Modern Philosopher Modern Philosopher

Life-changing questions

Philosopher Dr Brennan Jacoby says personal, professional and social progress is found by asking the right questions
Life-changing questions
November 14, 2016   |    Dr Brennan Jacoby

jacob-newAnswers are overrated: questions are what really matter. I’m a philosopher, and so you might expect me to say that. After all, the history of philosophy traces the contours of curiosity rather than certainty. But taking a moment to consider the value of questions can benefit anyone.

People love answers.

To some extent, this makes sense. Obtaining answers, even if false, can help us feel secure, and in control. Admitting we have unanswered or difficult questions may bring a feeling of vulnerability, and, in some instances, shake the very foundations on which our work, identity and relationships are built.


But while answers may seem more attractive, we should pay attention to the questions we are, and are not, asking. Life’s most interesting and enlightening moments involve a good question: ‘do you love me?’, ‘what might happen if we did things differently?’, or ‘is this worth doing?’.

Answers certainly matter, but it is questions that make space for meaningful insights and innovation.

Actually, not all questions are created equal, and if we want to make the most of life, we need to cultivate the art of asking ‘good’ questions. But what makes for a ‘good’ question?

Three characteristics present themselves.


We have all been asked false questions – queries where the one doing the ‘asking’ isn’t really proposing a question at all, but rather asserting something about themselves, their knowledge or their superiority. Such ‘questions’ reveal more ego and passive-aggression than curiosity.

Dishonest questions shut down opportunities for collaboration and knowledge sharing. Care should be taken to ask honest questions. A ‘good’ question is one that the individual, or group, really means.


Not all honest questions are life-changing. Some, such as, ‘how was your day?’, are simply the fabric of day-to-day living. But if we are to glean the most benefit from asking ‘good’ questions, the extent to which we are asking the questions should be considered. We might begin by asking ourselves: ‘Could this question draw attention to an issue I, my family, or the company in which I work, must address?’.


If we are trying to ask honest and necessary questions at times that really matter, there is a good chance we will need a healthy dose of courage.

It is easy and normal to seek a more comfortable way out. Perhaps we cloak our true question in vagueness, complexity or simply utter them under our breath.

Asking the right questions can ignite change and re-energise parts of life that have become
dull. So, ask, keep asking, and ask again.

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