3 Questions to be more effective at work
November 14, 2017
There is a troublesome truth about meaningful work: each project usually involves at least one moment of substantial difficulty and self-doubt. It’s that moment when you suspect you don’t really have the ability to do this kind of work and should instead throw in the towel, join the circus, or work in a bakery.
Recognising the regularity of such insecurity can be incredibly freeing. To identify its frequency, and indeed its involvement in the creative process itself, is to reduce it’s authority. If self-doubt is normal and common, then it is just part of life, rather than the whole truth about you and your ability to do effective work.
The normalisation of difficulty is always helpful, at least at an emotional level. It affirms the fact that you are not alone in your struggle. Getting stuck is just part of the creative process.
But knowing that its normal to experience self-doubt doesn’t make your current struggle go away. What, then, can be done when you find yourself in the valley of the shadow of career death? How best can you navigate the doubt, and keep moving forward in effectiveness? Philosophy can help in two main ways.
First, the aphorisms of great thinkers can give guidance.
For example, the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher, Seneca offers insight relevant productivity when he says, “If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favourable”. With a little bit of interpretation, Seneca’s insight suggests that a block might soften if you step back and consider what you are really trying to create or communicate – the creative equivalent of reminding yourself which port you’re aiming for.
Or consider one of Seneca’s last great questions, which he is said to have posed just before satisfying the Emperor Nero’s order to kill himself: “What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls for tears”.
Maybe Seneca won’t be headlining any positive thinking conferences, but his view is not wholly negative or nihilistic. Rather, he, and the broader Stoic philosophy he helped to develop, encourages us to manage our expectations so that we can prepare well for times of trouble and not over-identify with them when they come. From this perspective, the presence of self-doubt need not signal that you are in fact an imposter. It need only tell you that you are at one of those points in the creative process where you will need to go outside the body of knowledge you currently hold. Further research, more critical reflection, a friend’s perspective, or a bit of fresh air may be needed.
Still, while philosophical aphorisms can be helpful, they have their limitations. The kernel of wisdom they hold can have broad application, but they do not go very far in equipping you to do your own philosophical investigation into your particular situation. To amend one famous aphorism, they give you a fish rather than teaching you to fish.
“Arguably, the more valuable way that philosophy can help with creative blocks is by blazing a trail to greater powers of reflection and analysis.”
Second, philosophy can help by blazing a trail to greater powers of reflection and analysis.
To benefit fully from this more robust approach, an education in critical reflection is needed. But in the meantime, a few choice questions are a great start.
Philosophers use questions to go beyond what is already known, something that is very relevant when experiencing a creative block like self-doubt. While answers propose an end to interrogation, questions extend the line of exploration. The below questions come from the core task of philosophy to pursue the truth about a given matter. Each question aims to bring you back to the ‘truth’ about the professional task you are currently wrestling with.
Why does this project really matter? What is its purpose?
What do the key words in your brief mean? Could they have different meanings to your client or manager?
What assumptions are ‘running in the background’ of the brief you are responding to? What assumptions are influencing the innovative solution you are trying to create?
These three sets of questions are just the beginning, but they are helpful nonetheless. Their power is found in the way they draw you back to the basics of the task at hand, making you cut through any ego, fear, ill-defined concepts or lack of motivation that had characterised the project thus far. Philosophical aphorisms and questions will not make work trouble free, but they can suggest a helpful way forward when challenges arise.
To take the next step toward thinking your best, our training session on how to Think Laterally can give you and your colleagues the tools to ask questions effectively and execute work well.