Change Your Questions – Change Your Life: Part 3 Question your assumptions – especially when the stakes are high

Assumptions may be one of the most dangerous diseases to plague the human race. They make us see problems that aren’t there and discard opportunities dangling right in front of us – just because we believe they won’t work. That is why the habit of writing down our assumptions so that we can question them may be one of the most important practices of all.

A stellar example of questioning one’s assumptions is the story of Bolsa Familia; a program designed to eliminate poverty by giving poor families cash, instead of goods.

For us that haven’t grown up in poverty, most would assume that poor people can’t be trusted to spend money wisely. Despite it being cheaper to hand out cash directly – one study estimated it to be 30% less costly than providing traditional goods – the idea of giving people money had been firmly rejected by most experts.

It took one board member, who had himself grown up poor, to get the rest of the Bolsa Familia board to question their assumption. By opening the conversation to questions like:

  • “Why do we believe that poor people can’t manage money responsibly?”

  • “What are the facts?”

  • How do we know that we are right?”

That board member was able to convince them to switch to handing out cash instead of goods. As a result, Brazil’s extreme poverty rate was cut in half and lifted 36 million people out of extreme poverty.

Lesson: What you think is a roadblock might just be a figment of your imagination. Vice versa, what you think is a solid road might actually be quicksand. You won’t know for certain until you take one small step forward to see if what you think is true actually is so.

How to question your assumptions – in 3 steps

1. First, think of a problem you are currently struggling with in your own life: 

  • Is a friend or family member often questioning instead of supporting you?
  • Do you have too much work and not enough time to do it all? 
  • Do you often forget a certain task and then have to spend more time redoing it later?

2. Now ask: “What assumptions am I making here?” and write them down. For example: 

  • “I am assuming that my friend questions me because she is a pessimist.”
  • “I am assuming that I have to do everything myself.”
  • “I am assuming that I just need to be more disciplined.” 

3. Finally, ask: “Let’s assume that I am wrong. What could then be true?”. For example: 

  • “My friend is questioning me so much because she doesn’t want my plans to fail. She is trying to be helpful!” 
  • “I don’t have to do it all by myself. I can ask my co-workers and family for help with some of my simpler todos.” 
  • “I don’t have to rely on my discipline. I can instead set up a system that automatically reminds me about the task.”

A problem is only a problem because we don’t see a solution to it. But more often than not, there is a solution path right in front of us. We just don’t use that path because we see a big boulder blocking the way ahead. 

But what if that boulder was just a wrongheaded assumption? 

Wouldn’t it be worth taking just one step forward to see whether that boulder really is there?

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