For several years I worked at a small woodshop owned by a fascinating artist named Bob Ripley. Bob makes custom furniture and hand-carved doors and musical instruments and, well, whatever else strikes his fancy.
Decades before I met him, Bob worked at an electronics company before joining a commune where he and his wife weaved baskets. They eventually moved from California to Greenville, SC, where they bought a big building in a dilapidated part of downtown. Thirty years later, downtown underwent a renaissance and they sold their building for big bucks.
I was reminded of Bob’s journey recently when I came across a short profile of him in a local paper. In it, Bob tells one of my favorite stories (and this from a man with a ton of interesting stories). In fact, Bob himself calls it the story that changed his life.
“I was working as an electronic technician and I used to go to this wonderful technical library. And there was this cute librarian there. I went over to her desk and started talking to her, and she asked, ‘What do you do?’ and I started to tell her about my job. She said, ‘No, no, what do you do when you’re not at work?’ And I thought, out loud, ‘Well I go home and drink beer and watch TV and eat dinner and go to bed, and the next morning I get up and go to work.’ She turned her back to me and faced the other way, as if to say, ‘Well, if you don’t have a life, why should I talk to you?’ And I thought, ‘I get it.’ I started taking art classes at night at a community college in San Diego.”
That one simple question changed the trajectory of Bob’s life.
“What do you do?”
It got me thinking about some other articles I’ve come across lately, all of them related to the transformative power of asking questions.
Artist Austin Kleon shares some tips about how to be a more interesting person. One of the tips that really resonated with me was to “commit to asking three people a day an open-ended question about themselves and really listening to their responses.” The more interested we are about others, the more interesting we can be.
I also like these six benefits of asking questions on success.com.
Asking questions is also a great teaching device (Socrates swore by it). As a parent, I appreciated the ideas in this article demonstrating that asking questions can help us teach our kids about gratitude.
By asking questions we can help clarify our own thoughts as well as learn new things. And sometimes we can even help others better understand themselves.
Neil Shurley is a writer/actor/musician based in Greenville, SC. He's a long time member of the Happier community and can be found online at neilshurley.com.