good questions are sometimes better than good answers.

As we ease into a post-pandemic rethink, while we contemplate the consequences of The Great Resignation of 2021 and the The Great Reshuffle, we are searching for answers for life’s deepest questions. I have called this season the Autumn of Meaning.

With every possible piece of information a few clicks away, our attention span and our patience has vanished. Even a few extra milliseconds between our question and the Google answer frustrates us. For a change, at this moment we need to let our questions soak and marinate before we consider serving up answers.

In timeless stories we read as children, young characters imbued with the wonder and curiosity of youth explore meaningful life questions powered by an urgent need to understand their world — not entirely unlike how some of us feel now. They are hungry to comprehend the nature of the world and their place in it.

What is important for us to notice about and to learn from these tales is that the characters don’t rush the process. They travel. They journey. They quest. They wander off the familiar road, even when it means breaking the rules and facing their fears, to find their wisdom within.

Ray Bolger (1904-1987), US actor, Jack Haley (1897-1979), US actor, Judy Garland (1922-1969), US actress and singer, and Bert Lahr (1895-1967), US actor and comedian, all in costume as they dance along the yellow brick road in a publicity still from the film, ‘The Wizard of Oz’, 1939. GETTY IMAGES

A common thread among these quests of wonder is the journey from a known, familiar, comfortable world into an unknown, unfamiliar and challenging world. Young Lucy in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” moves between home and Narnia through a portal in an armoire. Peter Pan leads Wendy, John and Michael Darling through an open window in the nursery to Neverland. In “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy travels from Kansas to Oz in a mind-bending tornado.

These characters needed to leave behind the known and experience the unknown to gain new wisdom and insight into their own lives. Renowned American mythologist Joseph Campbell called this “the departure” from the “ordinary world” to discover the insights and enlightenment of these magical, enchanted worlds.

That is the journey we’re on now.

Resigning workers don’t want to walk back through the office door to their stagnant, ordinary world. They want passage to a different world, to lead a different way of life, in a different reality than the one they already know. They seek a world with radically new rules, radically new expectations, and radically new measures of success. If they reach Emerald City and there is no Wizard to hand it over, they will create this new world themselves. As that story’s wisdom teaches, they have had that potential and power inside them all along. Now they know it.

Siri and Alexa Can’t Tell You The Meaning of Life

Lingering on a question requires discipline. Search engines are great tools for accessing knowledge, but wisdom is different from knowledge. Wisdom is not about how much you know. It is about how you live, how you love, how you lead, how you labor, how you listen, how you learn. Today’s search for meaning and purpose will not be met by SEO terms and trending hashtags.

Our COVID-19 era is marked by a collective soul-searching. We need to linger in the pause between posing the question and finding the answer. We need to find energy in the engagement and savor the experience of not yet knowing, rather than shutting down the exploration for the relief of an easy or conventional answer.

Rainer Maria Rilke in Nyon near Lake Geneva in 1919. GETTY IMAGES

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke advised a young writer in a selected set of “Letters to a Young Poet” that we should “love the questions themselves.”

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue,” he wrote. “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”

Rilke understood this profound truth.

When I teach a five-day seminar for C-Suite executives, they pepper me with questions the first day. They are good questions, but I decline to answer them because there is so much benefit to lingering with such questions. Over the course of the next few days, their departure from their corporate world and their journey to unexplored realms leads them to their wisdom, not mine. They do, as Rilke says, live their way into the answers.


Published November 9, 2021 on Forbes.com

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