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Three Questions that Help me Focus

When I was at Princeton, one of my advisors warned me, “earning a PhD is a solitary process.” While writing my thesis indeed was solitary, nothing has been as solitary and lonely as starting a business (or two!). While at times it can be therapeutic, at other times (most unfortunately) it can drive you down a lonely hole of despair. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way! However, one thing I learned along the way is that the lows don’t have to be despair-give-up-and-die lows. You can actually use these moments as lessons and fuel to keep going. One tool I found to aid me through the more challenging times was asking the right kinds of questions. I never really thought about the type of questions I asked myself before until I studied Usul al-Fiqh (the main discipline behind what I call ). When I realized that the early Muslims excelled at asking difficult, challenging, and thought-provoking questions, I realized that the quality of their answers was directly related to the quality of their questions. So, I started asking myself what sort of questions do I ask myself and are there better questions I could ask? Over time I realized that my mediocre results were usually a result of mediocre questions that I’ve inherited as “conventional thinking.”

In this post, I want to share with you three questions that I developed overtime that help me in my work-life/deen-life/personal-life. I ask these questions all the time and I hope they help you like they’ve helped me.

Question 1: If I achieved the success I’m seeking right now, what would I do next? What’s stopping me from doing that, or a version of it right now?

Sometimes it is easy to get blinded by the struggle, the day-to-day hustle, product launch, product manufacturing, acquiring customers, cashflow, and overall business growth. You do all this hard work hoping for the great “outcome.” You need this idea of an “outcome” as fuel to keep you going. Without it, it’s almost impossible to keep striving and grinding. However, one of the drawbacks is that you often get lost in the trees and can’t see the forest. So, I found myself migrating to this question, “If I had the success I’m currently working towards, what would I do next?” After answering this, I follow up with a second corollary question, “what is stopping me from doing a version of this now?” Often times, I would say 80% of the time, I can easily implement a version of that next step without distracting me from my current task. I realized that my mentality of “when I’m successful I will do xyz” is a form of unwanted procrastination. This question alone has helped me open extra sales streams even though I was in the thick of major product-production problems. The “next thing” is usually just around the corner. As a matter of fact, the entire concept of  came precisely from this question! I realized I don’t need to delay my dreams until tomorrow. I can have a version of that today!

Question 2: What else might this mean?

I remember a few years ago I was pitching a product to a large distributor. At that time my thinking (completely influenced by “convention” which later proved to be 100% wrong) was that if my product was not accepted by this distributor, I would not make it in the industry. The distributor declined the product, and I was devastated. I received this news late in the afternoon on a Friday. I licked my wounds over the weekend and started to ask myself, “why”? I needed a reason so I could turn rejection into a learning point. On Monday morning I got some specific reasons from the distributor regarding price point and packaging. This was a tremendous gift since this rejection informed how we sought to source our coffee (direct-trade, thus dramatically bringing down the price for us and ultimately the consumer) and the packaging (which I disliked, but went with what my design team told me was the “right thing to do” which is code for conventional thinking and therefore usually wrong). I learned that with every apparent bad news/rejection, it is crucial to ask, “what else could this mean?” My product wasn’t rejected, nor was my brand, only certain price and design choices that I was able to remedy with ease. Never take the negative news at face value, and always ask what else this might mean?

This question has been an essential way for me to deal with rejection, as the above story shows. We get turned down all the time for many things. Graduate school, marriage proposals, job interviews, etc. The ability to overcome rejection is the ability to ask this question and link rejection to the next win. Don’t give up, ever!

Question 3: Is this truly essential, or not?

Part of stepping out there and doing something you believe in is that as you start to build a team, people come and go largely as a function of cash-flow. When I let one person go in particular, I came to realize that there were a lot of subscriptions and services we had signed up for as a business. While the dollar amount now is not that much, at the time it represented a major part of our monthly expenses. I also realized that I never knew we had them (a failure of leadership on my part, I confess), and therefore they were not an essential part of the business, but superfluous. Over the next month, I canceled these extra bells and whistles and not only did the business have more in the bank monthly, the work was actually streamlined since the core team members didn’t use these services that much, and since the superfluous person and services were gone, we were lighter and more agile.

Whenever someone comes and says, “you have to do XYZ and this is the only way to increase sales, etc.” I pause and ask, “is this essential?” The clarity that comes is almost magical. If you scrutinize your major decisions based on what is essential, you will save much time and money and end up with a leaner operation.

This applies to our personal lives as well. Often times we are living under the false assumption that something is essential and absolute, when in reality it is not. Couples often fight over such things. However, we need to pause and ask if it really is essential. If it’s not, it’s not, and there is no reason to destroy relationships over them!