“The more I know, the less I understand/ And the things I thought I’d figured out, I have to learn again.” — India Arie, The Heart of the Matter
Hearing the words of this popular song inspired my remarks at Darden’s graduation ceremony last month. My experience as a teacher and leader leads me to doubt that one definitively “figures things out,” attains pure understanding. All kinds of things get in the way: we see, but don’t recognize; we listen, but don’t comprehend; insights are garbled in transmission; or there is simply too much noise in the environment. Maybe the best we can aspire for is an approximation of true understanding, like the curve that asymptotically approaches but never touches the ray. If so, India Arie is correct that we have to learn again and again. What matters therefore is the process of questioning by which one tries to figure things out. So it was that on May 24th I offered the following comments:
I have some advice for the Class of 2010. I welcomed you to Darden in August 2008. Over the following months, the world changed profoundly. In a short space of time governments around the world rescued financial institutions, took over industrial companies, and mounted enormous economic stimulus packages. And you know the rest of the story. Your time at Darden has witnessed extraordinary events in markets and the world, which may well mark the end of one era and the beginning of another. At moments like this, the ability to ask good questions becomes a competence of paramount importance.
Darden has quite a lot to say about this competence. Indeed, how we teach is what we teach. The case method classroom is all about inquiry. As a method of teaching, this is quite successful because conversation is transformational.
What makes it so? The quality of the questions one asks. Our alumnus, George David, recently retired as CEO and Chairman of United Technologies Corporation, which is one of the largest firms in the world. He has a process that he calls “fifty questions.” When he visited a manager or a plant, he didn’t settle to listen passively to a set-piece presentation. Instead, he actively engaged his managers in a curiosity-driven process. Darden teaches you not to be shy about questioning. The Chinese have a proverb: “He who asks a question is possibly a fool for a moment; but he who does not ask a question remains a fool forever.”
You can manage by questioning. Engage your people at work the way we engaged you here: question-question-question. Good questions outrank easy answers. Those who question tend to do better than those who give answers. Be a curiosity-driven manager. If you’re not satisfied with the answers you get, ask again and ask differently. Use questions to coach one another. Use questions to set high standards. Most of all, use questions to set a tone of integrity. This is what Thomas Jefferson would have wanted.
I tell you this, because to question well requires an acute level of attention. When I welcomed you to Darden in 2008, I told you that “You must be present to win.” What does it mean to be “present”? It means to be prepared, to participate, and to reach out to others in the community. You’ve probably heard that Woody Allen once said, “showing up is 80% of success in life.’ Well, I disagree. More accurately, being present is 80% of success. Just showing up doesn’t cut it anymore.
And be present for Darden. Recognize that you are the brand. Everything you do will make an impression about what the Darden School is: what we value, how we do things, the quality of our thinking and teaching, and so on. Part of being present for Darden involves speaking up for Darden. Through your actions and words, let the world know who we are. Truly, at Darden, how we teach is what we teach. We wish you well on the life journey that lies before you. Good luck and Godspeed.