Einstein and questioning

Exploring the inquiring mind of one of our greatest thinkers

Einstein - Question EverythingIt’s a funny thing: People are sometimes afraid to ask questions out of fear of seeming “stupid.” And yet the smartest people on the planet are often the ones who ask the most questions. Case in point: Albert Einstein.

To get a sense of how Einstein felt about questioning, just look at some of the many famous quotes from him on this subject.

{See the full Question Quotes gallery}

Let’s start with this one: “The important thing is not to stop questioning.” This is actually the first part of a longer quote, which ends with the wonderful line: “Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Einstein thought questioning and curiosity were the key to learning. In my book, I address the matter of encouraging students to question and explore in school (as opposed to just throwing “knowledge” at them and requiring them to memorize it). Einstein was keenly aware of this problem many years ago, when he said, “It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” He also said, “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.”

Then there is my own favorite quote from Einstein:

“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask… for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes.”

By the way, I’ve seen this quote worded in various ways. Sometimes it has Einstein saying that he’d spend “55 minutes thinking about the problem, and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” Hopefully I can track down the original quote and its exact wording, but either way, it makes the same point (because in this case, “question” and “problem” are almost interchangeable terms). The point is, you’ve got to figure out the crux of the matter—the essential problem or question to be addressed—before focusing in on answers.

One more bit of Einstein/questioning lore: From my understanding, Einstein’s theory of relativity began with an early “beautiful question” he posed, along the lines of “What if I rode a beam of light across the universe?” and then set out to answer.

Anybody have more stories or insights on Einstein and questioning? Would love to hear them.

» Questioning didn’t stop with Einstein. See my page about Master Questioners.


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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

7 Beautiful Comments

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  1. MK Clancey says:

    I am an elementary school teacher who has read your book over and over and over again in an attempt to design and lead courses that encourage those who teach with me (both teachers and parents) to provide the environment and instruction that will encourage students to ask questions before, during, and after topics of study and throughout their lives. I see a situation in classrooms where students really do think that questioning is not a good thing as it can be seen as they weren’t paying attention or that by asking the question they are insulting the other person. They do not see the value of a question and think it is what the teachers do, not the students. I recently overheard a conversation with a young child and her mom where the mother asked the little girl why are you asking me questions you already know the answers to? The girl replied, that that is what teachers do, they ask questions they already know the answer to, just to see if the kids know them. Out of the mouths of babes, it hit me. She is right! I am conducting professional development courses on this topic and am really struggling to come up with my “More Beautiful Question” as to how I might make this book study on questioning more of a beginning rather than something that ends when the course is over. Every time I read through my notes, i find more and more discussion topics, but I feel I need to do something more concrete. Identify a “why or why not”, think of a “what if” create a “How might I” and begin working on the prototype in their school, classroom, or home. That would really give us something to work with . Any suggestions?


    • Amy Jackson says:

      Most parents smother questions out of their children at the age of 4 when they’re curiosity has just begun to bloom. Sadly because the questions are never-ending.


  2. charlie bergman says:

    I see the world is divided into two camps:
    The first camp encourages questioning and subscribes to the belief that there’s no such thing as a “dumb” question. The other group considers questioning to be an excuse for not paying attention or just plain laziness. The distain for questioning could also be part a “personal protection mechanism” whose purpose is to block or obstruct responses from individuals with conflicting viewpoints.


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