Now that I am committed to living on a farm, which is sort of the anti-New York City, visiting New York City no longer brings up flashbacks to a really, really difficult lifestyle. Instead, New York fills my head with ideas.

The first one is a billboard I saw as soon as I got off the plane: A good question is the new answer.

That rings true to me. I have been writing about asking questions for a long time. It’s the best way to have a meaningful conversation and it’s the best way to rope in a mentor or look like a star performer. People spend more time thinking about answers than questions, but it’s the questions that make you look smart.

1. Good questions require creative thinking.
This has always been true, I think. Good questions are fundamentally creative. But today, when all facts are available to all people, it’s the questions that have become most important. To get to the answer, you have to ask the right question in a search bar. But also, to differentiate yourself in the workplace, you need to focus on questions, since answers are a commodity.

2. When you’re lost, look for questions, not answers.
As my career shifts, I find that the key to keeping the shift moving in a productive way is to ask good questions. It’s ironic, because one of the most frequent questions I get from people is, “What’s the best way to make a career change?”

And the answer is to ask much more insightful questions than that one. For example, I know I want to write about the farm, but I’m not sure how to do it. So I’ve been asking questions about how photos fit into blogs and what is the intersection of farming, family, and business?

3. Think of your career path as a question path.
I am also spending time redecorating the farm house. Actually, to call it redecorating is a stretch, since the farmer moved in twenty years ago when the couple living there died, and did not do one single thing to redecorate. So the house is a time capsule from the 1940’s when it was designed.

Anyway, I wouldn’t say redecorating is a career change, but maybe just a vocation vacation. Do you know that term? You try out a career for a few weeks? That’s what I’ve been doing.

And I realized that I’d only want to be an interior designer for my own house. But I like learning about interior design. And I am realizing that any career shift is about learning and exploring until you land in the right spot.

Questions I am asking lately:

What is Steampunk Style? (Turns out I adore it.) Here’s an example from the movie The Golden Compass:

golden compass as steampunk style

How do you create a space that has texture? I took three conference calls while I was wandering through ABC Home. I thought that if I spent time there, I would somehow learn from being surrounded by examples, like this one:

I Love ABC Home

Some of you will ask what these questions have to do with career change. But a career is not a history of how you make money. A career is a learning path. It’s what direction you take in your personal learning.

4. Asking good questions takes work – that you have to do yourself.
This struck me during my New York trip as well, because one of my best friends is Lisa Nielsen, who leads New York City Public School technology initiatives and writes a blog about education reform. She is a big advocate of me homeschooling my kids. She says that kids don’t need to learn subjects. Kids need to learn how to ask questions about things they are passionate about. And that’s no small task: First, you have to learn how to find your passions. Then you have to learn how to ask questions. Most adults can’t do either thing well, which is a good argument for taking kids out of school, I have to admit.

5. Field other people’s questions to get better at asking questions.
Finally, the last thing I did in New York is visit Seth Godin’s office, to interview him for a webinar. The biggest criticism I received after the interview is that my commentary about people’s questions was obnoxious.

This is true. I am becoming increasingly impatient with questions that reflect poor self-knowledge. And with questions that reflect a penchant for finding roadblocks instead of finding ways to soar. Neither of these bad question types seem genuine, or useful. (Here are some examples of questions like that.)

No one complained about Seth during the webinar though, because he had a better approach to the questions. He tells people what they are really asking. So the webinar was really a webinar on, among other things, how to ask a good question.

The webinar also served as a good lesson for me. Instead of complaining about the question I get, I should answer the question by sharpening the question. People almost always know the answer to the real question but the real answer is often scary. So we conjure up an ancillary question to distract us from reality.

I also need to be more kind about people’s questions, by helping them figure out what their real question is. And the process helps me do it with my life, too. For example, I’m not sure my real question is “What is Steampunk Style?” My real question is how does style fit into my career right now?

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  1. Kingsley Tagbo
    Kingsley Tagbo says:

    One of the questions that people ask a lot is: “what should I do with my life”? which prompted the book “What Should I Do With My Life” by the best-selling author Po Bronson.

    The book is a beautiful narrative as it chronicles the journey a number of people undertook in their attempt to answer that question.

    It is still an important question for many people … and just like Penelope says, it is all about asking or answering the right question.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Questions are like an art form. It takes a lot of practice and patience to get it “right” and you, your mentor, or anybody else for that matter have a finite amount of time to pursue answers. Multiple answers will be the result of good questions and the trick is to pick the “best” answer ( cost effectiveness, expedience, etc.). It’s important to stay focused on the purpose of the original question since it is easy to get lost with the multitude of details that will ensue with each proceeding question. Details are important to an extent but they can’t be allowed to derail the progression of questions. I normally don’t find a question and its answer by themselves to be extremely helpful. It’s the original questions, key questions and answers along the way (breadcrumbs), the runners-ups, and final answer selection I find to be most informative.
    I think this is one of your best posts so far this year. It’s not a rant and therefore in my opinion more useful than a rant. It’s also not controversial. I’m also thinking your best posts which are not rants and not controversial have the least amount of comments. So I’ll give this post a thumbs up.

  3. ioana
    ioana says:

    The best use of goth style was when I visited my home town in Romania and saw all these lost looking goths stepping in cow dung looking for Dracula’s ancestors or something.

    I can laugh, because I used to be one.

    • ioana
      ioana says:

      This does relate to your post, because I’m trying to imagine you fitting steampunk in the farm. The Goths were tourists from North America, btw.

  4. Jeff
    Jeff says:

    Re: ” . . . People spend more time thinking about answers than questions, but it's the questions that make you look smart. . . ”

    Perhaps you will agree that it is not so important to LOOK smart, but better to have become smart for asking questions.

  5. Renee Park
    Renee Park says:

    I find that whenever I’m in a conversation where I get bored, asking a question or two may actually get the person talking about something that eventually interest or teaches me something. I appreciate you prompting me to think about how to sharpen these skills even more.

  6. Morgan Jones
    Morgan Jones says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I was looking for a way to email you directly and haven’t found it. I have a question about your blogging process. I’m wondering if you get an idea and then just start blogging it, doing all the editing and reworking on the blog, or do you do something offline, then post it? I love your blog and it is always so well thought out. I’m attempting to start my own blog during a stressful time in my life, so my blog ideas are about my stress and uncertainty, which could make for a whiny blog if I’m not careful. This is why I ask. I’m wondering if I should just go for it even if I disgust myself with all of my whiny thoughts or if I should rework and edit until it comes out a bit more objective.

    Your thoughts on this are greatly appreciated.

  7. Marian Thier
    Marian Thier says:

    another aspect is to know the listening habit(s) of the person you are asking the question to–my instrument, Hear! Hear? Your Listening Portfolio, assesses your listening habits–if you ask a question that aligns with a listening habit, you increase the likelihood that your question and their answer will be more effective

  8. Marian Thier
    Marian Thier says:

    I really like reading these posts because they coincide with the work that I’m doing on listening. While asking good questions is an imperative, my research indicates questions are highly correlated to listening habits. My instrument, Hear! Hear? Your Listening Portfolio® assesses listening habits so that the instrument-taker can determine if those habits serve him well in the workplace. A huge part of listening habits shows up in the types of questions people ask. So, if you are one kind of listener, and tend to ask questions that fit your habit(s), you might well be missing the information that the person you are listening to has to share. The trick is to develop a toolkit of questions large enough to accommodate all listening habits.

    • Marian Thier
      Marian Thier says:

      For clarity sake, I wrote the comment about the correlation between listening habits and asking questions. I did not write the comment about Steampunk. Somehow it got attributed to me, and I have no idea how or what The Golden Compass is. Thanks.

  9. Damien
    Damien says:

    The Golden Compass is NOT….NOT….NOT steampunk. It may be *inspired* by Steampunk, but it is certainly not fully steampunk. If you want to see true-to-form “Steampunk style”, watch “City of Lost Children”. That’s true Steampunk.

    The tricky thing about Steampunk as a “style” is that it’s really more of an ethos…kindof like Bauhaus. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is a “steampunk” comic book – think of Jules Verne, Orson Welles, and more recently, Hayao Miyazaki. The castle in “Howl’s Moving Castle” is steampunk-derived, as is the titular city in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. In video games, Bioshock is DEFINITELY Steampunk inspired. I’ve never seen so much functionally useless design in any other medium.

    Which brings to mind – if you can get your mind around the concept of “Aesthetics Driven by Functional Uselessness”, you can “get” steampunk.

  10. Carrie
    Carrie says:


    Wonderful post! Your second suggestion, “When You’re Lost, Look for Questions, Not Answers,” really resonated with me. A million answers to the “wrong” questions is worthless unless you have that one answer to the “right” question. Asking the “right” questions, though, is truly a skill that must be cultivated though practice and experience.

  11. Ty
    Ty says:

    Thank you for this article I really enjoyed it. Asking the right questions is an area I need work on. Do you have any information on this subject that you can direct me to?

  12. Scentsy
    Scentsy says:

    Found your site while looking for a great way to ask a question to my team, hoping for a lot of feedback. I love the quote from the billboard in New York.

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