Over the last three years, I’ve been telling stories of people who do work that seems crazy from the outside looking in — crazy “man, I wish I could do that” or crazy “wow, they’re nuts to do it that way.” But here’s the thing: Inevitably, whenever I talked to these people, whether they’re an executive at a large company, the founder of a new one, or a creator and tinkerer and experimenter on the side, their explanations NEVER match the outside perception. They don’t see their work as crazy. They describe their decisions as logical, strategic, or even safe. It’s only crazy from the outside looking in.
So what’s the difference between our perception and their reality? And how can we do work that others deem as crazy or innovative or creative but we see as the smart path? That’s just part of what I aim to explore in my new book, Break the Wheel: Question Best Practices, Hone Your Intuition, and Do Your Best Work. And I can give you the answer to the questions above: The difference is always their context.
When we dub someone’s work crazy or innovative, we assume they’re taking giant leaps. They’re rebels, geniuses, or inspiring voices, or maybe they’re just plain weird. And while it’s true that they possess something we don’t possess, it’d be wrong to say they possess something we can’t possess. Inevitably, the reason others’ work seemed logical when we see it as crazy is that they based their decisions on a detail within their own context that we didn’t know about — until we heard their side of the story. It’s not like they possess any kind of mysterious gift or ability that we can’t access. They just make decisions based on what they observe to be true about themselves, their teams, their customers, their resources — their own situation.
From the outside looking in, we lack context, and so we can’t logically explain why they did what they did. We’re running a faulty equation because we lack the variables someone else possesses. That’s what happens when we base our thinking on the general wisdom or the trend — or try to interpret someone else’s seemingly risky or innovative idea from the outside looking in. Now here’s the good news: We can do this too. We can do better work — work that seems innovative or risky or even crazy to others — if we understood our context too.
It’s there that we should start our decision-making process. I believe that’s the path to doing our best work. Because remember: Finding best practices isn't the goal. Finding best practices is.
Unfortunately, we don't admit that enough, nor have we been taught how to execute against that reality. We need to fix that! So here is my 10-point argument for why we shouldn’t begin our decisions with best practices but, instead, our context:
1) We want to do our best work. We usually turn to best practices to do that.
2) But best practices don’t take into account the details of our specific context. They’re either too generalized or too outdated or merely a buzzy trend others glom onto without knowing why. Here’s the thing: Doing whatever is most common or newest doesn't guarantee we're doing what works best for us. We need to orient around that first. Without first considering the variables present in our own unique situations, we’re making decisions that are “close enough,” and that leads to work that is, at best, “good enough.” Not great. Not our best. Just more commodity, average stuff. To do our best, we need to consider our context first.
3) The good news is, we all possess a skill to consider our context: intuition. Intuition isn’t about relying on snap judgments or invoking the mythical Muse. Taken literally, the word stems from the Latin root intueri, meaning “to consider,” and the late middle English intuit, or “to contemplate.” And a quick jaunt into the world of research psychology (actual science, not Greek poetry) reveals that intuition is a very real, very practical ability to vet information, tossing aside what’s relevant and informing our choices using only the most relevant details. Great! We all have a skill baked into our brains for considering and contemplating the world. Unfortunately, despite how very real that skill may be, we don’t know how to use it. So how do you activate and improve your intuition? Simple: Ask better questions. Focus more on asking good questions than seeking the “right” answers of others. That's how you begin to consider or contemplate your environment more critically and thoughtfully. That’s how you can hone your intuition.
4) So what do you ask questions ABOUT? Again, your context, but more specifically, the three most crucial variables of your context at work: you (the person or people doing the work), the audience (the person or people receiving the work -- customers, readers, bosses you're convincing, etc.), and your resources (your means to make the work happen, from the goals and budget you have to the era and area you live in, and more). Asking better questions about these three things helps you build a baseline understanding of your context. These are the most crucial variables that must be taken into account when making decisions. They help you get more specific than the generalized wisdom out there.
5) So what TYPES of questions can we ask? There are two types: Trigger questions and confirmation questions. Trigger questions are open-ended questions about your environment that can only be answered through reflection and/or testing. (The simplest example: “Why?”) Trigger questions launch your investigation into your context. Confirmation questions thus ensure that your investigation is on the right track. They force you to consider whether or not you have sufficient evidence to proceed in that direction — even if that direction doesn’t match the conventional path. (A simple example: “How do you know?”) These two types of questions work in pairs. They help us change our approach to making decisions. Instead of acting like experts who care about absolutes, we act like investigators who care about evidence.
6) And what SPECIFIC questions can we ask? While I encourage you to find your own, I propose six fundamental questions in the book that, if we each answer them, we’ll create work more tailored to our respective situations, i.e., better work. Using science and story (lots and lots of story), we arrive at one pair of questions (a trigger question and a confirmation question) to ask of each of the three major variables of your context.
If we can ask and answer those questions, we can set up a sort of “instant clarity generator” — a filter through which we can funnel any idea or advice in order to quickly know whether or not it makes sense for us, and to what degree. Because, again, the basis of great work isn’t expertise. It’s self- and situational awareness. We shouldn’t obsess over finding “best practices.” We should work hard to understand what works best FOR US.
In the end, that’s what matters most, whether we’re focused on results, fulfillment, or both. We need to get better at making decisions based on our own situation. Then and only then can we grab a list of tips, listen to a podcast, hire an expert, adopt a new trend others are buzzing about — or ignore all of that stuff entirely.
This is not about being a rebel, or a genius, or an inspiring voice, or even a weirdo. This is about doing the most practical, necessary, but overlooked thing in the world, if you truly want to do your best work: In a world overflowing with conventional thinking, think for yourself.