Changing your life via a Beautiful Question

As a journalist, I am fascinated by questions—so much so that I have taken to calling myself a “questionologist.”

You may be asking yourself: Is that really a thing? Well, I wondered about that, too, so I looked into it and found that while there are hundreds of different types of “ologies,” it seems there is no established, recognized field of study dedicated to questioning.

And of course this caused me to wonder, Why not? Then I asked, What if I just declared myself a questionologist? A few years ago I did precisely that, in the pages of The New York Times. And to my surprise, no one questioned it.

I have been using the term ever since, championing the importance of questioning at companies such as Starbucks, Disney, and Pfizer, while also teaching inquiry skills at the U.S. Army, the NASA space program, and at schools around the country.

The interest in questioning crosses all lines, it seems. And it should. The humble question is a kind of hidden superpower that we all have access to–it helps us to learn, solve problems, communicate, and grow as people.

In one of my books on the subject, A More Beautiful Question, I shared dozens of stories showing that many important breakthroughs—the cell phone, the Olympic Games, the internet, the Red Cross, the microwave oven, Netflix—all began with a question. So I tend to think of questioning as a key starting point of innovation (which explains why the aforementioned companies are so interested in it).

But on a more personal level, a question can be the starting point of change and transformation in your life. It has to be a pretty special question, though—a beautiful question.

According to my definition, a beautiful question is an ambitious, yet actionable, question that can begin to shift the way we think about something—and can serve as a catalyst to bring about change.

These are the kinds of questions innovators ask when they look at a human need or a gap in the marketplace, and ask, How might I change this situation? But all of us can benefit by grappling with ambitious questions that encourage us to step back and consider possible ways to reimagine our lives or reinvent our careers.

By asking, for example, How might I reinvent myself in response to changes happening in my life?, or, How might I use my own strengths/experience to tackle a specific problem impacting my community?, you set in motion a process that can lead to profound change.

This may surprise some because we don’t usually equate “asking a question” with “taking action.” But the simple step of formulating an ambitious question is a powerful action—and it can yield surprising results.

A few years back, a fascinating University of Illinois study found that when people are trying to motivate themselves to do something, questions actually work better than statements or commands. In other words, asking “What if I do X?” or “How might I do X?” is more motivating than resolving, “I will do X!”

The researchers found that articulating a challenge as a question had the effect of getting people to immediately start thinking about that challenge: why it might be worth doing, how it might be accomplished. A question is like a puzzle. Once it has been raised, the mind almost can’t help trying to solve or answer it.

Questions are also more shareable than statements or resolutions. If you tell your friends, “I’m going to improve our local park, damn it!,” there’s not much opportunity for them to engage with that. But if you tell them you’re working on the question, How might we improve our local park?, they’re sure to have thoughts to share. So, you might say that a beautiful question is not only a puzzle for your own mind, but also an invitation to others: Want to help me think about this challenge?

Given that questions can be so much more engaging and inviting than statements, I sometimes suggest to business leaders that they might consider turning the company mission statement into a “mission question.” And the same is true on a personal level: You can take your stated goals, dreams, and resolutions and reframe them as beautiful questions to be pursued.

If you don’t already have a stated goal to work with, start by looking to where your interests and passions lie—ask yourself some questions about what moves you, what you care deeply about, what grabs your attention in books or blogs. You can also seek out a tough problem that needs solving, in your business, your community, or your personal life. A beautiful question may involve an issue that is right in front of you—though you may need to “step back” to see it fresh. Often identifying something you’re shying away from or afraid of is a great starting point.

Once you’ve identified a challenge worth pursuing, try putting it into the form of a “How might we” (or, in the singular, “How might I”) question. Innovative companies such as Google and IDEO have been using this form of questioning for years because it’s a great way to phrase a question that is open and expansive, yet still action-oriented.

My own beautiful question is: How might I find ways to encourage others to question more? This question is right in my wheelhouse and is therefore practical and actionable—but it’s also grand and ambitious enough that it could keep me pursuing the question for a long, long time.

That’s as it should be with a beautiful question. When you find yours, be prepared to live with it for a while. We have become much too accustomed to getting quick answers to our daily questions on Google, but a beautiful question calls for a very different kind of “search.” Be willing to go on that journey of inquiry—and try to enjoy working on your question (expanding or refining it as needed), sharing it with others, grappling with it, sleeping with it, and just being in its engaging company.


This post originally appeared on the Modern Elder Academy blog.

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About the Author

Innovation expert and questionologist Warren Berger has studied hundreds of the world’s foremost innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers to learn how they ask questions, generate original ideas, and solve problems. He is the author or co-author of 12 books, including his three books on questioning: A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas; its follow-up THE BOOK OF BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead; and BEAUTIFUL QUESTIONS IN THE CLASSROOM: Transforming Classrooms Into Cultures of Curiosity and Inquiry. Warren’s writing has appeared in Fast Company, Harvard Business Review, and The New York Times, and he writes the “Questionologist” blog for Psychology Today. He lives in Mount Kisco, New York. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts

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