Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

Long before the Europeans came, the Iroquois tribe lived across most of New York, Pennsylvania, and Eastern Canada. Like most societies, they had a creation story.

“They swam to the Great Turtle, master of all the animals, who at once called a council. When all the animals had arrived, the Great Turtle told them that the appearance of a woman from the sky was a sign of good fortune. Since the tree had earth on its roots, he asked them to find where it had sunk and bring up some of the earth to put on his back, to make an island for the woman to live on. The swans led the animals to the place where the tree had fallen. First Otter, then Muskrat, and then Beaver dived. As each one came up from the great depths, he rolled over exhausted, and died. Many other animals tried, but they experienced the same fate. At last, the old lady Toad volunteered. She was under so long that the others thought she had been lost. But at last, she came to the surface and before dying managed to spit out a mouthful of dirt on the back of the Great Turtle. It was magical earth and had the power of growth. As soon as it was as big as an island, the woman was set down on it. The two white swans circled it, while it continued to grow until at last it became the world as it is today, supported in the great waters on the back of the Great Turtle.”

Have you heard Stephen Hawking’s version?

“Long ago, the famous physicist was told by an elderly lady that science was all wrong. The world, she said, rests on the back of a giant turtle. When Hawking asked what the turtle stands on, she replied: ‘You’re very clever, young man, very clever — but it’s turtles all the way down.’”

There are two ways to imagine the earth on the back of a giant turtle

Either there is just one turtle, standing on nothing, or it’s turtles all the way down. Both are ridiculous, but one is infinitely more ridiculous, and that’s a whole lot of turtles. More of the same isn’t a solution when the original premise is flawed.

In business, turtles all the way down is what well-informed people call those who dodge the tough questions because they haven’t any facts

The little old lady and people like her don’t realize that when they brush aside good questions with nonsense answers, they are revealing themselves in two ways. As Daniel Kahneman would say. they are:

  • Blind to the obvious
  • Blind to their blindness
Harvard Business Review says good leadership is about asking good questions

They say that those who think they have all the answers are either clueless or lying. When I was traveling around the world as a researcher, people everywhere would say, “Oh, you’re the one with all the answers.” My reply never varied: “No, I’m the one with all the questions.”

Knowing what questions to ask is half of it

The other half, the one that makes it worthwhile to learn what questions to ask, is to gain an understanding of how to evaluate the answers you get.

Want to look at old things in new ways and see the commonplace in greater detail?

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A top executive and I spent two days together. On the third day, she asked her department heads some hard questions. She was pleasantly surprised to discover how easily she could determine which ones had real facts supporting their claims and which ones had to pull their heads back into their shells. She said it was like using truth serum.

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