What if you asked as many questions now as you did when you were a kid? What if you asked “What if?” more often?
Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question urges you to recapture your childlike curiosity and inquisitive nature. Berger contends that, if you ask more questions (and the right questions), you’ll get more out of life both personally and professionally.
Continue reading for an overview of this book that will help you be more reflective, insightful, and ultimately successful.
Overview of Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question
Asking questions is a crucial part of critical thinking: Questions are how you increase your knowledge, and searching for answers to your questions is the basis of creativity. However, as you grew up, you likely fell out of the habit of asking questions. Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question highlights three fundamental questions—“Why?,” “What if?,” and “How?”—which you almost certainly asked all the time as a child. Berger explores how to use these questions effectively as an adult, arguing that, by asking the right questions, you can discover how to succeed in both business and life.
Berger started his career as a journalist, where he re-learned the importance of asking questions. Now, he works as a full-time author and public speaker. He also leads questioning skills workshops for both corporations and schools, serving clients such as Microsoft, PepsiCo, and NASA. A More Beautiful Question (2014) and its follow-up, The Book of Beautiful Questions (2018), compile Berger’s lessons about questioning and critical thinking to make them accessible to anyone.
We’ll start with some foundational information about why questions are so important and why we stop asking questions as we grow up. We’ll then review the three fundamental questions: “why?”, “what if?”, and “how?”. Finally, we’ll discuss how answering those questions can help you find professional success and a happy, fulfilling life.
Why We Need Questions
Berger begins by explaining that asking questions is the basis of learning. If your question has a concrete answer—whether it’s as simple as “What’s one plus one?” or as complex as “How does nuclear fission work?”—then you’ll learn something new once you find that answer.
However, Berger points out that not all questions have straightforward answers. Searching for answers to those more nebulous questions is the basis of creativity. If your question doesn’t have a concrete answer (like, “How can I express my feelings through art?”) or the answer hasn’t been fully discovered yet (such as, “What is dark matter?”) that same curiosity might drive you to create a new painting or make a new scientific breakthrough.
In fact, Berger says that the questions we ask are often more important than the answers we find. In the modern world, anyone with internet access can find factual answers to just about any question. However, mere facts are useless by themselves; you need to ask the right follow-up questions to find out how to use those facts to your advantage.
For example, suppose you’re a CEO and you want to find out how a competitor is doing. You could get an answer in moments simply by looking up your rival company’s stock price. The more difficult—and more important—question is why the price is what it is. If your rival’s stock prices have suddenly jumped or fallen, what did the company do recently to cause that change? What could you do to copy its successes or avoid its mistakes?
Why We Stop Asking Questions
If questions are so important, why do we stop asking them? Berger places the blame on schools—the exact place where curiosity should be most encouraged—and says that formal education tends to train people out of asking questions.
Berger says this happens because schools rely on rote learning and discipline. Instead of encouraging children to ask questions, formal schooling does the exact opposite: It trains them to sit quietly and memorize whatever information they’re given. Furthermore, students are judged by their ability to recall facts during tests, rather than by their creativity or their curiosity.
Because of this rigid approach to learning, by the time students graduate from high school, they’ve often almost completely stopped asking questions. Unfortunately, that leaves them ill-prepared for adulthood, when the ability to ask important questions could change their lives—or change the world.
For example, when Sir Isaac Newton asked why an apple had fallen to the ground, searching for the answer led him to develop the theory of gravity that we still use today. When eBay founder Pierre Omidyar asked how he could use the internet to create a worldwide marketplace, he created one of the most successful companies to emerge from the 1990s dot-com bubble.
The Fundamental Questions
We’ll discuss Berger’s lessons about relearning how to ask important questions.
To start, we’ll review the three fundamental questions—the titular “beautiful questions”—which are “why?”, “what if?”, and “how?”. These words form the basis of questions that can increase your knowledge and invoke your creativity to solve problems.
“Why?” (and “Why Not?”)
The first of the three fundamental questions is “why?”. Berger says this is the first type of question you should ask when you’re faced with a difficult or unfamiliar situation. Despite their simplicity, “why” questions have the power to help you understand complicated issues and challenge your assumptions.
For example, most people simply accept that they need to sleep. However, when somebody thought to ask why people need to sleep, it created an entirely new branch of science dedicated to answering that question.
Just as important as “why?” is its counterpart, “why not?” Berger says that asking “why not?” leads you to try out new ideas and experiment with possible solutions. However, the real power of “why not?” is that it challenges your assumptions about what’s possible and what’s necessary.
To continue the previous example of sleep science, one experiment started with the question, “Why not go without sleep and see what happens?” This question challenges the assumption that sleep is necessary in the first place. It turned out that sleep is necessary, but even that information is something scientists wouldn’t have known for sure without asking an appropriate “why not?” question.
“What If?” and “How?”
The second fundamental question is “what if?” Berger says this question helps you break out of your usual patterns of thinking; and, in doing so, you either come up with novel ideas or combine old ideas into something new. In other words, asking “what if?” can help you make connections between thoughts that you haven’t connected before.
For example, the rideshare app Uber came from just such a “what if?” question. Cofounders Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick got stranded in a snowstorm in Paris, and they wondered: “What if you could use your phone to secure a ride?”
However, to turn a creative idea into reality, you need to answer the third and final fundamental question: “how?” Berger says this is the most difficult step—fully answering “how?” often requires patience and commitment to your idea because the answers tend to be much more complicated than they seem at first.
Continuing the example of Uber, the co-founders had come up with a new concept: using a phone to secure a ride. However, that concept on its own was worthless—founding the rideshare company that made them billionaires first required them to answer how they were going to do that.
Furthermore, that answer (a relatively simple smartphone app) led to numerous other questions, as Berger says is likely to happen: For instance, how would they compensate the drivers? How could they make riding with strangers as safe as possible? How would they outcompete local taxi services? Fully answering these “how?” questions led Camp and Kalanick to found one of the world’s most successful startup companies.
Ask Questions in Business and in Life
We’ll explain how you can use fundamental questions to find success in business and life.
Ask Questions to Succeed in Business
Berger says that, just like schools, many companies value knowledge and obedience over curiosity and creativity. However, the most successful companies are those that encourage employees to ask questions and search for innovative answers. Even if you’re not in a leadership position at work (and therefore can’t encourage others to ask questions), you can still ask questions yourself and try to convince your coworkers and bosses that such questions are highly valuable.
The modern business world changes quickly, and companies need to frequently reinvent themselves to stay relevant. That’s why employees and leadership alike should always be asking fundamental questions, such as:
- Why do some people choose our competitors instead of us?
- Why not try to reach a new demographic? How could we do that?
- What if we updated our mission statement to better reflect today’s values?
- What if a new startup disrupts our market, as Uber did to taxis?
- Why not let our employees work from home?
You’ve already seen what happens when companies ask fundamental questions with the previous example of Uber. For an example of what happens when businesses don’t ask those questions, consider Toys “R” Us.
Toys “R” Us used to be a powerhouse in the children’s toy market. Then, competitors like Walmart and Amazon started crowding the market with huge stores—online and offline—where people could get many of the same goods more cheaply and conveniently. However, Toys “R” Us’s leadership seriously underestimated the threat to their market dominance: Nobody thought to ask, “Why do people like our competitors more than us? What if online purchasing is more than a fad? How might we compete with these new business models? Why not implement them ourselves?”
Because it failed to ask and answer questions like these, Toys “R” Us was forced out of the marketplace by disruptive competitors, and the company declared bankruptcy in 2017.
Tip: Replace Brainstorming With Questioning
Berger suggests that to encourage people to ask fundamental questions that support their company, you could try replacing brainstorming sessions with what he calls question-storming sessions. Instead of asking employees to come up with ideas, ask them to come up with questions. There’s no pressure to answer those questions right away; they’re simply possibilities for the group to explore later.
Berger believes this practice is more effective at generating ideas than traditional brainstorming sessions because, if the only expectation is to ask questions, there’s no pressure to also come up with solutions on the spot. This reduced pressure helps people’s thoughts to flow freely, and it makes them less likely to censor their ideas. By contrast, in brainstorming sessions, people naturally feel like they have to come up with “good” answers. Therefore, they might hold back potentially transformative ideas that they feel aren’t good enough.
It may seem like Berger’s method would only generate problems and not solutions. However, Berger urges you to remember that questions themselves—especially “what if?” questions—can directly lead to solutions. That’s why, once a fundamental question has identified a serious issue, your next step should be to ask “what if?” questions, even ones that propose strange and outlandish options. Finally, choose one (or more) of those “what if?” scenarios and start asking “how?” you could make it a reality.
Ask Questions to Find Fulfillment
Questions aren’t only useful in business. Berger says that asking questions about your own life can help you discover what makes you happy or your purpose in life.
Consider activities that take up a lot of your time like work, school, or a particular hobby. Over time, those activities simply become habits, so it’s worth periodically asking yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Answering that question honestly helps you learn whether you truly find that activity rewarding—or if you’re doing it for a less fulfilling reason, such as habit or because it’s expected of you.
Another powerful question Berger suggests asking is, “What if I changed just one thing about my life?” Such questions are especially useful for breaking out of old routines and habits, as well as finding new ways to seek fulfillment.
For example, what if you cooked just one healthy meal each week? What if you read a book before bed, instead of scrolling through social media? What if you volunteered for a cause you believe in?
The Question That’s Key to Finding Happiness
Finally, Berger says that while asking questions can help you find added fulfillment in your life, this practice can also help you to be happy with the life you have right now. The key question to ask yourself is, “What am I grateful for?”
Berger writes that while “What am I grateful for?” isn’t one of the fundamental questions, it did emerge from a fundamental question posed by filmmaker Roko Belic: “Why are people who struggle with poverty or other hardships often happier than those who are more fortunate?”
According to Berger, the answer to that question is gratitude. Struggling people tend to find happiness however they can—for instance, by spending time with their loved ones or volunteering for causes they believe in. On the other hand, wealthy people tend to obsess over acquiring more wealth or more possessions.
In other words, the happiest people aren’t those who have the most “stuff” but those who appreciate what they have. Berger concludes that regularly asking yourself what you’re grateful for is an effective way to recognize and appreciate what you have.