I only know that I know nothing
"An unexamined life is not worth living”- Socrates
My daughter's Montessori class spent the better part of the last month researching Greece for their International Day. That meant we spent the better part of the last month at home immersed in Kalamata olives, worry beads and sun soaked images of fishing villages off the coast of Crete. I learned a lot these last few weeks, like how to piece together a toga from an old pillowcase and a handful of gold sequins from the dollar store. I was also schooled by my four year old on the lessons of Greek Mythology and Philosophy.
"Mama, did you know Medusa's hair is made of snakes? REAL snakes and she made people into rocks with her eyes. Midas touched stuff with his fingertips and it turned into golden eggs. A guy named Plato was really good at math, and his best friend Socrates didn't ever take baths! The Goddess Athena had really nice hair and her Dad Zeus, well, he told his other make-believe daughter to never EVER open her toy box or all the evil in the WHOLE wide world would spill out, but she didn't listen. But don't worry Mama, because in the end, a little HOPE did finally come out of Pandora's box and everything turns out ok"
Consequently, I spent most of the last month in pursuit of my own higher Greek knowledge in order to decipher my kid's garbled take on life in Athens circa 400 BC.
Here is what I can gather from Google thus far.
In addition to having great hair, Athena was actually known for being quite wise and creative. She fought battles that no one else seemed to want to take on with much strength and courage. I equate her with a modern day Amy Schumer. On the other hand, her Dad Zeus wasn’t cool at all. He was pretty much a self-centered control freak who had no trouble throwing anybody and everybody under the bus. Kind of like, (insert name of your least favourite modern day politician here). I also learned, according to the Oracle of Delphi, (and the world wide web), that no one was apparently smarter (or less sanitary) than the philosopher Socrates.
In my Greek info quest, I found Socrates to be the most intriguing character of his time. Not solely because of his quirky personal hygiene habits, but because he had chutzpa. He had the strength of character and humility to challenge the "no one is smarter than Socrates" riddle of the Delphi Oracle by stating, “I only know, that I know nothing”. He was pretty sure he didn't have it all figured out and felt by questioning the real "know it all’s" of his time, he might actually be able to learn something.
A remarkably refreshing admission by a leader from any era.
Socrates broke down barriers amongt the classes, genders and cast aside “proper behavior” in favour of the pursuit of truth and ethics. He looked to all of his students for new ways of thinking and was a leader who knew how to ask all the right questions to provoke meaningful thought.
Asking the right questions, as it turns out, not only gets you the right answers but it also creates an environment filled with critical thinkers. Thinkers, who will collectively solve problems, ignite change and create better possibilities.
And, from my understanding, Socrates innovative "safe learning space" model was the precursor to today's brainstorming think tank. Socrates built a structure for discovery of higher learning based on trust. Trust to explore, trust to think freely, trust to throw proverbial spaghetti at the wall and see if it sticks.
He was the first leader to see vulnerability as strength, not as a weakness.
So, as I stood in my daughter's class eating mini spanakopita from Costco on International Day, I couldn't help but start asking some open-ended questions of my own. Why aren't the leaders of today more like Socrates? Why don't heads of companies, hospitals, schools and governments ask more questions and look to their own people for answers?
Here are the top 5 things I learned about asking questions from Socrates;
1) If you ask open-ended questions, the process takes a little longer but better possibilities arise
2) If you ask why it moves a specific goal to fit into a bigger picture idea
3) If you ask how it moves a bigger picture idea to a specific goal
4) If you actively listen after you do ask questions, you create a safe place to explore new possibilities and problem solve
5) If you admit you don't have all the answers you, like Socrates, become the smartest person in the room
Socrates was the "gadfly" of Athens. He was a risk taker and made people uneasy because he focused on questions of human ethics and morality. Socrates, a non-conformist was ultimately sentenced to death for "corrupting the youth" in ancient Athens. Right down to his final moments, Socrates never quit his quest for answers, even as he downed his death sentence, a goblet of hemlock. Although his end was tragic, his legacy is now as an innovative teacher and leader who changed Western Philosophy forever.
Being a risk taker and critically thinking outside the box is never an easy choice. Just ask Pandora and Socrates. It takes courage to ask questions and you'll likely unleash a whole lot of evil at first but if you have a little HOPE, in the end, everything will turn out ok.