Asking More Beautiful Questions

By February 4, 2019Uncategorized, Vol. 69

Brian E. Myers, University of Florida
Distinguished Lecture

Southern Region Conference of the American Association for Agricultural Education

 It is truly an honor and a privilege to be here and to give this talk. It is one of those things that when you start your career, you hope you have an opportunity to do it. Then when the call comes, you are like; I do not have anything important to say. More than likely, at the end of this you will agree that I do not have anything important to say. I want to get started here by telling you a story. About a month ago, almost a month to the day, I was sitting down at the Atlanta airport. I had just come from the NCAC-24 meeting in Washington, DC. If you don’t know about NCAC-24, it is the group of department heads, chairs, and program leaders from around the country. It’s a great group. We just finished this meeting and I was getting ready to make my connecting flight from Atlanta to Gainesville. Going to Gainesville we don’t get the really big planes, but we get planes that probably have about 80 to 90 people in them. I found my gate and it had two rows of six chairs. So, there is 12 chairs for approximately 90 people. Using my skills of mathematics, I knew that it was going to be a little tight at that gate. I happened to look over and I saw there was a prime seat right next to the wall. It was also right next to the outlet and my phone was about to die. I made my way to said prime location and plugged in my phone. I thought what a great day! I came from a great meeting and I got this great seat. I got my phone plugged in. Now I could listen to my podcasts the rest of the way home. Then my phone rang. I looked down and it was my wife. I’m sure I answered it in some smart-alecky way because that’s just kind of what I do. I heard her voice, something was wrong. She goes, “Tony just called.” Tony’s our 12-year-old son who is a seventh grader. “There’s an active shooter at the school and he’s with his friends and they’re running.” He was at the school and they were having a celebration for the end of the semester. All the seventh graders were in the gymnasium. There was report of gunfire out in front of the school. The teachers activated the system they had for an active shooter situation. They locked down all the kids in the classrooms but, because the seventh graders were in the gym, they had no place to take cover. So the teacher ran in and said “run”. Tony and his buddies scaled the security fence and ran into the nearest neighborhood. My wife said she would call me back when she had more news. So, I’m sitting there wondering what’s happening to my 12-year-old. Looking back on my phone, it was about three minutes, but it seemed like about an hour. She called me back. “I talked to Tony, he and his buddies are at one of his friend’s house in the neighborhood and everybody’s safe.” Now, it turns out that the active shooter was a false alarm. They don’t know whether or not it was a pneumatic air gun in a construction site nearby in which the hose blew off and caused the loud noise, or there might have actually been somebody target shooting or something just on the other side of the school. They’re still not sure what happened. After all this settled down, I was on the plane and started thinking about why does it take events like that, where you’re worried if you’re going to see your 12-year-old son again, to make you think about where you invest your time. 

As some of you know, I’m also filling in as the interim department chair for the Department of Animal Sciences at the University of Florida. It’s been an interesting time working in another department and to see what they do and start asking questions. Questions like, why do you operate like this? It got me thinking about our own department- Agricultural Education and Communication. Why do we do things the way we do? Is it just because it’s the way we always did it? I’ve noticed over the last two years that I’ve had a number of recently tenured associate professors either reach out to me at conferences, or call me up on the phone, all trying to figure out what’s next for them in their careers. It seems that now that they’ve “rung the bell” and achieved the milestone of tenure, they aren’t sure what or how to set the next goal. All of this got me thinking – How do all of us – senior faculty, departmental administrators and early career faculty – how do we make sure that the tenure and promotion process is not our focus? It is important. I get that. But it’s not why we do what we do. I understand it’s a whole lot easier for a guy standing on this side of the tenure and promotion line to say that. But I just ask you to hear me out today. 

My question for us is how do we change the focus from just counting publications, grant dollars, students taught, and trying to “check all the right boxes” to how do we focus on thinking about and asking better questions? How do we ask more beautiful questions that excite us and serve our stakeholders? In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Burger defines a beautiful question as “an ambitious, yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.” In this book, Burger talks about Van Phillips. Van’s question was, if they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot? Van was a 21-year-old, athletic, handsome, and bright young man. He was out waterskiing one day on a lake with some friends. Van was on the water skiing when they were coming around a bend in the lake. No one saw the other boat approaching from the other way. The boat struck Van in the water. When he woke up in the hospital, he saw that his left leg was severed from just above the knee. At the hospital, Phillips was fitted with what he called “a pink foot attached to an aluminum tube.” It was basically a block of wood with foam rubber added. He was told “get used to your new best friend.” For him it was clumsy, and it was awkward. He was told, “Van, you’re just going to have to learn to accept this.” When he heard that, he recalls, “I bit my tongue. I knew he was right. In a way, I did have to accept the fact that I was an amputee. But I would not accept the fact that I had to wear this foot.” After years and hundreds if not thousands of failures, Van went on to invent the Flex Foot, a revolutionary design that is now the industry leader for prosthetics. So the question is, how did he do this? He wasn’t an engineer. He wasn’t a medical student. How did he invent the Flex Foot? I would argue he did it by taking ownership of the question. The question was, “why can’t they make a decent foot,” but he changed the pronoun. He took ownership and he changed it to “why can’t I make a better foot?” He questioned established norms. He challenged what was known with heart and passion. He tried new ideas. He failed. He learned from those failures and tried again. Then failed some more. As he learned, he asked a more beautiful question. A question that inspired him and others around him. 

My question for us today is what holds us back from this? What are the obstacles that we must overcome? I would argue our number one obstacle is fear – mostly fear of failure. Fear is the enemy of curiosity. Too often in our setting, we have implicitly or explicitly built a system that tells people to hold back ideas until they have been polished and are perfect. That tendency toward overthinking and excessively preparing, rather than quickly trying out ideas to get feedback, to see what works and what doesn’t work, is a behavior that becomes ingrained over time. We’re all being 

challenged. We need to adapt to new and unfamiliar tools as well as ever changing technology without clear instructions. All of which require people to not only be better questioners, but better experimenters. Winston Churchill once said, “the trick is to go from one failure to another, with no loss of enthusiasm.” 

But how do we learn the trick of failing enthusiastically? When things fail, we can’t get caught up in what went wrong. We have to look at each failure and ask the question “In this failure, what went right?” Identify those things and build upon those things. Build a culture in our departments, in our universities, and in our profession of where it’s acceptable to try things and sometimes fail spectacularly. The key is to be able to look back at a series of attempts and ask, am I failing differently each time? Am I using these small failures productively as a means of avoiding devastating big failures later? Ask big questions – the more beautiful questions. 

The questions we should be asking are too big for any one of us to answer. If you are pursuing a truly ambitious question, you probably can’t answer it alone. Collaborative inquiry begins with asking others, “Do you find this question as interesting as I do?” “Want to join me and try and answer it?” We have to actively build our team or our squad. You have to find those folks which you trust, those that you can be honest with and can be honest with you. Those who you can be vulnerable with. People you can fail with, so that later you can succeed with. When you appeal to others with a shared question, you are involving collaborators as equals in a project. What may start out seeming to be your question quickly becomes their’s too. Questions, even beautiful questions belong to everyone. Holding back ideas or hoarding your beautiful questions is usually pointless. It’s hard to make headway on something hidden in a desk drawer or a computer file, or just a thought in your mind. 

Here is a question that I am asking every single one of the faculty that I meet with this year. I’m going to ask them, “looking back on your career 20, 30, however many years from now, what do you want to say you’ve accomplished?” Then I’m going to follow up with “why is that accomplishment important to you?” Then I’m going to ask, “what do we need to do now to make sure that you can see that?” Now, the goal will change over time but the key idea is where are you going? But more importantly, why is it important to you and what actions must you take now to get there? Who do you need to get on your team to make that a reality? 

We’re often told to lean into our questions. There is a time for that, I’m not going to argue against it. But I would argue that we need to take more time to step back – to look at the bigger picture. If we are always in the middle of it. If we’re always slugging it out, we risk losing the perspective we need to be able to see these larger and more beautiful questions. This is a challenge that we all face in our roles. I see it in the new graduate students and new faculty all the time as they transition from their previous roles of running a school-based agricultural education program or running their own business or working full-time. We need to get them to pull back and to see things from a larger perspective. To see agricultural education and communication from a statewide perspective or a national perspective or international perspective. It’s hard. We’re problem solvers. We like that feeling of solving a problem. If that is all we are doing it usually means we are only solving small problems. But how do we pull ourselves back and ask those tougher questions? So, I ask, what is your beautiful question? Who is your squad that will join you to work on this? How are you actively working to build that team? 

We in agricultural education, communication, leadership and extension education have the skills that are needed to address the major issues of our time. I’m going to say that again, because I’m not sure we always believe it. We have the skills that are needed to address the major issues of our time. We are central to the missions of our universities and to the people we serve. However, we can only do this if we challenge ourselves to ask the more beautiful question, the challenging question. When I’m asked to describe the work of our department, I say “AEC equips people and teams to make more informed decisions about Agriculture and Natural Resources.” We are not just working to give people the facts, but to equip them with the skills they need to assess the information they receive, to challenge their own assumptions, and to engage in a civil and productive dialogue. All with the with the goal of helping them make better, more informed decisions in agriculture and natural resources. We accomplish this though researching important and relevant questions and delivering top quality education and Extension programming. I got to this answer from hearing our senior administration complain about people’s distrust of science, our industry people saying that people just don’t understand agriculture. It’s my argument that our failure and our industry’s failure, is that we attack this issue from a knowledge deficit point of view. We think that if everyone just knew more about agriculture, all the problems would go away. However, today’s public is more educated and more food aware than any generation for quite some time. We are not working just to give people the facts, but to equip them with the skills they need to assess the information they receive, to challenge their own assumptions, to engage in a civil and productive dialogue. All with the goal of helping them make better, more informed decisions. 

I encourage you all to ask the hard questions. Squishy and unclear questions are not beautiful questions. They don’t challenge. They don’t lead us to make a real difference in the lives of those we serve. Your questions should make you a bit uncomfortable. When thinking about it, you should think “Wow, that’s big! If we can do this, what a difference we’re going to make.” It is big. You will make a difference. And you can’t do it alone. You need your team. You will fail at times. But the question is so important that you must learn and try again. 

There’s a memorable passage concerning the prophet Jeremiah’s life when he was worn down by opposition and absorbed in the challenge before him. He was about to capitulate. He was ready to abandon his unique calling and settle for just being another statistic. At that critical moment, he heard the reprimand. “So Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this foot race with men, what makes you think you can race against horses? And if you can’t keep your wits during times of calm, what’s going to happen when troubles break loose? Like the Jordan flood?” (Jeremiah 12:5). Asking the more beautiful question is sometimes hard to hear. It challenges us. Eugene Peterson writes in his commentary on this passage, “are you going to quit the first wave of opposition? Are you going to live cautiously or courageously? You are called to live at your best, to pursue righteousness, to sustain a drive toward excellence. It is easier, I know to be neurotic. It is easier to be parasitic. It is easier to relax in the embracing the arms of the average. It is easier, but not better. It is easier, but not more significant. It is easier, but not more fulfilling. What is it you really want? Do you want to shuffle along with this crowd? Or, do you want to run with the horses?” (Peterson, 2009, pg. 21-22). It’s my hope that we choose to run with the horses. To ask the more beautiful questions. Our students need us to do that. The stakeholders we serve need us to do that. And the universities where we serve need us to do that. We can if we only choose to. 

References 

Peterson, E. H., (2009). Run with the horses: The quest for life at its best. InterVarsity Press.