Ask “Why?” and “Why Not?” to Learn, Create, and Discover More

How often do you ask “Why?” How can asking “Why not?” lead you down exciting new paths?

In A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger highlights the fundamental questions (or question starters) “Why?” and “Why not?” He explains how these words form the basis of questions that can increase your knowledge, challenge your assumptions, and invoke your creativity to solve problems.

Continue reading to discover the power of asking “Why?” and “Why not?”

“Why?” and “Why Not?”

Berger says you should keep the questions “Why?” and “Why not?” close at hand. When it comes to the fundamental question “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. 

(Shortform note: When faced with a problem or an unfamiliar situation, try to ask two or three “why?” questions before putting forward any thoughts of your own. The answers to your “why” questions will help you check your knowledge for gaps or incorrect assumptions. Therefore, you can provide more accurate and insightful information when you do finally share your thoughts.)  

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.

Recognize and Challenge Assumptions

Challenging assumptions is a powerful tool when looking for novel and creative answers to problems. However, it’s often hard to recognize when someone (especially yourself) has made an assumption in the first place. One exercise that can help you recognize assumptions is to:

1. Write down your or another person’s reasoning.
2. Then, write down your or their conclusion.
3. Finally, see if the conclusion relies on any information that’s not included in the reasoning. 

For example, people who haven’t slept well suffer from fatigue. Therefore, it seems reasonable to say that people need sleep to feel rested. However, that conclusion assumes that sleep itself prevents fatigue, which we don’t know for sure. Fatigue could be prevented by some biological process that happens while we’re asleep but one that doesn’t strictly require sleep. Since feeling tired even after a good night’s sleep is a symptom of many different health conditions, it’s possible that sleep alone doesn’t prevent fatigue, even though most people assume it does.
Ask “Why?” and “Why Not?” to Learn, Create, and Discover More

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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