Not all Questions Are Created Equal


By Troy Headrick

Not long ago, I had a very interesting conversation with someone I’ll call “John.”  The two of us talked about many subjects during our meandering dialogue.  At one point, to my complete surprise, John said, “I don’t need to question things.  Why would I want to do that?  My head already feels completely full of all kinds of ideas and knowledge.”

I was very much surprised by what John had said.  I also knew, based upon this single exchange, that he and I were very different kinds of people.

Unlike John, I’ve always been inquisitive.  I don’t accept things at face value and I have this instinctive need to dig deeper.  Though, like him, my head sometimes feels full, I find that I’m still hungry and always up for a bit of intellectual nibbling.

I frequently feel intellectually inadequate and humbled by the great mysteries of existence.  The world (and everything in it) is so big and fascinating and multifaceted and seemingly unknowable.  Those who think of themselves as questioners can never feel like they know or understand enough.

Because I’m an educator, I also try to help others see the value of asking questions.  By the way, there are all kinds of queries and not all of them are created equal.

For example, there are questions that begin with the word “how.”  Life forces us to ask these because we live in a world that prizes getting things done.  “How” questions are often about process, about the steps involved in accomplishing some task, making them very goal-oriented and practical but not very philosophical.  For instance, one might ask, “How are enchiladas made?”  This question is not about finding out why some of us become foodies or others don’t.  This query, when asked and answered, simply helps us prepare a wonderful Tex-Mex dish.

Then there are questions that start with the word “what.”  Like many “how” questions, these are often “closed.”  For example, if you ask, “What is the capital of Latvia?” there is only one possible answer and Riga would be it.  It is not possible to answer Caracas to the question without being utterly wrong.  I called these “closed” questions because once the answer is given, the interrogative has been completed.  “What” questions of this type lead nowhere beyond a correct (or incorrect) response.

Many questions that begin with the word “why” are very important because they can serve to “open” the mind.  “Why” questions are about causes and often provoke profound thought and  analysis.  For example, “Why have I chosen to be an educator?” might lead to the answer “Because I have always loved learning.”  Such an answer might prompt, “But why is learning so important to me?” which would lead to another answer that could then be examined with a “why” question.  As you can see, these kinds of queries force the questioner to burrow down and help uncover important truths about ourselves, the world, and other people.  They provide the questioner with a tool that can lead to new lines of inquiry.

I’d like to finish by giving you a little exercise to complete.  Write two or three “why?” questions and then answer them.  (These can be about yourself or whatever subject you choose.)  Share your questions and responses here to help jump start an interesting dialogue about the art and science of asking good probing queries.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found at Thinker Boy:  Blog & Art.


29 thoughts on “Not all Questions Are Created Equal

  1. I also ask a lot of questions, mostly ‘whys’. One question I can think of: Why do we dream?
    For me dreams can be reminders of the past, or symbols of what we hope or long for, or on the flipside what we fear.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you ask a lot of “why” questions. That shows that you’re curious and open to learning deeper truths. I’m fascinated by dreams myself and have read Freud and Jung. Why, I wonder, are my dreams so surreal? My dreams are really weird. There has to be a reason for that. Maybe I need to do a little research? Take care.

    2. Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you ask a lot of “why” questions. That shows that you’re curious and open to learning deeper truths. I’m fascinated by dreams myself and have read Freud and Jung. Why, I wonder, are my dreams so surreal? My dreams are really weird. There has to be a reason for that. Maybe I need to do a little research? Take care.

      1. Mine are mostly surreal too! I end up googling what they could possibly mean when I wake up. I also tend to forget really quick so I write them down as soon as I can.

      2. For me it depends on the dreams and whether I am in a hurry or what happens in the world around me. I can remember dreams I have had in my childhood and could even describe some with a lot of detail. Some of my dreams were trauma related, things which hurt me a lot and therefor “burned” into me deeply.
        Some dreams were about possible future events and sometimes were so real, that I thought I actually was there and it really happened.

        I often had dreams merging with what I usually did, for example some games I played or things I experienced, probably because they were deeply wired inside me.

        In my case some of the dreams are surreal, but some are also almost too real, so I then wake up and question reality. Each time when I had such a dream, it terrified me for a while because I wasn’t sure whether I was still dreaming or not.
        Because I already had dream in a dream experiences, so you could say multiple layered dreams, or something like that.

        Why did I have such dreams? – For me it often seems as if I am dreaming while I should be awake, because I just can’t handle the things happening around me. This could mean, that I try to escape somewhere else and then maybe even do the same within some dreams. But I am not sure, of course. I just know, that I had a few dreams which were about me doing things I didn’t do before, only to remember that I dreamed about it some time later.

        I think it mainly happened because I got ignored and people wanted me to do things their way and not to think for myself, so I broke apart inside. Hopefully people like Troy can make a change. I always wanted to learn and understand things and search and tried things on my own, but the more I learned, the less I wanted to understand because the things I found out made me realise that I had no chance. Packed with all the traumatic things and problems I had to deal with, I broke my own mind and willingly turned it into an enslaved one, only to partially repair it again and realise, that I did it on purpose, since I asked too many why questions. Not all of them where answered and some of them could have multiple answers, but given the people and developments around me and what I understood about it, made me want to give up.

        Then I even stopped having dreams at all at times or only very stressful experiences I revisited.

        If there would have been someone, just one who would have told me, that I could work on something with them or do something which was based around learning, educating and such things, I would have accepted. But when I could have decide that for myself, I already gave up on everything and mainly experienced life as a walk towards the slaughtery. Which also explained a lot of my weird nightmares.

        I usually try to find answers for myself because I haven’t found anyone who was really on a somewhat similar level. I mean, I broke out of my baby bed, talked with a few months and was asking my mother or others about a lot of things. Sometimes I feel as if I went too far. Because I think that not everything should be tried, for example weapons or such things.

  2. My mentor taught me that How is equal doubt. When people are doubting they killing their dreams. He always saying that we have to ask Why. 😊😊😊 good post

    1. Thank you. So you have a mentor? That’s interesting. And he agrees that “why” questions are important! What sort of mentor do you have? Do you mind if I ask?

  3. Very interesting, learning from u. Yes I too like the why questions, but I also like the “closed” questions because i like to be full of informative information! Great post!

  4. I was a pain in the neck because I was always asking questions as a child. In the movie Finding Forrester, actor Sean Connery, called the poignant questions soup questions. A question that comes to mind is how do scientist really know that an things can date back thousands of years. How do we know for sure? I understand they use specific tools or formulas. But how do we know for sure? Another question is who started naming things what they are?

    1. Thanks for your interesting response. I often wonder how we know anything at all sense we only have our senses and a few tools that we use to observe and understand. Life is so interesting and often baffling? Why does evil exist? If the creator was a perfect being, why did it choose to create such an imperfect world? Of course, my question assumes that a creator even exists.

  5. Good one 👏
    It takes all sorts to make this world. Johns are needed too😊
    The humongous bigness of the universe and its mysteries is so humbling.

    1. Yes! I’m a great advocate of diversity. We need all types. As the old saying goes, “Variety is the spice of life.” Thank you for your comment.

    1. Because not asking why is intellectually lazy in my opinion. For example, maturity comes when the child begins to ask his parents why they live a certain way and believe in certain things. If we never question, then we simply believe and act rather automatically (like robots). Tribalism can only exist where and when people quit asking why. The great purposes of life include learning and growing and finding one’s own way. Thank you for asking a very important “why” question. (Your question, by the way, was one of the most intriguing yet asked.)

  6. 𝙽𝚒𝚌𝚎𝚕𝚢 𝚍𝚘𝚗𝚎!

    𝙸 𝚝𝚘𝚘, 𝚟𝚊𝚕𝚞𝚎 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚙𝚞𝚛𝚙𝚘𝚜𝚎 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚙𝚛𝚘𝚌𝚎𝚜𝚜 𝚘𝚏 𝚊𝚜𝚔𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚚𝚞𝚎𝚜𝚝𝚒𝚘𝚗𝚜. 𝚆𝚑𝚒𝚕𝚎 𝚊𝚛𝚛𝚒𝚟𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚊𝚝 𝚊 “𝚌𝚘𝚛𝚛𝚎𝚌𝚝” 𝚘𝚛 𝚏𝚞𝚕𝚏𝚒𝚕𝚕𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚊𝚗𝚜𝚠𝚎𝚛 𝚒𝚜 𝚗𝚘𝚝 𝚊𝚕𝚠𝚊𝚢𝚜 𝚎𝚊𝚜𝚢, 𝙸 𝚝𝚛𝚞𝚕𝚢 𝚋𝚎𝚕𝚒𝚎𝚟𝚎 𝚒𝚝 𝚒𝚜 𝚑𝚘𝚠 𝚠𝚎 𝚐𝚛𝚘𝚠 𝚊𝚜 𝚒𝚗𝚍𝚒𝚟𝚒𝚍𝚞𝚊𝚕𝚜, 𝚊𝚗𝚍 𝚊𝚜 𝚊 𝚜𝚙𝚎𝚌𝚒𝚎𝚜.

    𝚃𝚑𝚛𝚘𝚞𝚐𝚑𝚘𝚞𝚝 𝚑𝚒𝚜𝚝𝚘𝚛𝚢, 𝚞𝚗𝚙𝚘𝚙𝚞𝚕𝚊𝚛 𝚘𝚛 𝚒𝚗𝚌𝚘𝚗𝚟𝚎𝚗𝚒𝚎𝚗𝚝 𝚚𝚞𝚎𝚜𝚝𝚒𝚘𝚗𝚜 𝚠𝚎𝚛𝚎 𝚘𝚏𝚝𝚎𝚗 𝚜𝚒𝚕𝚎𝚗𝚌𝚎𝚍. 𝙹𝚞𝚜𝚝 𝚝𝚑𝚒𝚗𝚔: 𝙸𝚏 𝚠𝚎 𝚎𝚗𝚌𝚘𝚞𝚛𝚊𝚐𝚎 𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚌𝚑𝚒𝚕𝚍𝚛𝚎𝚗 𝚝𝚘 𝚚𝚞𝚎𝚜𝚝𝚒𝚘𝚗 𝚠𝚒𝚝𝚑𝚘𝚞𝚝 𝚏𝚎𝚊𝚛, 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚙𝚛𝚘𝚖𝚒𝚜𝚎 𝚘𝚏 𝚙𝚛𝚘𝚐𝚛𝚎𝚜𝚜 𝚒𝚜 𝚒𝚗𝚎𝚟𝚒𝚝𝚊𝚋𝚕𝚢 𝚘𝚞𝚛𝚜.

    1. I totally agree with everything you’ve said in your comment! Unfortunately, it seems that we’re living in an era when “authorities” (as in authoritarians) are telling the masses that they shouldn’t think for themselves and not ask questions. Such authoritarians tell their listeners that only they understand the world and are capable of fixing what’s broken. This anti-intellectualism has to battled with everything we’ve got. By the way, I looked at your blog and will return later to look some more. I believe you are an educator. Am I right? If so, thank you for your service.

      1. I often hear Americans thanking military people for having “served” the country. I think that teachers provide as much service to the country (or maybe even more) than those in the army, navy, etc. I think we ought to try to start a trend to speak about teachers using this same sort of language. Here’s the big picture: Teachers are vital to the national security of the nation they teacher in. (And they perform this duty without having to carry a gun, invade other nations, or harm a single human being). I believe this with all my heart.

  7. Really interesting, thought-provoking read! As a scientist, I agree that asking different types of questions and not just taking things at face value is so important – it’s how scientific progress is made!!

    1. I don’t know if critical/creative thinking is actually on the decline or not. But it certainly appears to be which is why demagoguery is on the rise. Although I have lived for many years as an expatriated American, I currently reside in the US and am terrified by what I see happening around me both politically and culturally. Vast swaths of the population simply accepting what a charismatic leader says. There is no questioning of his words. The moment we stop being skeptical and stop questioning things, is the moment we begin our slide toward the abyss.

      Yes, when I do my workshops on critical/creative thinking, I always talk about how progress (not only in science but in all fields) comes about. Innovative thinking drives all healthy change and growth!

      Thanks for reading and responding.

  8. Nom nom nom the brain food…
    Why do I blog? It helps me to focus on something and try to evaluate the importance in my life. It is also a great tool for marking my mood swings. Why is the latter important? As someone bi-polar, I can’t see from the outside what my behavior is – I’m too entrenched in the emotions. Getting that perspective helps me to figure out just how fast the moods are swinging. Why is that knowledge important? If it comes down to it, hospitalization or a meds check are in order. That’s critical if I want to be around for those I love, including myself. I want to be a better example than what I had.

    1. Writing helps so many of us in so many ways. Often, when I start a blog, I have a vague idea of what I want to say, but then the writing begins and it (almost) becomes its own thing with its own rules and goals and direction. When I was in grad school, I read some theorist–I can’t rightly recall his or her name at the moment–who said that “writing is discovery.” In other words, we discovery what we have to say while we’re saying it. The writing makes itself. It takes over and we give way to its power. Thank you for your comment.

Leave a Reply