The Importance of Asking Questions

I was lecturing in Moscow this week. Aside from giving a few lectures at the Israeli Cultural Centre, speaking mainly about innovation and the Israeli healthcare system, I was also invited to give a research-oriented talk at the Sechenov Medical University – the largest, oldest and most respected medical university in Russia. And indeed, when I came into the auditorium, some 100 dental students gathered to hear the strange guest from abroad who happens to speak Russian.

When you lecture to Israeli students, it’s usually easy enough to find out whether they listen and follow. They’ll be sure to tell you if they don’t, and of course, at least some (if not all) of them would feel quite comfortable with interrupting the lecture with questions. And as a matter of fact, being an Israeli for the past 25 years, I tend to encourage questions.

My lectures are built on a very clear pathway, and a good, properly timed question can only help. And after a few runs of the same lecture, I can usually anticipate most of the questions – and use them to advance the lecture and move it on to the next level.

And then I got to Moscow. It’s not that I haven’t lectured to Russians before – yes, I had, but they were usually experienced business owners or at least were much older than me, and they felt comfortable to ask questions and responded well to my ancient Soviet jokes. Here, however, something was different – I sensed fear, maybe even shame.

No one asked anything at all, and I finished my lecture 20 minutes earlier than usual…

Of course, it’s understandable. Russian students go to college quite early, and some graduate as doctors at 23, after only five years of study. Thus, at 34, I could have been one of their professors (and professors of my age were actually sitting there too), and I can imagine that it feels intimidating. And although I asked them, in fluent Russian, to ask anything they want – they kept their silence.

I am sure, however, they understood everything. A few came after the lecture to thank me privately and ask me some questions that have indeed shown some deep understanding of the subject.

Why, then, wouldn’t they ask anything during the lecture?

I think this phenomenon stems from the same place as the lack of innovation in Russia. There are lots of good ideas, however almost none of them have ever turned to businesses – and if they did, it usually happened outside of Russia. The reason for that is a constant fear of raising your head above the crowd.

It’s cultural, and the local culture does not teach its children that asking questions, researching, trying new things and failing are essential components of success.

Being born in the Soviet Union, I felt it too – this constant expectation that if one fails in something, no matter what, he will lose his right to exist. You’ll be a failure if you don’t get high enough grades; a failure if you don’t get into the best university; a failure if you try to quit or change a career. As a matter of fact, it’s considered better to be stuck with a profession you don’t like – as long as it feeds you – than switching careers and doing something you love best.

By switching careers, one excludes oneself from the crowd. And it’s Passover tonight, so how do we call someone excluding himself from the community? That’s right, he’s the wicked one. Now we understand why this notion is extremely popular among the Soviet Jews…

I think that’s an awful way to raise children, and I keep telling that to every audience I lecture to – in Russia, in China, or anywhere else where kids are raised with high expectations and not a single chance to fail and learn from the failure. I tell them that without my failures – and boy, I had some! – I wouldn’t be the man I am right now. I hope one day they’ll understand…

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