Academy for Wayward Authors: How Do You Know? Challenging Authority With Informed Questions

How do you know?

I recently spent a weekend in New York with an old friend named Graeme who I’ve known since 1993.

We met in Australia, and he was my chartered accountant. Our paths have taken us both into industries you wouldn’t imagine us knowing back then.

He now manages a quarter of a billion-dollar theater business that brings him to New York and London to scout shows to produce at his theater.

When I was working in Australia, I ran a business selling water treatment equipment.

Graeme was a great help to me in getting my business set up in Australia and growing it. He has only gotten wiser over time.

So, while we were in New York, we were waxing philosophical, and he brought up one of the most potent questions he asks when evaluating a situation:

How do you know?

This isn’t an original idea. Becca Syme has talked about Questioning the Premise (QTP) for years.

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Too often, we accept what others say and how things work as-is. There is nothing wrong with asking, “How do you know?”

The importance of skepticism in entrepreneurship

If someone has a well-thought-out premise, they can articulate it to you along with the supporting data.

But more often than not, we assume that someone who speaks with authority is knowledgeable. Always ask, “How do they know?” and keep asking that question until you get five layers deep.

By asking why, you can get to the foundational principles. This idea comes from the Toyota Quality System and the use of the five whys. The purpose is to illuminate a problem’s true cause.

In our circumstances, it’s about being a skeptic. Understand why. Challenge the authority to explain how they know something.

I’m working as a consultant on a business outside of publishing, and I applied these same concepts. As an outsider, I risk pissing people off by asking why because they don’t know. The most common answer is, “Well, that’s how we’ve always done it.”

Then that’s how you’ll always do it. And does doing it that way get you to where you want to go?

It begins right here…

Don’t take anything I write as gospel.

Question it all and determine if it is right for you. Even if I give you the data and a well-reasoned theory, that doesn’t mean it’s how you should do it.

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Your direction should define your best route. If not, you could end up with a big, complex business that doesn’t serve your why. You’ll end up in jail instead of at the goal.

Modern entrepreneurship sells this idea that “It’s a phase… You do some stuff I show you in my course, and then the riches come.” This conflicts with writing as a vocation—a vocation you are compelled to do as much as you can, as long as you can, regardless of the financial outcome.

That’s why when someone tells you how it is, ask them how they know.

It could be true for them but not for you in your situation.

In exploring how they know, you may help them see that they don’t know.

One last thought.

What may have worked can stop working. I’m observing a large group of authors continuing to do what worked from 2018-2020 and getting diminishing returns. No continuous improvement, just a return to the same formula of “cover, story premise, and launch” strategy. They know it worked in the past, but do they know if it’s working now? And what about tomorrow?

Read: Beyond the Latest Publishing Gold Rush