Each of us is only as effective as the questions we ask. So understanding the process of asking good questions is essential to our success.
1. Ask questions about what you care about.
A great example of the importance of questions is the Justice Assistance Grant which gives states $400 million to fight crime. The JAG board asks for data on how many arrests were made and how much property was seized - questions that inadvertently encourage states to add to unacceptable rates of incarceration in the US.
The Economists suggests that asking how many defendants did not reoffend would make recidivism rates go down. And asking how many defendants went to treatment programs instead of prison would decrease costs to taxpayers on many fronts.
The line of reasoning seemed totally obvious after I read it and then I thought: how does this apply to my life?
First I applied it to my work, because I’m great at work and not so great at the rest of my life.
2. Don’t ask questions about what you don’t care about.
Netflix doesn’t track vacation time because they don’t care about vacation. They track results because they care about results. So they have a hard-core performance standard but no vacation policy.
The term for this type of thinking is key performance indicators, or KPIs. It’s a trendy way to zero-in on what you care about; my investors always ask me about KPIs. At Quistic, I measure sales, because at my last company, Brazen Careerist, I measured traffic and realized that it doesn’t matter how much traffic you get if people don’t buy stuff.
A more interesting KPI is how many people come to my blog for the first time and don’t leave. The unfortunate truth about this statistic is that as long I offer up a link to the post What it’s Like to Have Sex with Someone who has Aspergers, I don’t lose traffic. But that’s not a good way for me to keep traffic. It’s the road to hell. Then I’d have to point them to High-Income Women Get More Oral Sex, and soon I’d have a site full of people looking for porn. (Or maybe I already do. Maybe there is no one still reading this post because everyone has clicked away.)
The problem is that when I measure how often I post I never meet my goals and then I start with self-hatred. Like, I just dipped 50 cookies into my coffee when the kids weren’t looking because they are onto me about the obsessive eating. The KPI I should be looking at is how attached do I feel to the world. Because the thing that really gets me to write is that I get lonely.
3. Good questions allow you to draw a conclusion in order to ask a better question.
But you can’t measure loneliness, and you have to pick a KPI that is measurable, and I need to measure myself for making time to do what’s important to me.
It’s a be-careful-what-you-wish-for thing. If you focus hard on one thing that’s too small, you never get what you want. I remember when I hired a headhunter to find a husband and she told me I could have three things. I chose good-looking, Jewish and great at what he does and I got a Calvin Klein model who was totally stupid. I swapped great at what he does for smart and I got a failing screenwriter.
It might be that the people who really know what they are doing don’t actually know how to get something, but know the questions they should ask to make sure that someone gets what they need.
4. KPIs force you to define your questions in a way you can get good answers.
I just read that half of all financial planners have no retirement plan. I think this is because they are aiming for financial stability for themselves and they realize that retirement savings will not get them that feeling of stability, which is largely emotional. In fact, I’ve known for a long time that trusting my ability to earn money is what makes my life financially stable, not what I have in savings.
It’s not surprising that I’d totally understand how financial planners get to their KPIs but I have no idea how to do it in my personal life. I tried doing a checklist for sex. I gave myself a weekly minimum. But that really only keeps my husband in the game – it doesn’t make the whole relationship. Probably a good gauge is how many posts I can go without writing about our sex life since I did promise I wouldn’t write about it.
But whatever. I think writing about not having sex is not writing about our sex life. Which is good because writing about not sex is always more interesting than writing about great sex. All great sex is the same to a reader: boring. Like a short story with no conflict.
5. New Year’s Resolutions should have KPIs.
Our January resolutions are overly-ambitious and unruly. KPIs are building blocks to a manageable New Year’s resolution.
I go back to the idea the Economist floated, which is if you ask better questions, you get better results. My only question right now is why aren’t I meeting my goals. So lame. And I’m coming to the end of this post and I need a revelation or something.
I don’t have New Year’s resolutions. Because I’m still trying to meet the same resolutions I’ve made for the last fifteen years. Save three month’s expenses. Be happier. Spend more time focusing on the little moments with my kids.
Oh. Wait. Duh. Of course I don’t really want to meet these goals if I haven’t met them yet.
So here are my KPIs:
Number of days in the month that I have money in the bank.
Number of days in the month when I do not yell at anyone.
Number of days in the month that I have a family meal without taking a phone call in the middle.
KPIs are humbling. They are not grand, change-the-world goals. They are small reminders of where you really are in this life. It’s humbling to admit what I have to track to keep myself on a good path. Maybe this is why so many companies ditch the whole idea of KPIs.