What’s YOUR beautiful question?

by | Questionology

A beautiful question, as described in fuller detail on the brief What is a Beautiful Question page, is defined as

“An ambitious yet actionable question that can shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.”

My own beautiful question started a decade ago as How can I write a book that looks at something as familiar as questioning in a new way?

But it turned out that writing a book was just a first step. The book led to other things—such as visiting various types of organizations to proselytize and share questioning tips and techniques. Somewhere along the line I also became focused on education—spending time with teachers and exploring ways to encourage student questioning in all sorts of classrooms, whether in urban areas or in rural Appalachia—because I think so much is riding upon our ability, as a society, to develop the questioners, critical thinkers, and innovators that the world will desperately need in days ahead.

Now, my beautiful question is something like this: How might I spread the word about questioning, in as many ways and to as many receptive audiences as possible, but with a particular focus on education?

That’s a question I expect to be living with and pursuing for a good long time.

So: What’s your beautiful question?

We all have goals, plans, passions, interests, concerns—and very little time these days. You may be wondering why add to your list by devising a big, difficult, unanswered question. Here are a few good reasons.

• A beautiful question can be propulsive, much more so than a bucket list or a page of New Year’s resolutions in a drawer somewhere. If you have one compelling question, it’s harder to set aside, ignore, or forget it.

• Articulating a personal challenge in the form of a question also allows you to be bold and adventurous, because anyone can question anything. You don’t have to be a recognized expert; you just have to be willing to say I’m going to venture forth in the world with my question and see what I find. Perhaps your question might touch upon a global social issue or local community problem.

• Or maybe, instead of an outward quest to transform the world, your beautiful question will focus on creating a more fulfilled, more curious, more interesting you. Other beautiful questions aren’t personal mission statements, but rather interesting questions that cause you to stop and think and reassess your assumptions.

Over the years, readers have sent me many beautiful questions, and you’ll find a sampling of them below. Feel free to send me your beautiful question. Also check out the beautiful questions I’ve collected from well-known people in our Pinterest Quotes gallery.

Some beautiful questions contributed by readers

“Why do colleges and universities still hang on to traditional grading?”

Elementary school principal Dan Pope explains his beautiful question: “At Lone Oak Elementary (McCracken County, Kentucky) we have moved to standards-based reporting and no longer use traditional grading. If you dig deep into grading it is my belief that you realize how little that traditional grading prepares students for the real world. A, B, C grades are only used in school settings.”

“How do we know what we know?”

New Zealand psychologist and educator Max Gold tells us, “The question behind this beautiful question is: how do we know what we know is true? It questions the basis for our perception of what is real in the world, and therein lies the attractiveness of the question from my point of view.… In the world of complex human relationships and interactions in which I exist as a psychologist, seldom is it the case that truth can be established with any veracity. The best source of knowledge involves triangulating data from a variety of sources and perspectives. That makes establishing how we know what we know in human relationships like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.”

“How might I inspire others to see their own greatness so they can live the life of their dreams?”

Brand builder and coach Rosemary Breehl writes, “My Beautiful Question is actually my WHY. In fact, I have helped many others find their own WHY and I teach workshops on that as well. That is why I was so intrigued with the concept of the BQ and was able to put my WHY in the form of a BQ: How might I inspire others to see their own greatness so they can live the life of their dreams?

“What is it about your business today that you can’t answer?”

Brian Panosian of Cisco Systems says “I can’t express enough my conviction to quality, thought-provoking questions in my business. I believe this is a craft that everyone should continuously sharpen.” Brian (who asks that Jared Carter be credited as co-author) shares that his beautiful question opens up windows of conversation never before thought of with business executives: “What is it about your business today that you can’t answer?”

“Why do we do what we do?

This question was sent in by George Wang, who wrote me a nice long note, which included “The key to a more purpose-driven life, company, and society can be found in none other than the Beautiful Question of ‘Why do we do what we do?’… The question prompts people to be mindful of their habits and develop insight into the purpose of their actions.”

“Why can’t the NYC subway turnstile make a nice sound?”

An especially quirky beautiful question submitted by James Favata at Leading Authorities speakers bureau, who spotted it in a video by James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem.

“How might we thrive and flourish amid tensions and contradictions?”

Found this question as part of a wonderful essay by Elsa Fridman, posted on the site rethinked.org. Elsa’s essay talks about her desire to “live lightly”—without being weighed down by too many material possessions—while still being able to savor and appreciate meaningful things she has accumulated along the way.

“How do we ask without asking?”

Cara Herman of Crush Republic sent in this question. Her point is that in trying to get people to respond to her agency’s research questions, it can be most effective to “have them respond naturally, without thinking (or) filtering their answers.” Which requires asking questions in a whole different way—thereby encouraging people to give more honest, organic responses. Thanks, Cara. And yes, I’m certain we can help each other on our respective quests to “master the art of asking questions.”

“What would happen if teenagers believed they deeply mattered to the world around them?”

Great question submitted by Annie Murrell. I think what would happen if teenagers believed this is that the world would benefit greatly—by being able to tap into an incredible source of energy, creativity, and optimism that could help solve many of our problems.

“How can we create resiliency in children such that they grow up to be (happy) contributors to society?”

Submitted by Kris. Great question and while I don’t pretend to have the answer, I suspect one of the things that might help would be to teach them how to ask questions, explore, and solve problems, starting at an early age.

“Why is the sky dark at night?”

Thanks to Steve Woodward not only for the question but for this terrific answer: “This question was proposed by astronomers about 400 years ago. The answer seemed obvious, but it actually wasn’t. If the universe were stable and infinite, as everyone believed it to be, there should have been a star at every location in the night sky. In other words, the night sky should have been blindingly bright, not dark. The dark sky became evidence of the Big Bang and an expanding universe—concepts inconceivable at the time the question was asked. Today, that question is known as Olber’s Paradox.”

“What if competitors worked together?”

Thanks for this idea go to Michelle Riggen-Ransom, co-founder of BatchBlue Software, who says that she when first proposed a version of this question among competing tech companies, it led to the creation of a network of likeminded companies who share data and try to help small business owners succeed.

“What if pizza was good for you?”

Robbie Vitrano, who I knew from a marvelous New Orleans ad/design firm, sent in this question, which was the inspiration behind another startup of Robbie’s, known as Naked Pizza.

“How do we motivate someone to step out into their unique destiny?”

Submitted by Diane; a question that must be on the minds of many parents and teachers.

“Why can’t the classroom be a coffee shop?”

Thanks to Kenn Compton for this question, which makes me think of another question: Who says education has to happen only in a classroom? We tend to limit our idea of where “formal education” should be happening, but any place can become a learning environment.

“How do we unlearn to relearn?”

Thanks to Jim Mountjoy of Charlotte, NC, for this beautiful Q. There is a Zen Buddhist concept known as Shoshin, or “beginner’s mind” (I explore this concept more in my book). There’s also something in the business world these days called “zero gravity thinking”—both of which involve setting aside preconceived notions and biases in an attempt to look at things the way a child or a naïve outsider would. Not easy, but apparently it works.

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