Analysis: A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger

Warren Berger’s A More Beautiful Question shows a variety of ways that asking better questions can provoke positive change in life, relationships, and business, and provides a broad framework for how to do so in actionable ways. It’s a flawed book, but a worthwhile read with an underappreciated thesis.

Top 5 Key Concepts

Page 8: A “Beautiful Question” changes the way we think and serves as a catalyst

“A beautiful question 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.”

Page 23: Navigating modern society requires us to retain childlike curiosity

“As expertise loses its ‘shelf life,’ it also loses some of its value. If we think of ‘questions’ and ‘answers’ as stocks on the market, then we could say that, in this current environment, questions are rising in value while answers are declining…We must become, in a word, neotenous (neoteny being a biological term that describes the retention of childlike attributes in adulthood). To do so, we must rediscover the tool that kids use so well in those early years: the question. [MIT’s Joi] Ito puts it quite simply: ‘You don’t learn unless you question.’”

Page 75: Different problems call for different mindsets and different questions

“Each stage of the problem-solving process has distinct challenges and issues—requiring a different mind-set, along with different types of questions. Expertise is helpful at certain points, not so helpful at others; wide-open, unfettered divergent thinking is critical at one stage, discipline and focus is called for at another. By thinking of questioning and problem-solving in a more structured way, we can remind ourselves to shift approaches, change tools, and adjust our questions according to which stage we’re entering.”

Page 133: You’re never quite done questioning; successful inquiry leads to more inquiry

“While the How stage is positioned here as a third and final stage of innovative questioning, there really is no final stage—because the questions don’t end, even when you arrive at a solution. Many successful questioners, having arrived at an ‘answer,’ quickly return to asking questions. Often, they’re questioning the very answers they found, which may not have been definitive. There is invariably room (and the need) to find ways to improve those solutions, to expand upon them, take them to another level.”

Page 183: People avoid questioning primarily because they’re scared they won’t find satisfactory answers

“Among the reasons people tend to avoid fundamental questioning of much of what they do in their lives (especially the important things), four stand out:

  • Questioning is seen as counterproductive; it’s the answers that most people are focused on finding, because answers, it is believed, will provide ways to solve problems, move ahead, improve life.
  • The right time for asking fundamental questions never seems to present itself; either it’s too soon or too late.
  • Knowing the right questions to ask is difficult (so better not to ask at all)
  • Perhaps the most significant: What if we find we have no good answers to the important questions we raise? Fearing that, many figure it’s better not to invite that additional uncertainty and doubt into their lives.”

Top 5 Practical Takeaways

Page 31: Effective questioning often takes the form of 1) Why?, 2) What If?, and 3) How?

“In observing how questioners tackle problems, I noticed a pattern in many of the stories:

  • Person encounters a situation that is less than ideal; asks Why.
  • Person begins to come up with ideas for possible improvements/solutions—with such ideas usually surfacing in the form of What If possibilities.
  • Person takes one of these possibilities and tries to implement it or make it real; this mostly involves figuring out How.

The Why/What If/How sequence represents a basic and logical progression, drawing, in part, on several existing models that break down the creative problem-solving process.”

Page 107: Knowledge forms the raw material that gets connected by effective questioning

“In particular, if your curiosity has been focused on a particular problem, and you’ve been doing dep thinking, contextual inquiry, questioning the problem from various perspectives and angles, asking your multiple Whys—it all becomes fodder for later insights and smart recombinations.

“So even though it can initially be beneficial to approach a problem with a beginner’s mind, as you progress to imagining What If solutions, it’s useful to have some acquired knowledge on the problem—preferably gathered from diverse viewpoints. It also helps to have a wide base of knowledge on all sorts of things that might seem to be unrelated to the problem—the more eclectic your storehouse of information, the more possibilities for unexpected connections.”

Pg. 112: Deliberately think wrong

“The idea, then, is to force your brain off those predictable paths by purposely ‘thinking wrong’—coming up with ideas that seem to make no sense, mixing and matching things that don’t normally go together.”

Pg. 146: Use questioning to impose and remove constraints

“History and routine aren’t the only things that can impede a company’s forward movement. Various real-world constraints can also inhibit a company’s ability to adapt and innovate; for example, being overly concerned with practical issues such as costs and budgets tends to limit the scope of creative thinking. That’s why some business leaders (including Steve Jobs when he headed Apple) have been known to use What If hypothetical questioning to temporarily remove practical constraints…

“By temporarily removing these restrictions, people’s imaginations are freed up to find the best idea, cost notwithstanding. You might end up with a ground-breaking possibility that can then be scaled back to make it more affordable.

“Conversely, using What If questions to impose constraints can also be effective. By challenging people to think about creating or achieving something within extreme limits—What if we could only charge ten bucks for our hundred-dollar service?—it forces a rethinking of real-world practicalities and assumptions.”

Pg. 195: Use experiments to act upon your questions

“…experimentation can be thought of as, simply, the way you act upon questions. You wonder about something new or different; you try it out; you assess the results. That’s an experiment.

“…If you randomly try things in life, it can lead to haphazard results; but if you bring thought to trying new approaches or experiences—if you take the time to consider why they might be worth trying, and what might be the best way to test them out, and then assess whether the trial was a success and worth following up on—it’s a more practical way to bring change into your life.”

Top 5 Disagreements

A More Beautiful Question has one overarching problem that appears in multiple contexts throughout the book, and it’s the way the book deals with prior knowledge. While there are some half-hearted caveats (e.g. pg. 107) to make sure the reader knows that no, knowledge doesn’t ALWAYS hamper creativity and questioning, the book frequently claims or insinuates that “the value of explicit information is dropping” and that knowledge may be “obsolete.” But if you have read Make It Stick (or my analysis of it), you know that the often-denigrated “rote memorization” is actually crucial to performing any higher-level cognitive tasks.

Think of everything you hold in your memory—everything from the little facts and figures to the broader conceptual understanding—and picture it as a giant cluster, where each bit of knowledge is a separate piece that contributes to the whole and makes it a little bit bigger. New knowledge comes flying toward it, sometimes missing but sometimes sticking, and the bigger the cluster is, the more surface area there is for new knowledge to stick to. In this way, knowledge has a snowball effect where everything you learn makes it easier to learn yet more things, but only when it’s actually kept in the snowball. If you rely on writing or computers to be substitutes for memory, you lose that extra surface area and that cumulative advantage to learning new things.

Picture your snowball of knowledge again, and picture each piece of knowledge being combined, compared, and contrasted with all the other pieces; this is what it’s like when you exercise higher-level skills like creativity and analysis. Contrary to the “wisdom” that is rapidly becoming conventional in the digital age, it is not sufficient to hold those individual bits of knowledge outside your head with the use of technology. Research has conclusively shown that students who carry more basic facts around in their memory are able to perform better at higher-level tasks. When you create, you need raw material to create with. When you analyze, you need some thing to analyze.

A More Beautiful Question does acknowledge certain circumstances where prior knowledge is helpful, but based on my reading, I’m afraid that uninformed readers will come away with the misconception that they should deprioritize memorization of facts if they want to become better thinkers on complex topics. It’s important that readers understand that the opposite is true: simply having basic, nuts-and-bolts information about a topic readily available in memory dramatically increases one’s ability to perform more complex cognitive tasks.

Connections to Other Works

Outgoing Connections

  • Make It Stick, by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel
    • “In the current era of Google and Watson, with databases doing much of the ‘knowing’ for us, many critics today question the wisdom of an education system that still revolves around teaching students to memorize facts. One such education critic, the author Sugata Mitra, made just this point at a TED Conference by tossing out the provocative question Is ‘knowing’ obsolete? Of course, not all knowledge is mere factual information; the TED question, as worded, is overly broad. But if we zero in on a narrow kind of knowledge—stored facts or ‘answers’—then that kind of ‘knowing’ might be better left to machines with more memory.” (pg. 27)
  • Zero to One, by Peter Thiel and Blake Masters
    • “PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel believes entrepreneurs can find ideas to pursue by asking themselves, What is something I believe that nearly no one agrees with me on?” (pg. 151)
  • Man’s Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl
    • “The author and creativity coach Eric Maisel says that when people ask, How can I find the meaning of life?, they’re asking a ‘completely useless question.’ That classic query is based on the flawed notion that ‘meaning’ is an objective truth to be found out there somewhere. Better to think of it this way, Maisel says: We have to construct meaning in our lives, based on everyday choices—and every one of those choices is a question. Why should I do X? Is it work my time and effort to do Y?” (pg. 185)
  • The Four-Hour Body and The Four-Hour Chef, by Tim Ferriss
    • “…experimentation can be thought of as, simply, the ways you act upon questions. You wonder about something new or different; you try it out; you assess the results. That’s an experiment…If you randomly try things in life, it can lead to haphazard results; but if you bring thought to trying new approaches or experiences—if you take time to consider why they might be worth trying, and what might be the best way to test them out, and then assess whether the trial was a success and worth following up on—it’s a more practical way to bring change into your life.” (pg. 195)
  • Superforecasting, by Philip Tetlock
    • “…one other question comes highly recommended from Michael Corning, a top engineer at Microsoft, who said he has relied on this in both his work and his life: What are the odds I’m wrong? As Corning points out, just pausing every once in a while to ponder this question can provide a check on our natural tendency to be overly certain of our own views.” (pg. 206)

Incoming Connections

Closing Thoughts

The question is a woefully underused tool, and Warren Berger deserves credit for exploring it in detail for a popular audience, thereby providing them with the skills to use it in a variety of potentially profound arenas, but stumbles by denigrating prior knowledge and leaving readers unequipped to integrate it into their questions.

Final Score: 3.5/5

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