Why asking good questions will help you leave a legacy.

Asking the right questions is, arguably, more important than solving them. Find out why.

Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
Franz Wiesbauer, MD MPH
23rd May 2018 • 5m read

In the early 1900’s, Bell Laboratories posed an interesting question.

Scientists, to the very core, they wanted to know what their most productive engineers had in common and they commissioned an internal research study to find out.

Did they all go to specific schools? Read specific books? Work in particular ways? What bound these high-performers together in the pursuit of peak productivity? Every road they seemed to go down would eventually hit a dead end. They simply couldn’t find the answer to a question that, in their minds, would help them to replicate their top engineers' productivity across the entire company—that is, until they noticed a peculiar pattern.

Each of these top performers had one thing, and one thing only, in common—they all had lunch with a man named Harry Nyquist.

Harry was a senior electrical engineer at Bell Laboratories. He later became an important contributor to communications theory and something of a celebrity in engineering circles. But at that time, he was simply another cog in the company’s wheel. They chased this lead further and realized that Nyquist was really, really good at drawing out the essence of a topic. Over lunch, he would engage engineers in a conversation that would inspire them to think deeply about whatever problem they were facing. By asking a series of well-formulated and pointed questions, he was able to draw out an answer that was considered, thoughtful, and far deeper than an immediate answer could provide. By teaching his engineers how to question, Nyquist also gave them the mental tools to resolve those questions.

Just a few years before, a mathematician by the name of David Hilbert took to the stage of the International Congress of Mathematicians to present 23 intractable math problems. Hilbert’s Problems, as they came to be known, are widely regarded to be the most deeply-considered compilation of open problems ever to be produced by an individual mathematician.

Like Nyquist, Hilbert understood the power of a good question. He had already provided his fair share of answers to the world of numbers and wanted to contribute in a way that others weren’t. In his mind, too many people were trying to answer old questions and not enough people were asking questions that would push the field further. Hilbert and Nyquist both understood that true progress lay in the collective skill of asking good questions rather than in the ability to solve them. Many people can solve problems. Few are capable of identifying the right questions to be solved in the first place. But it took people like Hilbert and Nyquist to recognize that these questions needed to be asked.

Humans ask questions in a bid to learn. We are insatiably curious for curiosity’s sake. Our drive to ask questions has separated us from the rest of the animal kingdom and evolution has favored us in return. Since we are primed to ask questions (hanging out with any four-year-old will prove this), our drive to answer them is inevitable. But we also have a tendency to try to answer a question immediately, rather than seeking a deeper level of understanding about the question itself. Plato suggested that the right question is more important than the right answer—and he was right! Knowledge tends to beget more knowledge, and even more questions that need to be answered. But what happens when we don’t ask the right questions in the first place?

How to ask better questions

Asking good questions, like anything else, is a matter of habit. The more you do it, the better you get at it. As a physician, you’re already used to asking a lot of questions. Without that curiosity, there’s no way you could have mastered the sciences to a level that allowed you to pass medical school and all of the exams that followed. You are curious and always looking to understand everything at a deeper level. But somewhere along the line, the depth of your questioning likely became a lot more shallow than it used to be.

Lack of time, work pressures, keeping up with your CME requirements, day-to-day clinical work, and all of the other stresses that come along with being a doctor don’t leave much headspace for proper introspection. So how do you reconnect with that curiosity and ask questions that will leave a lasting impact on the medical community?

Many of today’s medical influencers ask questions that get to the heart of medicine’s biggest problems. To do the same, you need to accustom yourself to asking questions that no one else wants to think about. There are two stages to asking good questions—the first is exploration and the second is validation.

In the first stage, we follow a series of three steps to begin the exploration process.

1. Break down the system into individual components

Let’s say you want to explore the game of chess. To start the process, you’ll want to isolate individual components of the game. For example, you'll want to explore the pieces, the chessboard, and the rules. Create distinct categories for each of these components in your mind’s eye.

2. Explore the attributes of each component

Let’s say we want to explore the chessboard. We know that it is an alternating set of boxes in two contrasting colors. But what else do we know about it? Does it require a certain number of boxes to be considered a valid game? Does it matter whether the edge of the board starts with a light- or a dark-coloured box? And if we think about the pieces as well, we can ask further questions. How many pieces need to be on the board before a game is guaranteed to be won? What configuration of pieces assures a winning outcome? How many configurations are there? How do we train a computer to build those configurations?

3. Explore uncharted spaces

In this step, we’re focusing on What If? questions, which requires a bit of idea sex to get it going. At this stage, we'll be looking at the questions from the previous step and digging a little bit deeper. What would happen if we changed the rules of the game? What if we changed the points allocated to each piece? What if the behavior of each piece changed? Would that also change the number of steps required before a game can be won? Would it change the winning configurations too?

As you can tell here, the question options are limitless. This line of questioning will take you far deeper than 99.9% of other people will ever go. The questions that you ask won't all be good questions. In fact, many of them will be downright silly. But that’s why you'll take those questions through the vetting stage.

To pass this stage, questions need to be:

  • Clear and unambiguous
  • Solvable
  • At the heart of the topic
  • At the right level (not too obvious and not too philosophical)

By practicing the process of asking better questions, you will eventually get to a point where filtering out the essence of any topic becomes second nature. The key is to not be afraid of where your line of questioning will lead you. Open yourself to the endless possibilities of any topic you choose to grapple with, and be open enough to let it take you on a journey that you might never think to take.

Do you have tips for asking better questions? We would love to read your comments below!