What do YOU do with questions? 


What do YOU do with questions? This is the central question of the age of AI. We’ve always outsourced answers to some extent: as a kid I turned to a book or an expert figure, now it’s more likely to be ChatGPT or Bard.

For some questions – ‘What the capital of Peru?’ – this is a no-brainer. And generative AI is becoming at least as good as any expert at solving more interesting questions: ‘How should I prepare for a job interview?’ ‘What can I make for dinner out of mushrooms, potatoes and a can of tuna?’ 

But some questions – especially questions that come up for us as business leaders – are  different. They can’t be solved by synthesising all the knowledge out there on the internet. ‘Why isn’t this working?’ ‘What should I focus on next?’ ‘Where can we carve out distinctive advantage?’ 

Type these in to Bard or ChatGPT and they’ll give you an answer, sure, and it’ll be plausible, maybe even helpful; but by turning to them rather than yourself first, you’ll have cheated yourself out of neurological magic. Forget cocaine: ask anyone – including yourself – a question and you’ll trigger an instant hit of serotonin as the brain switches into a reflective, expansive state, drawing on and integrating insights from across its different domains, followed by dopamine as new ideas crystallise. 

But here’s the thing: as leaders, it can be difficult to find the time and space for asking ourselves questions like this. It takes courage to admit in public that we don’t have the answer, and it can frighten the C-suite horses. For most of us, if someone in our team asks us a big question like this in public it’s more likely to trigger creativity-inhibiting panic than expansive reflection. 

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a great coach who asks insightful questions and gives you time and space to come up with answers. But even if that’s the case, it’s unlikely you can call them 24/7 whenever a question comes up. 

Luckily, you don’t need to.

It was 3am one anxiety-riddled night about six years ago that I first discovered the power of exploratory writing, and I’ve been using it ever since. That first night the question was one that I now know has been asked by pretty much every entrepreneur throughout history – ‘What have I done?!’ – but back then I assumed everyone else had their act firmly together and it was just me, fresh out of corporate life, who was panicking about the uncertainty and risk of it all. 

I grabbed a pen and block of paper as I couldn’t think what else to do, but what I discovered in my frenzied scribbling changed my approach forever. Not only did writing in this raw, honest, exploratory way steady me almost immediately, moving me out of panic into a calmer physical and emotional state, but after just a couple of minutes I found I was starting to come up with ideas. Good ideas, ones that I could and would implement, and which quickly improved the cashflow. 

It turns out that a blank piece of paper and a brief period of fast, focused writing are all you need to generate original, workable insights even when you think you’re hopelessly stuck. I usually use a six-minute timer, but the rule is that I keep writing until it goes off, even if I have nothing to say and I’m writing garbage: it’s the act of writing that draws out ideas. 

These days I start with a more consciously chosen prompt to tap into that extraordinary magic that questions generate. Neuroscientists describe the mental reflex that kicks in when we’re asked a question and all the feel-good chemicals designed to reinforce it as ‘instinctive elaboration’: we just can’t stop our brain looking for answers, so we might as well find good questions and make use of it. 

So if you’ve always thought of writing as primarily a tool for communicating answers and you instinctively turn to Google or AI to ask your questions, try flipping it round. Put a question to yourself, and give yourself a few minutes to write in response – by hand on a sheet of paper, ideally, for full neurological impact – dumping your thoughts on the page without any judgement, noticing the connections and insights that emerge. See what happens. You might find the result is a new, more fundamental question – that’s ok too. Take that one to the page too.

Not only will the answers you come up with through exploratory writing be more original and relevant to your situation than the ones a machine might have provided, but you’ll also have built up your own sense of resourcefulness. Once you discover that a sheet of paper and six minutes are all you need to come up with ideas and insights, you need never be stuck again.

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Alison Jones
Alison Jones, MA, MBA, is director of Practical Inspiration Publishing and host of The Extraordinary Business Book Club, a podcast and community for writers and readers of extraordinary business books. A veteran of the publishing industry, she regularly speaks and writes on the business of books. A former Head Judge of the Business Book Awards she’s written several books herself, including the bestselling This Book Means Business (2018) and Exploratory Writing: Everyday magic for life and work (2022), which was shortlisted in the Business Book Awards 2023. She is passionate about the value of both reading and writing for leaders, and particularly the extraordinary power of exploratory writing as a tool for thinking.