Seven Reasons to Embrace Impossible Thinking and Beautiful Questions

 by Diane Berenbaum
According to Albert Einstein, “The important thing is to not stop questioning. Question everything. Never lose a holy curiosity.”  

He felt that curiosity has its own reason for existing, and; therefore,“One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life… It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day.”

What’s Impossible Thinking?

I recently came across The Impossible Institute, whose mission is to “make impossible thinking an epidemic. What’s “impossible thinking”? It’s thinking what is not possible… yet. Thinking what we have always thought is the enemy of ‘impossible thinking.’ Don’t buy into the way things should be done, focus on the way you’d like them to be done. To think the impossible, we must hold an impossible thought long enough that it becomes possible. We must question everything we hold true and imagine “what if this was not true.”

According to the Institute, despite all the change around us, “human beings are not really changing all that much.” We are still all driven by an unconscious desire to survive, to look after ourselves and our own. We also are driven by the need to matter, to be noticed, to feel heard, to feel valuable, to feel accepted, loved and connected.

The Power of Beautiful Questions

Journalist and speaker Warren Berger realized that many of the entrepreneurs he interviewed over the years were great questioners, and that led them to new and sometimes revolutionary discoveries. His wondering about "How can we learn to do what they do?” led to his latest book, A More Beautiful Question. Berger shows that one of the most powerful forces for igniting change in business and in our daily lives is a tool we’ve had since childhood. Questioning.  

“Questions are sometimes better than answers,” noted Berger.  So he looked beyond the design world to understand the power of questioning to spark change, innovation, and progress. He noted that questioning deeply, imaginatively, and “beautifully,” can help us identify and solve problems, come up with game-changing ideas, and pursue fresh opportunities.

So why do so many of us refrain from asking “why”?  We start out in life asking a multitude of core questions—Why is the sky blue? Why do cats purr? Why can’t I stay up as late as Jennifer?

Berger’s surprising findings reveal that even though children start out asking hundreds of questions a day, questioning “falls off a cliff” as kids enter school. In an education and business culture devised to reward rote answers over challenging inquiry, questioning isn’t encouraged—and, in fact, is sometimes barely tolerated.

And yet, as Berger shows, the most creative, successful people tend to be expert questioners. They’ve mastered the art of inquiry, raising questions no one else is asking—and finding the answers everyone else is seeking.

What is a “Beautiful Question”?

So what’s a “beautiful” question, you may ask? A question can be beautiful for a number of reasons. According to Berger, “it is an ambitious yet actionable question that can begin to shift the way we perceive or think about something—and that might serve as a catalyst to bring about change.” He also notes that they can be “beautiful” if they’re big and audacious, or insightful or perceptive.  

Bland, innocuous questions seem to be the norm these days. But why stick with the status quo? Thoughtful and thought-provoking “beautiful” questions help us think more deeply and imaginatively. They may lead us to discover new opportunities, identify and solve problems, and create game-changing concepts or designs. They can spark new ideas and new ways to see the world around us. They can make us laugh or cry. And, sometimes, they change our lives.  

Here are a few examples:

  • How do we know what we know?

  • Why do we stop asking questions when we get older?

  • What is it about your business today that you can’t answer?

  • Why can’t I eat all I want and not get fat?  (Let me know if you have the answer to that one!)

Many of the world’s leading innovators are masters at the art and science of asking questions. They have a knack for looking at the world around them; the reality that everyone else usually just accepts—and ask questions such as, What if we did this? Or tried that?

Even President Barack Obama uses beautiful questions. Here are a few he shared in his 2016 State of the Union Address:

  • How can we make our politics reflect what’s best in us, and not what’s worst?

  • How do we give everyone a fair shot at opportunity and security in this new economy?

  • How do we keep America safe without becoming its policeman?

Seven Reasons to Use Beautiful Questions

Berger encourages us to ask, “How can each of us re-ignite that questioning spark, and use inquiry as a powerful means to rethink and reinvent our lives?” The questions and answers are up to you.

So, why use beautiful questions?

  1. Questions are “good for us.” They open our hearts and our minds, so we can discover new possibilities.  

  2. “People who ask a lot of questions tend to be more engaged, more fulfilled and happier,” according to Berger.

  3. Questions are the first step in solving problems. They help us determine viable alternatives.

  4. The practice of asking targeted questions can make us more successful and self-assured managers and/or leaders.

  5. Questions can help us understand an individual’s objectives and motives.

  6. Asking questions demonstrates that we’re interested in the topic and the questioner.

  7. Questioning can broaden our horizons and spark change in our lives.

But this is not just a business-related issue. In our lives in general, we have a tendency to move along on auto-pilot when we really ought to be in the habit of stepping back and questioning everything—our attitudes and beliefs, our career choices, and the way we choose to live.

How Will You Find Your Own Beautiful Questions?

In the New York Times (Dec. 17, 2015), Adam Bryant shared this quote from Melanie Whelan, CEO of SoulCycle in his Corner Office column: “How can you find the question in every answer? Really listen, because in every answer there are at least three more questions you want to be asking.”

So, what questions haven’t you asked? And, which ones haven’t you answered? What’s stopping you? As E.E. Cummings once wrote, “Always the beautiful answer, who asks a more beautiful question.”

P.S. Visit the What is Your Beautiful Question? page (and feel free to submit one of your own)


Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
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