Google and “beautiful questions”

“You should sue Google!”

That half-joking suggestion was emailed to me the other day by a friend who’d just seen a new TV commercial for the Google app—a 1-minute ode to the power of a question. Among the lines in the ad:

“A question is the most powerful force in the world.”

“A question can start you on an adventure.”

“A question can spark a connection.”

“A question can change how you see the world.”

“A question can take you anywhere.”

Google’s May 2015 video

Certainly, the sentiment, if not the exact wording, seems very much in line with some of what I wrote in my book A More Beautiful Question—wherein I posit that a “beautiful question” can be a starting point for innovation, can mark the beginning of a personal journey, and can change the way people think about the world around them.

I have no idea if the ad’s creators were in any way inspired by the book—certainly, this general idea about the power of questioning didn’t originate with me and I don’t “own” it. And of course, Google has been a big believer in questioning from the outset; its chairman Eric Schmidt once described Google as a company “that runs on questions.”

So I’m actually glad to see the ad—and to see this notion of “the power of questioning” going mainstream, since that’s my current mission. But I do want to make one point about this ad and how it diverges from my own philosophy of “beautiful questions.”

The ad seems to suggest that all questions are equally powerful—including basic informational queries like, How do I get to Bryce Canyon?, or What song is this I’m listening to?

Readers of my book will know that I consider such queries to be “practical questions.” They are the kinds of questions that we naturally ask every day, and that tend to have a known answer that can quickly be ascertained (often, by typing in the question on Google: indeed, these are the kinds of easily-answered questions that Google “runs on.”)

But are these really the kinds of questions that are apt to “change how you see the world”… or start you on a life-altering journey… or spark some type of innovation?

I think practical questions are very important in their own way, but I don’t think they lead to the kind of powerful transformation that can come from pursuing more ambitious, open-ended questions. Such as: Why does the problem of X exist? What if someone came up with a better way to do Y? How might we find a solution to Z? On a more personal level, it might be, Why am I doing things—in my career, my life—the way I’m doing them? What if I tried a different path? How might I find that path? (Here are some more samples of real-life beautiful questions that I rounded up for a recent newsletter.)

These are the kinds of questions that I refer to as beautiful questions. You can’t just look them up on Google. A different kind of “search” is required. Beautiful questions are beautiful, in part, because they defy easy answers. They must be considered, explored, grappled with, pursued over time.

Ask any innovator about this, or anyone who has embarked on a personal transformation. Did his/her journey to a breakthrough start with a question? In many cases, yes. Was it a question they could easily answer via Google? Not likely.

See my other mentions of Google on this 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

4 Beautiful Comments

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  1. May says:

    I think Berger is right about practical questions. The beautiful questions that he refers to in his book usually have difficult answers. The whole point of Google is that you can get an answer immediately. Google is very helpful in that sense that it will give you the answer to everything, so it only encourages people to ask more questions. However, there are more insightful questions that people should be asking, to the point that Google would not even have an answer.

  2. Molly Walker says:

    Berger makes good point in this blog about how not all questions have the same depth, or meaning. Sometimes questions are simple, and easy to answer, while others are very thought provoking, and difficult. Even though I do agree with Berger, he is a little harsh when talking about Google, and the advertisement. Questions are questions, not matter how simple. I think he thought that when someone sent him that “he should sue google’ they were comparing him to the ad, and the search engine in general, which is kind of silly. Overall I understand what Berger is getting at, but I think he is taking himself and his question asking a little too seriously.

    • Warren Berger
      Twitter: GlimmerGuy

      Hi Molly. As you guessed, I was using the entertaining Google questions ad campaign as a springboard to talk about the distinction between types of questions. But you’re right: questions are questions and it’s a great thing when people are exercising their questioning muscles and exploring “what if” possibilities—even if they get their initial answers via a simple Google search.

  3. Zach says:

    And yet the ad shows what’s wrong with the predictive nature of some of the guts in Google. The question is “How do I get to Bryce Canyon?” and yet the answer is, “Bryce Canyon is 29 minutes from your location.” That’s an illogical wrong answer and yet possibly something you should pay attention to if you want to keep a schedule. It’s like when I’m driving home with my wife around dinnertime; “How much cash do you have on you?” I politely inquire. “We’re not stopping at KFC for a bucket of chicken!” Wrong and yet something I should pay attention to.