5 Essential Questions for a Better Life
When we are curious about the world we have a sense of wonder, we feel alive. Asking questions is one way we can do that. Questions are a deeper inquiry into our universe and they can help us to think about how we might improve our lives, our world.
These are 5 truly essential questions that will change the way you look at life. These points are from a segment from the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education James Ryan’s 2016 commencement speech. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bW0NguMGIbE
1. Wait, What?
The first is a question kids are fond of asking, and it’s one you may have heard teenagers ask — or maybe you still ask it yourself. The question is “Wait, what?”
Kids typically pose this question when you get to the point in a conversation where you’re asking them to do something. From their perspective, they hear you saying something like: “blah, blah, blah, blah, and then I’d like you to clean your room.” And at that precise moment, the question inevitably comes: “Wait, what? Clean what?”
“Wait, what?” is an effective way of asking for clarification. The “wait” part is a good reminder to slow down so you can fully understand.
2. I Wonder why or if?
The second question is “I wonder”, which can be followed by “why” or “if.” So: I wonder why, or I wonder if.
Asking “I wonder why” is the way to remain curious about the world, and asking “I wonder if” is the way to start thinking about how you might improve the world.
As in, I wonder why my relationships are so difficult, and I wonder if I could change this? Or I wonder why students often seem bored in school, and I wonder if we could create a different system?
3. Couldn’t we at least…?
The third question is: “Couldn’t we at least…?” This is the question to ask that can help you to get unstuck. 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 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 the chance to come to school healthy and well-fed?
4. How can I help?
The fourth question is: “How can I help?” We have to be aware of the savior complex, of the position where we think we are the expert or hero who swoops in to save others.
One of the most humane instincts there is — the instinct to help. But we can’t act as if we are the only ones with the right answer. We have to be aware not to enable or rescue.
Therefore, 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.
5. What truly matters?
The fifth question is this: “What truly matters?” 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.
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? This will quickly help you sort through your wants, so you can get to your true values in life.
So these are the five essential questions. “Wait, what” is at the root of all understanding. “I wonder” is at the heart of all curiosity. “Couldn’t we at least” is the beginning of all progress. “How can I help” is at the base of all good relationships. And “what really matters” gets you to the heart of life. If you ask these questions regularly, especially the last one, you will be in a great position to answer the bonus question, which is, at the end of the day, the most important question you’ll ever face.
The bonus question is from a poem by Raymond Carver, called “Late Fragments.” that starts with the question, “And did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”. Even so is the acknowledgment that life is also full of obstacles, pain and sorrow.
The poem then continues:
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”
So my wish for you, myself, and all of us, is that we never stop asking and listening, that we feel loved on this earth, and that we are kind and compassionate toward others.
Here is the segment of the commencement speech James Ryan gave at Harvard. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bW0NguMGIbE