Book Review: A More Beautiful Question – Warren Berger

Questions play a significant role in how we learn.  The quest for knowledge and just plain human curiosity are natural drivers for the questions we ask.  But what is different about the most creative, the most innovative—the designers, the inventors, the engineers?  What sets them apart?  The author and journalist Warren Berger sought to find out and details his findings in A More Beautiful Question:  The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas.  What he found, in brief, was that these people differ in their exceptional ability to ask questions.  Specifically, they ask the types of questions that force a different perspective.  Something ambitious.  Something actionable.  He calls these “beautiful questions,” a la E.E. Cummings.

“Always the beautiful answer

Who asks a more beautiful question.”  — E.E. Cummings

So what is a beautiful question?  Berger gives us some examples.

  • When Intel co-founders Andrew Grove and Gordon Moore were contemplating the future of Intel, they faced a difficult decision.  Should they stick with making memory chips, or switch to the (perhaps) more promising world of microprocessors?  Their beautiful question: “If we were kicked out of the company, what do you think the new CEO would do?”  Without the emotional attachment to the company’s product history, the right decision was clear, and arguably vindicated by history.
  • When taking a photograph of his three year old daughter in 1943, Edwin Land was asked by her, “Why do we have to wait for the picture?”  Land went on to co-found Polaroid and developed the instant photograph.
  • After losing a foot in a waterskiing accident, Van Phillips asked his beautiful question. “If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a decent foot?”  His answer revolutionized the world of prosthetics.

“So then, one of the primary drivers of questioning is an awareness of what we don’t know—which is a form of higher awareness that separates not only man from monkey but also the smart and curious person from the dullard who doesn’t know or care.” — Warren Berger, A More Beautiful Question

Not satisfied simply to understand this type of questioning, Berger dives into related issues.  The discussion on the decline of question asking as we age was particularly enlightening (Chapter 2 – Why We Stop Questioning). He cites a Newsweek article from 2010 that made an revealing, but mostly overlooked observation:

“Preschool children, on average, ask their parents about 100 questions a day. By middle school, they’ve pretty much stopped asking.” —Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, The Creativity Crisis, Newsweek, 7/10/2010

Not surprisingly, he asks why this happens in a well-researched and stimulating chapter that is mostly focused on the changes in education.  It is insightful and not too preachy.

Although he points out that there isn’t a specific roadmap to follow, Berger does boil down the fundamentals of the “beautiful” questioning process into its characteristic stages of Why, What If, and How.  I don’t believe too many will find that series of questions shocking, or even anything but expected.  As someone who does R&D for a living I found myself nodding in agreement but hoping for something less…obvious.  But Berger makes it real by including specifics from innovation leaders and how questioning is part of how they work.

Perhaps too much emphasis is placed on building an empire around solving the problem that caused the question to be asked.  Early on in the book, the key observation is that innovative questioners “give form to their ideas and make them real.”  But later, the emphasis is on good questions and how they are formed, which is persistent through the last few chapters.  I’m going to say he ended up in the right place.

Questioning in Business and Questioning for Life are the last two chapters and are full of questions you haven’t likely thought about or asked yourself.  I have a personal quest to think thoughts I haven’t had before, and these were stimulating chapters.  Questions such as “what should we stop doing?” or “what should we learn?” in business (instead of “what should we do?”).  And techniques like “thinking wrong” to “jiggle the synapses” are introduced.  It is a clever read that takes you beyond simply reading for pleasure and challenges the way you look at the world each day.

“Jeff Weiner, the chief executive of LinkedIn, observed that he often asks prospective employees this reasonable and fairly straightforward question: Looking back on your career, twenty or thirty years from now, what do you want to say you’ve accomplished?…You’d be amazed how many people I meet don’t have the answer to that question,” Weiner said.”

Berger has put together a quality work.  The breadth of the content means you’re going to see something you haven’t seen before, and the things you have seen before will likely have a new perspective.  Cap that off with twenty-five pages of notes organized by chapter, and indices for both the questions and the questioners featured in the book, and this one is worth having in hardcover.

“We must embrace the notion that answers are in fact quite boring.  The Irish are especially good or infuriating in this respect.  We answer questions with questions.  But in my opinion that’s a good place to be.  A little perplexed by the perplexity of life.” —Colum McCann

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