April 19, 2009

Examining Our Assumptions

When I was just a kid, my mom drove me nuts with a sort of inquisition she conducted on a near-daily basis. As soon as I would walk through the door—before I could even think about getting a snack or turning on the television—she would say: “Did you ask any good questions at school today?”

That would mark the start of a drawn-out conversation. If my answer was no, she would want to know why (and if I intended to do anything with my life). On the other hand, if I answered yes, she would want to hear the question and understand its context. She would ask how the teacher and the other students had reacted, all of which subjected the event to considerable scrutiny. There was an upside, however, because on the occasions when I could report an especially clever question, it was enough to make my mom’s day. I could count on a favorite entrĂ©e at dinner that evening. I might even be allowed to stay up a little past my bedtime.

Back then I figured all mothers were like that, so it didn’t seem peculiar to me. Today, however, I find it interesting that she never once asked if I’d answered any questions. To her, the best indication of an active mind was the ability to probe and prod. Knowing a bunch of answers didn’t impress her, at all.

It wasn’t until I was an adult that I met someone else who loved good questions the way my mom did. His name was John Meriweather and he was, at the time, the president of Salomon Brothers. I received a call from him one day not long after joining the firm’s Tokyo office. He’d heard that I was working on a new deal and he wanted to know more about it. When I started to summarize the transaction, he stopped me and said it was best to have the conversation face-to-face. The following week, I traveled to New York to meet him.

Little did I know that two other people—Larry Hilibrand, who’d earned a $15 million bonus for his trading performance the year before, and Myron Scholes, who would later earn a Nobel Prize for his work in developing an option pricing model—would be in the meeting with us. We sat down and John promptly asked me to explain the structure of the deal I’d developed. It was, quite simply, based upon a quirk in the Japanese tax code, which could be used to minimize the tax liability of certain investors. It took me five minutes to offer a summary, after which I soon lost track of the conversation. Scholes, Hilibrand and especially Meriweather took the implications of the deal to a place I’d not foreseen and put it in a bigger picture that included its affect on other capital flows. For me, it was a fascinating glimpse into the way extraordinary minds worked. In particular, I noticed two things: one, their interaction was effective, in part, because they were willing to challenge each other’s assumptions and two, they were far more concerned with articulating the right questions than in reaching correct conclusions. As I heard Meriweather say: “Ask the right questions and the answers follow.”

To say Meriweather is a smart man is like saying Richard Petty can drive a car. To this day, I’ve never met anyone who compares with him in intellectual terms. I didn’t get to know him well—after all, I was just a grunt back then—but I knew enough about him to understand the source of his mental prowess: He had a boundless curiosity and a deep love for the question, “Why?” In fact, it soon became apparent to me that before asking him a favor, it was best to prepare answers to two questions: Why does it matter? Why should I believe it?

And therein is a powerful code for life that both my mom and John Meriweather would doubtless appreciate: Be curious and never stop asking questions. This, unfortunately, is the antithesis of what many Christian organizations teach. Their notions of faith often require unquestioning reliance upon church decrees and literal interpretations of scripture. Ask, “Why?” and brows furrow. It’s because God says so, is one inevitable reply. It’s a mystery not to be tinkered with, is another. Then to side with logic and evidence against any faith-based assertion is deemed sinful.

Isn’t it apparent that accusations of faithlessness are bludgeons no less harmful than the racks of the inquisition? After all, as I’ve said on multiple occasions in past blogs: Faith has far more to do with uncertainty than perfected knowledge. There is nothing inappropriate with accepting certain premises on faith—in fact, we must do so since logic takes us only so far—but we should also acknowledge the possibility of being wrong and be willing to change our views should evidence dictate the need. In short, we should from time to time, question our assumptions, because that will lead us to better places.

In this context, we must see certain Old Testament stories for what they are: morality tales meant for another time and place. Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac is a good case in point and a story I’ve written about in other blogs. But consider also the account of Job, in which God and Satan go into cahoots to tempt and test a good man. We are meant to take from the narrative the value of unquestioning faith and we’re encouraged to follow Job’s example by never questioning why. Mindless doing, it seems to imply, trumps understanding. Yet, should we also accept God’s apparently capricious behavior? I think it's best to question the account altogether.


Anonymous said...

God said to do his work and we would know that it is true. ONce that happens don't we have to accept the whole enchilada?

Anonymous said...


I'm happy to have found you here, Alan. To me, your writing suggests unusual possibilities, which I eagerly anticipate. I'm traveling now, so more later.

I think I read Peter Senge observe that Toyota (or some Japanese car company) used the exercise of "Five Whys," asking why five times in sequence, as part of their problem-solving and decision-making processes?

On a different note, yours is an interesting theory-espoused combining faith and doubt. A vision? Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic recently seems gradually to be espousing a similar vision.

In my experience, however, observing religious people in practice, the embrace of "faith" tends in reality simultaneously to be active rejection of doubt. That is why I often have observed that "learning ends where faith begins."

Grins and best wishes,