More on the Goldfish Question

I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”

 

We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.

 

Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.

 

In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:

 

“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.

 

If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.

Asking More Questions

Michael Bungay Stanier starts one of the chapters in his book The Coaching Habit with a quote from Jonas Salk, “What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question.”  This quote is fitting because Bungay Stanier’s premise in The Coaching Habit is that we too often focus on giving orders, directing people, telling others what should be done, and giving advice. Bungay Stanier turns the role of the coach around and suggests that coaches should let other do the talking and advice giving. The job of the coach, in his view, is to get the individual speaking and to constantly ask questions to help the other person in a process of self-discovery.

 

Asking more questions does not translate into constantly asking why or how come. It is about listening to the individual and getting them to describe their challenges more completely and to help them visualize improved opportunities and strategies for success. The individual you are working with is the expert in their life, even if they don’t know it. You, no matter how well you know the other person, are not truly an expert in their life and any advice or direction that you provide will necessarily be short sighted.

 

I recently read Robin Hanson’s The Elephant In The Brain in which he argues that much of human behavior is guided by motivations and agendas that we keep secret, even to our selves. Our behaviors are shaped by goals and desires that we don’t necessarily want to share with others because they are self-serving and potentially break with social norms. If we assume that everyone is acting based on self-interest and hidden motivations (at least part of the time), then we have to assume that as coaches we don’t always know or receive the actual answer that describes someone’s behavior. If we are coaching and working with someone, we can ask questions that get them to think about their hidden agendas and better understand and acknowledge what is happening internally. It would be defeating to try to force and individual to state their hidden motive, so we should not question it too relentlessly, but we should help them acknowledge it in their own mind.

 

Ultimately, asking questions helps you and the other person become more introspective. Giving advice does not help the other person because it is advice and direction coming from your limited perspective. A better approach is to ask questions that help expand the scope of consideration and perception for the other person, helping them find the answer themselves and helping them become more self-aware.

The Essence of Coaching

While I was working on my undergraduate degree at the University of Nevada I spent some time coaching cross country and track and field at Reno High School. I really enjoyed coaching and had a great time working with the runners, helping them compete for state championships, and compete at their best. What I never really asked myself, however, is what I thought coaching was all about.

I tried to be a good role model for the kids and show them how to work hard and improve their running, but I never thought deeply about what my role as a coach should be. In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier takes a deep look at coaching (mostly from a professional workplace standpoint rather than a sports standpoint) to understand what coaching is truly all about. “The essence of coaching,” writes Stanier, “lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” A coach is committed to being helpful and focusing on helping others become the best version of themselves that they can be. This is something I think I understood at an intuitive level, but I never really stepped back to think about my role as a coach in this way, and it certainly was not at the front of my mind ever day when I arrived at practice.

Coaching was partly a way for me to continue getting good workouts in with people I enjoyed. It was partly about me demonstrating something positive about myself in terms of leadership, loyalty to the school form which I graduated, and my ability to serve as a positive role model. These hidden motives were not the only drivers of my coaching decision, I really did enjoy working as part of a team toward a big goal and I appreciated having the chance to help our head coach and help our athletes improve and push themselves. But I am certain that I would have developed a different coaching style if every day before practice I through to myself “the essence of coaching lies in helping others and unlocking their potential.” Everything from my conversations, to how I participated in workouts, and to who I spoke with at practice would have shifted as I tried to unlock the most potential in the most kids.

I don’t think I was a poor coach because I partly participated for my own hidden motives (hidden even to myself). But I certainly don’t think I was the best coach I could have been, and that is because I lacked self-awareness and my coaching focus was not dialed in on what is the most essential element of coaching. What coaches must remember is that while they benefit personally and may have hidden motives of their own, coaching needs to be about another person and about unlocking greater potential in the world.