The Power of Questioning

I love the “what if” game, don’t you? What if I took this job? What if I actually danced in the rain? What if I get sick? What if my washing machine dies? 

The “what if” game can be fun and silly or sometimes serious, but I tend to spiral down a rabbit-hole of possibilities as my mind wanders and imagines different scenarios. When this happens, my husband likes to remind me of the here-and-now and helps me to refocus on the present reality. He will gently say something along the lines of, “Well, that’s not really happening at the moment, now is it?” or “How is that helping you accomplish what needs to be done right now?” BUT, what if my rabbit-hole of possibilities actually helped me accomplish my task? What if my imaginary scenarios help me in the future? What if I took some of the possibilities in my mind and turned them into reality?

I was reassured today that I am not alone in my frenzied questioning antics and that they can lead to brighter solutions if I turn my “what if” questions to “how” questions. In his book, A More Beautiful Question, William Berger (2014) described a natural progression of questioning, the “Why/What If/How sequence”  that moves “from understanding a problem, to imagining possible solutions, to then going to work on those possibilities” (p. 33). Berger (2014) explained that such questioning is an innate skill that seems to peak at age four with an average of 390 questions per day (p. 4) then all but stops by the time we reach adulthood (p. 66). This occurs because “what if” questions are, by nature, disruptive and threaten the currently established order. We are taught, sometimes subconsciously, not to rock the boat – to keep our head down and do the job that was asked of us. But if a long history of disruptive thinkers such as Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos have pushed past the fear of questioning authority and the status-quo to invent breakthrough products, ideas, and industries, why can’t I do the same?

I decided to put pen to paper and start asking questions. I set a timer for five minutes and just wrote questions, one right after another, about the current state of education and possibilities for the future. I allowed myself to ask the hard questions that make others roll their eyes or think I’ve gone batty. I allowed myself to actually wonder ”What if things were better?” and the result was freeing. I discovered that I have plenty of disruptive questions simmering in my mind – questions I have learned over the years to keep hidden for they make others uncomfortable when spoken aloud. But when my five minutes were up, I still wasn’t satisfied. Like a child again, I looked at my list of questions and wondered what the answers were and who would answer them? What was required to move beyond my “whys” and “what ifs” into the realm of actionable “hows?” 

In Berger’s (2014) book, he described how Van Phillips, inventor of the modern Flex-Foot prosthetics, made this move by taking ownership of his questions. “To do this, he had to make a change of pronouns…[and] replace they with I” (Berger, 2014, p. 14). So, I decided to do the same. I set another 5 minute timer and rephrased my questions in a way that helped me take ownership of them. I was amazed with the results a simple perspective change can have! Suddenly, a whole new list of possibilities and action steps were visible to me, and I realized that I have the education, tools, and resources to take those steps as long as I am bold enough to act. No longer am I a four-year-old who relies upon older experts to explain the ways of the world. The simple act of questioning and probing deeper has made me an expert in my own right – a master of disruptive thinking. Now all that’s left is to face my fear of disrupting the status-quo, like the other disruptive thinkers before me, and do something to change current reality. 

Berger, W. (2014). A more beautiful question: the power of inquiry to spark breakthrough ideas. Bloomsbury.

Júnior Ferreira. (2020). Lamp Magic [photograph]. Unsplash.


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