Storytelling at Work
June 07, 2020
Doors Begin to Open When We Ask the Right Question

Einstein queestioning2.jpg

"What people think of as the moment of discovery is really the discovery of the question." - Jonas Salk

Sometimes, I feel like I'm living in a hall of mirrors. Everywhere I look I see myself looking everywhere looking at myself looking. Kind of like that physicist (whose name I do not know) who explained that the universe was curved and if you looked long enough through a powerful enough telescope into the far reaches of space you would, eventually, see your own butt.

What follows is one of those reflections in one of those mirrors.

On February 22nd, 2020, I arrived in Melbourne, Australia. My mission? To teach 34 teachers and senior leaders at Al Siraat College (a K-12 Islamic school) how to establish high performing teams. I had only 30 days to accomplish the task in a series of eight, 90-minute workshops with people from at least ten different ethnic groups.

This being my fifth, one-month residency at the school in the past three years, I was, by this time, a known entity, a member of the tribe, mostly trusted, and the future author of A Thousand Muslims and a Jew.


Anyway, two weeks into my residency, Fazeel, the Co-Founder and Principal of the school, asked if I'd like a full-time position -- an invitation that would require me to live in Australia for eight months out of the year.

Twilight Zone, anyone?

Two days into contemplating Fazeel's kind invitation, the Coronavirus hit the fan and, as a result, many parents of Al Siraat students lost their jobs and their ability to pay tuition. Simply put, Al Siraat's funding for outside consultants dried up, leaving the school with only enough budget for me to work six hours per week (instead of the 45 I was accustomed to.)

Six hours of work per week, as you might guess, was not enough for me to live on -- and, with all my other clients closing up shop, going south, or too catatonic to know if they were closing up shop or going south, I had a decision to make: stay or go?

With the airports shut down, my decision was easy to make. I stayed.

And so, for the next two weeks, I did the Australian hoky poky, trying to figure out how I could deliver the most possible value in just six hours per week -- while wondering if my occasional coughing fits were something I should worry about while Pakistani soap operas, in Urdu, played on in the AirBB that was now my home for who knew how long.

With my hours being cut by 85%, I now had to work faster, smarter, have shorter conversations, invent nothing new, cut everything that seemed non-essential, refuse invitations to meetings, and be way less available to answer questions than ever before. I was a walking haiku or, at least, I was trying to be.

And all the while, I was experiencing, deep inside me, a low-grade virus of existential despair as I watched much of the progress I had made these past few weeks (and months of development before that) go up in socially distanced smoke. I'm not sure how you say "oy vey" in Arabic, but that's what I was feeling.

And then? Out of the blue, I had as close to an epiphany as I have ever had. D'oh! Fazeel and I had been trying to solve the wrong problem! "How can Al Siraat get as much value as possible from Mitch in just six hours per week?" was the wrong question! Not even close! The way we had framed our challenge had created a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We had stacked the deck against us without even knowing it.

Obvious to me now, an entirely different question bubbled to the surface: "How can we find an outside funding source to underwrite the training Mitch had been hired to facilitate at Al Siraat?"

In other words, we needed to go beyond the limiting assumption that my fee could only be paid by the school. Who said that only the school could pay for my services? Where was it written, in stone, that an outside benefactor could not become part of the equation? What was preventing us from looking to the local community for alternate sources of funding?

See what I'm saying?


The next day, sitting in my very temporary office, the very radiant Sev Bektash, one of the school's most open-minded teachers, poked his head in and asked if I had a few minutes to chat.

With no particular topic in mind, the two of us opened up a juicy conversation -- two alchemical friends hanging out in the middle of a pandemic.

Ten minutes into our talk, Sev let it fly that one of his most enjoyable side-projects -- leading weekend retreats for troubled teens -- had been funded, in the past, by a very generous, forward-thinking, local Islamic businessman.

"Hmm..." I thought to myself. "A very generous local Islamic businessman... might he be a possible benefactor to fund Al Siraat's Team Leadership Training and, by extension, moi?"

So I pitched the idea to Sev who loved it immediately and volunteered to hand deliver our to-be-written proposal to our benefactor-in-waiting as soon as it was ready. Whoo hoo!

The next day I wrote the proposal, gave it to Sev, Fazeel, and Esra for them to edit, which they did, refining our request. Two days later, Sev drove 30 minutes into Melbourne and hand delivered our hot-off-the-press proposal. Bingo! Contact! Lift off! Our very generous, local Islamic businessman loved it. Perfect timing! The only thing left to do to seal the deal, was for me, the next day, to return with Sev to meet with our benefactor-to-be. The "sniff test", I think it's called.

Thirty minutes into our pow wow, our new delightful, heartfelt, soulful benefactor gave his thumbs up and told us what a blessing it was for him to have such a wonderful opportunity to be of service.

And that is why I'm still in Australia and will continue to be for another three months -- a turn of events that only happened because I questioned the question, replaced it with a more expansive one, and invited my Islamic colleagues to join me in exploring it.

As Henry David Thoreau once said, "It's not what you look it that matters. It's what you see."


What questions are YOU asking these days? About your life? Your work? Your relationships? Your hopes and dreams? Racial equality? Peace on Earth?

Take a few minutes now to jot these questions down and poke at them. Are they really the questions you need to be asking? Or might they be full of limiting assumptions and pre-conceived ideas?

Is it possible there is another question you could be asking yourself these days -- a bigger question... a bolder question... a path less traveled question -- one that might spark some breakthroughs for you and, who knows, maybe the rest of the world, as well?

On asking the right question
Excerpt from A Thousand Muslims and a Jew
An outtake from the Team Leadership Training
Another way of looking at a problem

Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at June 7, 2020 12:31 AM

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Storytelling at Work is a blog about the power of personal storytelling – why it matters and what you can do to more effectively communicate your stories – on or off the job. Inspired by the book of the same name, the blog features "moment of truth" stories by the author, Mitch Ditkoff, plus inspired rants, quotes, and guest submissions by readers.

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