Today’s blog is brought to you by the number 7, the color blue and the question. The question? That’s right: the question. Especially the question.
You see, the question is the thing. For the question is often way more important than the answer. There. I’ve said it. Well, okay, so have countless others. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a life credo of mine that’s served me well over the years.
Even though I’ve believed this for a long time, I really never knew why I believed it. It was just a “gut feeling” that resonated well enough for me to elevate it to truth status. Yet, as I asked myself more questions about, well, asking questions, the reason I believed this credo increasingly became crystallized.
That’s because my obsession over this particular grammatical construct has taught me three things:
- Questions drive the rhetorical agenda. When you ask, you’re defining what gets talked about and, communicatively, that’s powerful. It’s the rhetorical equivalent of a baseball manager signaling what he wants the pitcher to throw; the newsroom assignment editor telling a reporter what story to write; the quarterback barking an audible at the line of scrimmage.
- Questions show what’s important. To you, at least, and that’s probably more revealing than you think – or would care to think. Almost by definition, the questions you pose expose what’s on your mind — along with your vulnerabilities, your confidence, what you care about knowing and why you’re engaged in the conversation in the first place. They can even be a signal as to how you’ll eventually act.
- Answers are boring. Answers just kind of sit there; questions don’t. Look, the answer to “What does two plus two equal?” will always be “four” (unless you’re George Orwell, I guess). Often, the answer is just what the answer is. Though important — and although exceptions abound — answers are often singular, dead, finite, exhaustive and complete. Questions are always living, probing, desiring and future-oriented. They drive the conversation and have the potency to make others think, change behavior, inspire, challenge.
Want proof? I recently came across a blog offering 50 mind-freeing questions – some of which, if you take them seriously enough, can change your life. I was particularly impressed with these seven gems:
- How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you are?
- If happiness were the national currency, what kind of work would make you rich?
- To what degree have you actually controlled the course your life has taken?
- If you could offer a newborn child only one piece of advice, what would it be?
- Have you ever seen insanity where you later saw creativity?
- Would you rather be a worried genius or a joyful simpleton?
- Why are you…you?
Intriguing, huh? Got you to thinking, didn’t they? Even made you a little uncomfortable? One or two of them might even change your behavior — even if that behavior change only takes the form of disrupting your sometimes TV-driven mindlessness.
I was particularly moved when I read the one about giving a newborn only one piece of advice. Lord knows I have many questions about raising my now one-year-old daughter. And, I’m guessing that I’ll have an order of magnitude more when my next little girl is born in just a few short months. I hope that, in my having the nerve to ask enough of the right questions, I’ll become a more thoughtful and capable father, better able to handle their questions.
Another dynamic is that the question can dramatically drive emotions — ranging from fright and angst to anticipation, delight and giddiness. For example, if one asked you: “Who was the 40th president of the United States,” the answer is finite, clear and exact. Boring, really. It’s “Ronald Reagan.” But, to the recipient of this interrogative, the question can beget emotion-tinged vulnerabilities cloaked in the form of additional questions, such as:
- Why did you want to know who the 40th president was?
- Do you have a political bias or motive in asking it?
- I usually hate talking politics…is that where this is headed?
- If I don’t know the seemingly obvious answer, will it flavor me as uninformed?
Consider also the emotional impact of these arguably loaded questions:
- Should we move in together?/Will you marry me?
- How long have you needed anger management counseling?
- What’s the meaning of life?
Even Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google — you’ve heard of Google, right? — so appreciates the question’s value that he’s turned it into an actual business model designed to drive revenue, stating: “We run this company on questions, not answers.”
You see, it’s the better questions that produce the better answers, Schmidt correctly seems to think. His philosophy also apparently drove what once was Google’s tradition where employees were able to spend 20 percent of their time inventing new stuff. Even though the program no longer seems to be in force, how refreshing was that? A company policy that improved morale, drove innovation (including the invention of Gmail) and increased profits — all because of the question — encouraging folks to act on their passions.
And silly you. You thought of the question only as language’s little redheaded stepchild that Grover and Elmo sung to you about in your Sponge Bob jammies with your PB&J smearing your sticky little fingers, didn’t you?
Yet, it’s really a proactive, powerful and telling utterance that creates original thought, builds comedy skits, constructs entire songs, illuminates poetry, drives business models, invokes the gamut of emotions and exposes both vulnerabilities and strengths.