Five Essential Questions

Five Essential Questions

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Wait, What?...and Life’s Other Essential Questions

James Ryan is Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he was called on in 2016 to deliver the Commencement Address to those graduating from that esteemed university.

Ryan, author of  Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions, delivered remarks directed to students who would move on to be educators, leaders and innovators, but his remarks had a more universal application—wonderful thoughts for business interactions and, most importantly, for engaging with everyone encountered at every level of one’s existence.  James Ryan speaks of asking the right questions: “Asking good questions will be just as rewarding in your personal life. Good friends, as you know, ask great questions, as do good parents. They pose questions that, just in the asking, show how much they know and care about you. They ask questions that make you pause, that make you think, that provoke honesty, and that invite a deeper connection. They ask questions that don’t so much demand an answer as prove irresistible. My simple point is that posing irresistible questions is an art worth cultivating. For those who will be teachers, for example, you know that well-posed questions make knowledge come to life and create the spark that lights the flame of curiosity. For those of you who will be researchers and innovators, remember this observation of Jonas Salk, who discovered and developed the vaccine for polio: ’What people think of as the moment of discovery,’ he observed, ’is really the discovery of the question.’ Einstein famously said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, and his life depended on it, he would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.”

MERCHANDISING TIP OF THE WEEK. James Ryan, in his 2016 Commencement Address , outlines that “there are five truly essential questions that you should regularly ask yourself and others. My claim is that, if you get in the habit of asking these questions, you have a very good chance of being both successful and happy, and you will be in a good position to answer ’I did’ to the bonus question at the end” Here are Dean James Ryan’s five essential questions—and one bonus question:

Question #1— Wait, What?  Ryan explains: “Wait, what is actually a very effective way of asking for clarification, which is crucial to understanding. It’s the question you should ask before drawing conclusions or before making a decision. It’s important to understand an idea before you advocate for or against it. The wait, which precedes the what, is also a good reminder that it pays to slow down to make sure you truly understand.”

Question #2— I wonder? which can be followed by “why” or “if”. “Asking ‘I wonder why’ is the way to remain curious about the world” explains Ryan, “and asking ‘I wonder if’ is the way to start thinking about how you might improve the world. As in I wonder why our schools are so segregated, and I wonder if we could change this? Or I wonder why students often seems so bored in school, and I wonder if we could make their classes more engaging?”

Question #3—Couldn’t we at least…? Ryan elaborates: “This is the question to ask that will enable you to get unstuck, as they say. It’s what enables you to get past disagreement to some consensus, as in couldn’t we at least agree that we all care about the welfare of students, even if we disagree about the strategy. It’s also a way to get started when you’re not entirely sure where you will finish, as in couldn’t we at least begin by making sure that all kids have a chance to come to school healthy and well-fed.”

Question #4—How can I help? “One of the most humane instincts,” illustrates Ryan, “is the instinct to lend a hand. But how we help matters as much as that we do help, and if you ask how you can help, you are asking, with humility, for direction. And you are recognizing that others are experts in their own lives and that they will likely help you as much as you help them.”

Question #5—What truly matters? Ryan continues: “You can tack on ‘to me’ as appropriate. This is the question that forces you to get to the heart of issues and to the heart of your own beliefs and convictions. Indeed, it’s a question that you might add to, or substitute for, New Year’s resolutions. You might ask yourself, in other words, at least every new year: what truly matters to me?”

Bonus Question— And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so? Dean James Ryan summarizes the importance of the five questions with this final one: “This bonus question is posed in many ways, and you have surely heard a version of it before. To me, the single best phrasing of this question is in a poem by Raymond Carver, called ‘Late Fragments. It’s one of the last poems he wrote. The poem starts with this question, what I’m calling the bonus question.”

“And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”

“The ‘even so’ part of this, to me, captures perfectly the recognition of the pain and disappointment that inevitably make up a full life, but also the hope that life, even so, offers the possibility of joy and contentment. My claim is that if you regularly ask: Wait what? I wonder? Couldn’t we at least? How can I help? and What really matters?  when it comes time to ask yourself ‘And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?’ your answer will be ‘I did’. So, the poem asks that question and continues in this way.”

“I did”...“And what did you want?” … “To call myself beloved. To feel beloved on the earth.”

“The word ’beloved’ is important here as it not only means dearly loved, but also cherished and respected. If you never stop asking and listening for good questions, you will feel beloved on the earth, and, just as importantly, you will help others feel the same.” Happy Selling!  

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