The importance of asking the right question

I keep a book of quotes. It shares a spiral bound purse-sized notebook with book recommendations, word lists, and random phrases gleaned from my reading, ones that take my hand and whisper, “Stop. Look. Read again. There’s something here.” These quotes have the same effect.

Here’s one that made me think.

“Problems that remain persistently insoluble should always be suspected as questions asked in the wrong way.” –Alan Watts

It shares a page with another scribbled note. It’s a comment from the YouTube video of Susan Boyle’s first performance on a talent show, the one where the judges belittle her appearance and doubt her abilities. Then she starts to sing. Here’s the comment:

“Someone once told me, that the first thought that goes through your mind is what society has instilled into your mind. The second thought which enters your mind reflects your character.” –Dan Dela Cruz, commenter.

The Watts quotation lies across the spiral bind from these two:

“Most unhappiness comes from not being able to sit quietly in a room.” –Pascal

“Gamache knew it was impossible to split language from culture. That without one the other withered. To love the language was to respect the culture.” –Louise Penny, The Brutal Telling, page 340

All that to say, the Watts quote stuck in my mind as significant. What problems have remained unsolved in my life? Am I asking the questions in the wrong way?

Asking just any question isn’t going to lead to the needed answer. It’s asking the right question that leads to the answer or answers. Sometimes finding the right question to ask is the hardest part of problem solving.

5325c31b21704bedb28f2b8c35374c5fA few weeks ago, I took an online IQ test and found myself stuck on a simple geometry word problem. I knew what they were asking and avoided one major pitfall. So far, so good. I had the lengths of two sides of a right triangle and needed to find the hypotenuse. I remembered there was an equation that would tell me the other side’s length. Now what was it?


A +B multiplied by something?

Or was A and B squared?

Did that make C squared, too?

I guessed. I got it wrong. Mensa membership is not in my future. I was trying to solve the problem with the wrong question.

So back to real life. What problems have remained persistently unsolved? What can I ask the right question or set of questions that lead to a solution? If not a solution, perhaps a step toward a solution. How do I find that question?

When I took art in junior high, our teacher had us practice drawing from photographs. We’d pick the photo and draw a grid on the image using a grease pencil. We drew another grid on our paper. We were supposed to make certain that the image in a particular grid was drawn in the corresponding grid on the paper. It helped to get the proportions correct so a door (or whatever) wasn’t the wrong size in relation to a tree (or whatever was in the photo).

But here’s the key: we drew from the photo flipped upside down.

Flipping the familiar image in a different direction allowed us to see what was there, not what we thought was there. Students struggle with viewpoint and perspective. They have the familiar stuck in their head: a round basket is drawn as a circle when, from their point of view a few feet away, the round basket opening looks like an oval.

But if what you’re looking at doesn’t appear to be a basket at all, then it becomes easier to see the oval-shaped opening of your perspective rather than the round-shaped opening your mind knows from reality.

How's that for a switch of perspective?
How’s that for a switch of perspective? Upside down AND inside out!

I thought of this when I thought of the insolvable problems and wrong questions. What if we turned those questions upside down? What would the new perspective reveal? In the words of M. C. Escher, “Are you really sure that a floor can’t also be a ceiling?”

There are limits, of course. Some problems will remain unsolvable in this life, partially because our finite minds can’t find questions that fully grasp the infinite. Still others can’t be solved because of things outside our control; though, in those cases, maybe the answer, the solution, isn’t something we humans would normally consider a solution. We need wisdom to know which problems fit those categories and the courage to accept those mysteries.

We also need the courage to flip the photo upside down and face what the image reveals.   


7 thoughts on “The importance of asking the right question

  1. That’s interesting. I was just thinking today that a problem in my life might not be as big an issue as I think it is. Now I’ll turn it on its head, ask some different questions, and see if that reveals a different perspective. Thanks!


  2. C squared = a squared + b squared….hm…….don’t ask me! Not a math person! 🙂 I was once told by a 10th grade teacher, that it wasn’t the “answers” that students had that impressed him as much as the “questions” that were asked by students that impressed him the most……Your “answer” lies in your last statement with “the wisdom” and “the courage”…both attributes, I suspect, you (like most of us) work on on a regular basis. You, dear-heart, are a woman of courage, kindness and wisdom….all attributes of a lovely woman and good human being……:) You are such a “wise soul” for one “so young”…….


    1. What a sweet and kind thing to say, Lucie. Most of the time I don’t feel very courageous or kind or wise at all, though I think I’ve gained some in the past 37 years. You have such a kind heart, Lucie; I’m glad that I know you. 🙂


    1. Totally agree! A professor in grad school told me that finding the way to word questions to prompt class discussion took skill, and after trying to lead a discussion for the first time, I agreed. It was hard!


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