You won’t get any helpful answers in life unless you pose some decent questions.
With the possible exception of annoying children harassing their parents, it is almost impossible to ask too many of them.
For a fulfilling and excellent life, it is essential to be relentlessly curious. Be a mental magpie.
Question everything, and make sure you truly understand what’s going on. Then, when you are satisfied, you can proceed well informed.
As Richard Feynman, the American theoretical physicist said: “I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.”
Precisely. Here are ten of the most powerful.
Q1. WHAT’S IT ALL FOR?
As author John Kay repeatedly asks in his book Other People’s Money: “What is it all for?” It’s a fantastic question.
As a man who writes for the Financial Times, the subject of his inquiry is usually the money markets and all the extraordinary machinery that goes with it. But it’s a great question to ask of life in general.
So much of what we do is pointless, a waste of time. And as we have established, time is precious stuff. Asking “What is it all for?” at the beginning of anything important could save you years of futile effort, or even a lifetime of it.
Don’t waste your time on things you don’t want to do. Life’s too short.
Q2. WHY BOTHER?
Motivation is essential to achieving excellence: You simply can’t get things done without it.
So it is vital to grapple with what at first glance appears to be a somewhat pessimistic question: Why bother?
We need to know, otherwise we have no purpose. As the business authors Alvesson & Spicer point out in their book The Stupidity Paradox:
“We have frequently seen otherwise smart people stop thinking and start doing stupid things. They stop asking questions.”
There it is: a lack of inquiry, doubtless leading to mindless activity, and probably to undesirable outcomes.
You have to know why you are doing something.
Then you can truly work out what you are doing.
Q3. IS ANYTHING REALLY NEW?
Two business school professors called Uzzi and Jones devised an algorithm to analyze a staggering 17.9 million scientific papers to see how original they were.
They discovered that 90% of what was in these “creative” manuscripts was actually old stuff.
Here’s something that all artists know: It is not where you get it from, it is where you take it to.
In other words, Genius steals, or at least adapts and improves.
It is what author Charles Duhigg, in his book Smarter Faster Better, calls an intrusion of unusual combinations.
So innovation is effectively 90% known material, with a 10% interesting twist. Don’t start from scratch. See what’s already been done and ask where you can take it to.
Q4. HOT, COLD, OR SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE?
In the fable Goldilocks and the Three Bears the porridge is too hot, then too cold, and finally “just right”.
The Goldilocks Principle has been applied in many walks of life, from cognitive science and developmental psychology through to economics and engineering.
It states that something must fall within certain margins as opposed to reaching extremes.
In other words, it must be “just right”. The Goldilocks Effect occurs when this blend is perfected.
Far too many people, and businesses, go to extremes.
They either do nothing at all, or disrupt everything. There’s no need. In fact, it is counterproductive.
A little disturbance – not too much, not too little – is the right formula for progress.
Are you doing too much or too little?
Q5. LOOKING FOR LUCK?
Jack White, musician and founder of The White Stripes, believes: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.”
In other words, if you don’t ask any questions, then you certainly won’t find any answers.
So you need to prepare. Preparation can take many forms. Research. Information gathering. Developing a hypothesis. Testing it with an antithesis. And then arriving at a synthesis.
You have to be a mental magpie. Be inquisitive and collect thoughts and stimuli.
Then you can join the dots and arrive somewhere interesting when the opportunity arises.
That’s not luck. It’s inquisition and intelligence finding a home.
As the French enlightenment writer and philosopher Voltaire said: "Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers."
Q6. WOULD IT HELP?
In the Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays New York lawyer James Donovan.
His mission is to negotiate the release of a US pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in exchange for a convicted KGB spy called Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance.
Three times in the film Rylance asks Hanks the same question.
Hanks: “You don’t seem alarmed.” Rylance: “Would it help?” Hanks: “Do you never worry?” Rylance: “Would it help?” Hanks: “You’re not worried?” Rylance: “Would it help?”
It’s a superb question. And of course the answer is no, it wouldn’t help. You can be alarmed. You can worry. But it doesn’t get you anywhere.
So the next time you are confronted by something vexing and inclined to react emotionally, ask yourself: Would it help?
Q7. ARE YOU LISTENING?
The biggest communication problem is that we don’t listen to understand. We listen to reply. We are preparing our next set of remarks while the other person is talking.
As actor John Hurt observed: “If you listen you learn; if you talk, you don't.”
Interestingly, the word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT.
Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer, was quite clear on the matter: “Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence.” Wise words.
In a modern context, the philosopher Alain de Botton says: “True love is a lack of desire to check one's smartphone in another's presence.”
We will leave the last word on this to the French author Andre Gide: “Everything has already been said, but since no one was listening, we have to start again."
WIBGI stands for “Wouldn’t it be good if…?” It’s a wonderful, exploratory question, full of possibilities.
Renowned zoologist Paul Meglitsch believes: “Nearly every great discovery in science has come as a result of providing a new question rather than a new answer.”
Think about it. Yes of course we need answers, but there are none without the questions that precede them. So we need to ask lots of questions. And ask good ones.
We do this naturally as youngsters, but by the time we arrive at work, we have stopped. According to authors Alvesson & Spicer: “When people are seized by functional stupidity, they remain capable of doing the job, but stop asking searching questions about their work.”
Wouldn’t it be good if we asked more questions?
Q9. WHAT IS ENOUGH?
Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, and New Yorker writer Kurt Vonnegut were at a party at a billionaire’s house. Joseph remarks to Kurt that he has something the billionaire can never have.
“What’s that?” asks Kurt. “The knowledge that I have enough.’
It’s a hell of an insight. You have to know when to stop. It could be a person or a business. Sometimes, whatever stage you have reached, it’s enough.
In an age of relentless forward motion, where it always seems to be more, more, more, it’s an interesting question. What is enough?
Answer that and you’ll have the immense satisfaction of knowing when you have indeed arrived at your intended destination.
Q10. PROBLEM OR FACT?
We have established that it is important to question everything to ensure that you know why you are doing what you are doing.
But there is a limit. Sometimes, when you have exhausted every avenue of inquiry, you are better off stopping.
As Shimon Peres, the experienced Israeli politician, pointed out: “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact - not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”
Life can be complicated, and you can’t solve everything yourself. In fact, quitting can be winning if it allows you to get on with something more productive or beneficial.
The American economist Alan Greenspan once told an audience: “If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said.”
Eventually, you need to stop the questions, understand the facts, and move on.