Dean James Ryan of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (now President of the University of Virginia) recently addressed the graduating class of 2016 and challenged them to ask the right questions in the years to come. His challenge to them was to ask questions and not look for easy answers. Indeed, good questions—not the easy answers—are those that direct us to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others and in the life of our communities.
Having the privilege to hear this address, I found myself equally taken to task. The questions are worth sharing and worthy of the consideration of all.
- “Wait, what?” This question implies two processes, that the questioner has paused to actually listen to what somebody else is saying and that the questioner has asked for clarification before jumping to a conclusion. This question really gets to the core of our interactions with others—how to listen in a respectful manner and think about an appropriate response before just answering without thinking.
- “I wonder why [something]?” or “I wonder if [something]?” These questions are at the heart of curiosity and keep open the lines of inquiry, vital to an interactive and supportive community of citizens and life-long learners. Citizens that are curious ask questions that are not just the ones that they know the answer to but questions that will address a broader good.
- “Couldn’t we at least…?” The question is crucial to true progress. The question implies that some disagreement might have been present, yet this question suggests that consensus is possible and a common solution should be sought. Critical to our interactions with others is the understanding that we do not have all of the answers and that we can work together toward a greater good.
- “How can I help?” The question is the basis of all relationships. It acknowledges that we each have a hand in helping each other. It acknowledges the humility of truly helping our fellow citizens in a self-less way. It acknowledges the deep commitment that we must have to accept our common humanity. It acknowledges that we are all in this together, that there are not “winners or losers” but our fellow citizens that need our help.
- “What truly matters to me?” This question asks that each of us look inside to see what really matters—not that our football team wins, but what makes a difference in our lives and in how we interact with others. “Others” in this context means family, friends, coworkers, colleagues and fellow citizens. This question asks how my interactions with others make a difference and help all.
- “Did you get what you wanted out of life, even so?”In Dr. Ryan’s address, this was a bonus question. He related the story of a close friend whose life was cut short due to illness and how this close friend hoped that he would be beloved after his death and that his joy would be passed on to others. The question addresses the pain and disappointment that are inevitable in every life but hopes that the answer will be “I DID!”—that joy and contentment will have filled one’s life. As a physician and pediatrician, I must note that too often tragedy or unfortunate circumstances make the bonus question somewhat difficult for some children and families. My task is therefore to do my best to make the answer “I DID” as much as possible for those that I come in contact with.
Questions, not answers, can provide the way forward in our lives, acting as a moral compass for our actions and interactions. Questions, not answers, challenge us to constantly strive for improvement personally and professionally. Questions, not answers, require our serious introspection or reflection to truly make a difference.