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The Answer is 42 – What Was The Question?

Sometimes the answer is not a response to the question, but in finding the right question to ask.

In a previous post, which included my answer to what The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author, Douglas Adams, called “The Ultimate Question of Life the Universe and Everything,” I mentioned that we’d be revisiting the question, and the answer.

Over the course of his series of novels, Adams takes us on a hilarious journey with his unlikely hero, Arthur Dent. Dent is a survivor of the planet Earth which, we learn, was actually built as a complex computer to discover the Ultimate Question. Another computer, Deep Thought, had been built to determine the Ultimate Answer, and after seven and a half million years had reached a conclusion.

The Ultimate Answer, Deep Thought said, was 42.

When the beings who had set about to learn the answer protested that they didn’t know what it meant, they were told it was because they didn’t understand the QUESTION.

Earth was then designed to uncover to Ultimate Question, but before a conclusion could be drawn, the Earth was destroyed by Vogons. The beings seeking this Ultimate Question and Answer, which look exactly like creatures we know as mice, decide they don’t want to wait another eight million years and settle on an arbitrary question; “How many roads must a man walk down?”

So now we know that a man must walk down 42 roads – but we still don’t know which roads, or where he’ll end up.

As farcical as this may seem, (and as Adams no doubt meant it to be) it illustrates one of the greatest fallacies we ever buy into.

That fallacy is the idea that someone else’s answer is a solution for our problem.

I have had clients who just wanted answers. They wanted someone to tell them what to do: which of the 42 roads to walk down next. They wanted to use someone else’s magic wand to magically solve their own problems.

Certainly, I could give them answers. And they would be the right answers to some questions. But they may not be the right answers to the client’s questions.

In order to arrive at answers that are meaningful and applicable, we have to be asking the right questions. That’s why my process always begins with coaching (the questioning phase) even when I will be doing business consulting (the recommendation and answer phase.)

It might be an extreme example, but in my previous post I said “sometimes love is the only sensible response.”

That answer is true for me, it answers the questions I was asking at the time. (And I’ll be writing more about the questions I was asking and why that answer is so powerful and not at all extreme for me.)

But unless you know your own question, “love” might have as much meaning as “42.” Because without the Ultimate Question, you won’t know how to APPLY the Ultimate Answer, rendering the whole exercise as futile (and a lot less amusing) as Adam’s story.

Right now, many of us are  examining both life and business, gearing up for 2012.

I hope that before you look for answers, you’ll take the time to ask the meaningful questions. The results might be surprising.









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  • Vogons are clever. They are as clever as every organisation which realizes the only way to gain government funding is via multiple choice questionnaires. Look at a ballot paper. What is that but a multiple choice questionnaire?

    That is not a rhetorical question. I have not yet disconnected the wiring that receives alternatives to democracy. We’ve heard all the political claims, backed up by statistical research. We know the machine is bigger than us. If we pay tax we are buying in to it – often without question.

    We all want what is right and true. Love is our only hope, and it is fighting a battle with fashion. I’m not sure that this says what I want to say:

    Whenever I think about government
    My whole system starts to mobilise like
    The anatomy of a mother fox
    Skeleton structure stiff as a tent frame.
    The eaves of shoulders; the ears of pricking
    Sense, which no-one has dumbed down with burdens
    Of the corporate brain, which counts the ticks
    On quantitative questionnaires, designed
    To prove everything has been considered
    And averaged out to the mode of fashion
    Transcending human consideration,
    Or trivialised with point-of-sale tunes
    Here the ticks are animal and the eyes
    Penetrate the blue-black dignity of
    Evening with yellow green majesty of
    Mother fox. But what has it got to do
    With me? Maternal instinct? Or the State?

    Maybe it’s not about government at all – but I work with society’s outcasts and listen to their beautiful stories. It is government that shocks my system to the core; but I will not be reduced to quantification.

    With the vogons, I am observing the practice of man. They are right about one thing: he needs to walk. Put the price of petrol up, and he could thrive.

    • “I will not be reduced to quantification.” Katrina, your voice and vision never fails to take my breath away. There is a reason, I think, that man is driven to create government – to provide a foil and backdrop for lights such as yours. That is not poetic nonsense you know. In an extreme example (which I beg you not to follow…) Without Hitler we would not have the words of Anne Frank.

      • I have been considering the difference
        Between ignorance and intuition,
        Cursing the story of my life
        To an inanimate software programme,
        Constantly seeking to sell me an upgrade
        As though it had a special relationship
        With the contents of my soul.

        And I have been studying the difference
        Between the left and right in parliament
        Trying to maintain receptivity
        To adept publicists with people skills.
        I tolerate again the truth economy
        Our civilisation compromises with
        And pray for meaning.

        I have been thinking about the difference
        Between action and passion
        In internal dialogue,
        Knowing their inseparability
        Is all that holds me together
        When I get up every morning
        And find things to do.

        And at the end of the legendary day
        With its parabolic repercussions
        I know we all know we must act
        So we entrust the important function
        Of government to somebody else
        And at the end of the Sun’s dance around us
        We bow to the strength of the universe.

        But who’s this specialist in what we want?
        That gives us boxes to tick with nothing
        But his name on it? I’ve been studying
        The candidate because he would not give
        A clear indication of policy.
        And we’ve all been told that power corrupts
        While the Sun stands still, incorruptibly.

        I have been meditating a little
        But probably not enough to accept
        The assumptions our civilisation
        Prescribes for normality
        I’ve been thinking about the difference
        Between things and how I’d like them to be
        Forty two lines and the days get longer. 🙂

  • questions…. answers….
    how to get from here to there
    as long as I live there will always be more
    and for me each quest answers some and more often then not
    has me asking more questions…
    for me that’s what it’s all about…
    what ? where? how? when? love it… and
    I know there are a million answers

    • Dixie

      “how to get from here to there…” Maybe “where is there?” is the next question? A million answers – and those are just YOUR answers, millions of answers, possibilities, alternate choices for every infinite spirit. Mind spinning yumminess!