Innovation hinges on the ability to ask one crucial question.
It’s the fundamental thought experiment that challenges assumptions, explores possibilities and drives human imagination.
Take a glance at your surroundings right now, and you’ll seen hundreds of objects that only exist because somebody somewhere asked the question, what if.
As an example, on desk at this very moment is a bottle of sparkling water. But it’s not a store bought bottle. It’s from my delicious and refreshing consumer home carbonation machine. All because an inventor wondered to himself:
What if people could drink fizzy water without consuming bottles or cans? What if soda addicts could give up sugary drinks and find a healthier alternative?
This simple but powerful line of inquiry proposes a new type of solution. What if the basic structure on which all manner of complex scientific questioning and testing is built.
And yet, despite all its praiseworthy qualities, the question what if can also launch us on a mental trajectory from which we never return. In fact, most of our unproductive obsessions begin with those two dangerous words. Whether it’s an overwhelming job, a new variant of coronavirus, our depressed child, or our aging parent, we begin assuming the worst and dwelling on it. And our anxiety ratchets up a little bit more with each inquiry we make.
What if this and what if that? No good comes from marching into mental combat.
Hey that rhymes. Maybe we should turn this into a musical.
Point being, it’s crazy how fast we tumble down the ruminative rabbit hole. And not for a good outcome, either. We’re trying to control events with our thoughts.
When the reality is, there is no amount of thinking through a problem that is likely to result in the illusion of certainty. Our ego might be trying to con us into this idea that it’s found the one exception to the rule. We assume worrying about someone or something is going to make us feel like we’re doing something to protect people.
But all we’re doing is training our brain to reinforce the cycle of anxiety. Asking what if can seem like a coping method for dealing with stress, but it often backfires and keeps our suffering going.
Given that certainty is a myth, it’s reasonable to believe if we wonder about something, then the likelihood of it also being a true about reality is greater than zero percent.
Look, I’m a proponent and practitioner of imaginative thinking, and fully agree that we should consider the complete possibility of what might be. At the same time, I also find questioning everything all of the time isn’t the healthiest way of relating to ourselves and the world. Sometimes we have to cool off the system that generates these alarm reactions. Sometimes it’s better for everyone to disagree and commit, so we can move forward with less than perfection information.
I’m reminded of an old coworker. Amy valued getting things right as a virtue, no matter how long it took. And as admirable as it was that she had such high standards, the bottom line is, she was anxious all the time. She never stopped asking what if. She bought into her own creative worrying about what bad things could happen. And she tried to solve too much thinking by applying more thinking.
I think she should have clearer distinctions in his attentional and intentional investments. The better question should could have asked was, are you in investing in something unattainable, or investing in the present moment and in your values?
Because most people do the former. They what if themselves into a corner. They turn scenario planning into a mental illness. They’re so obsessed with the likelihood of things happening, that they don’t realize they have the ability to deal with the world.
What if this happens? You will be fine.
What if that happens? You will be fine too.
But what if that other things happens?
Trust me, you’ll be able to cope with it.
Ultimately, our obsession around asking what if only reminds us that there is no certainty in this life, there is only confidence and assumptions.
If you’re someone who has a deficit in uncertainty tolerance, at some point you’re going to have to say, screw it, that’s good enough, I’m calling it, the sky is blue. It’s time to abandon the mandate to determine what the odds are.
Questioning everything all of the time is exhausting and dumb.
Accept that the possibility of something happening simply exists at a level greater than absolute zero.
And try to enjoy your life.
LET ME ASK YA THIS…
What question is blocking your ability to be present?