The What's Next Attitude

In one of my favorite episodes of The West Wing (which is the greatest television show that ever was or will be), President Bartlett explains that when he asks his staff "What's next?", it means he has understood the point and is ready to move on to the next thing. I think the What's Next attitude is hugely important for long-term success: it involves not only a mastery of the subject at hand but a desire to go beyond it. Most people do neither of those things. Map it over to, say, learning a new coding language or a new sport and the implications are obvious. We must take the time to understand and master the subject at hand but also seek out new areas for improvement. Nothing particularly earth-shattering there.

The problem is that it's easier said than done.

Too often, those who ask What's Next find the deck stacked against them. They fit a particular role at their company and too much growth too quickly would shake things up. Or maybe nobody has time or is capable of teaching What's Next. Maybe nobody knows What's Next and is avoids the question to maintain an air of expertise. This is mediocrity in full bloom.

All of those scenarios and a hundred more have ways forward if we keep the growth mindset and keep asking What's Next.

I'll share one of my favorite strategies. When you have a certain degree of mastery in some topic - cycling, gardening, whatever - eventually people who are just starting out are going to come to you with questions. You'll know most of them, but you probably won't have all the answers. You'll want to play the expert, and maybe you'll be tempted to dodge a question or make up something you think might be right.

Don't do that.

If you have the growth mindset, saying "I don't know" is not a judgment of your intellect or ability, but an invitation for more learning. In my opinion, there are two acceptable responses:

"I don't know, but when you find out, will you tell me about it?"

or

"I don't know - let's find out together."

Do you see how the What's Next attitude is implicit in both of those? If you're stuck, ask What's Next. Stay hungry, keep pushing.