I’ve had to write commencement speeches twice, for a corporate executive and the CEO of a not-for-profit. It’s a challenge. Graduates have spent years of education exposed to the wisdom of the world. They’re eager to go forth and, well, commence. But first some guest speaker tries to distill all of life’s lessons into 20 minutes of profundity.

Every year at commencement season, I search out the highlights. Who couldn’t use a dose of inspiration? There are lots of websites devoted to collecting the best of these speeches, like this one and this one.

That’s how I stumbled onto one delivered last year by James Ryan, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was so well-received that Ryan expanded it into a book, just published, called Wait, What?: And Life’s Other Essential Questions.

When considering a topic for this week, I began thinking that I’d write about the nature of the commencement speech. Reading Ryan’s remarks made me shift gears. So I want to quote liberally from his speech, because I think he’s onto something important.

As he suggests, we live in a world where people want instant answers and are also ready to deliver responses and opinions just as quickly. “This tendency defines too much of our public discourse, which is disturbingly shallow for just this reason,” he says

Many commencement speeches try to answer life’s big questions. Ryan flipped the script. He told the graduates: “Resist the temptation to have answers at the ready and spend more time thinking about the right questions to ask. Well-posed questions make knowledge come to life and create the spark that lights the flame of curiosity.”

The most successful people, from business leaders to inventors, tend to be questioning. It’s a habit that’s invaluable in your personal and professional life alike.

So in his speech, Ryan ran through five questions. He said that if you ask them routinely you have a great chance of prospering and feeling fulfilled.

1. “Wait, what?” It’s great way of slowing down, to ask for clarification and ensure understanding. That’s the question to ask before drawing conclusions or making a decision, says Ryan; inquiry before advocacy.

2. “I wonder why…?” or “I wonder if…? That can start deep thinking about why things are the way they are and how to change it for the better. In other words, challenge the status quo.

3. “Couldn’t we at least…?” This question can get you unstuck, says Ryan, going past disagreement to arrive at consensus. It’s about finding common ground, the foundation for taking action.

4. “How can I help?” It’s wonderful to want to pitch in, yet people often make vague offers, i.e. “If I can be of assistance…” This question demands a concrete answer. “You are asking for direction. And you are recognizing that others are experts in their own lives and will likely help you as much as you help them,” says Ryan.

5. “What truly matters?” That forces you to explore the core of your beliefs and convictions.

Ryan concludes: “These are the five essential questions. ‘Wait, what?’ is the root of all understanding. ‘I wonder…’ is the heart of all curiosity. ‘Couldn’t we at least…’ is the beginning of all progress. ‘How can I help?’ is the base of all good relationships. And ‘What really matters?’ gets you to the heart of life.”

Five incredible questions. What a way to communicate!

In praise of ignorance

Coincidentally, around the time I read Ryan’s speech, I ran into another fascinating discussion about questions. A few blogs ago I mentioned how gossip actually aided human evolution, as described in a book I’m reading called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. One chapter is titled “The Discovery of Ignorance”, and it centres on the scientific revolution.

The author, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, describes how humans developed a growing belief in their abilities to obtain new powers through research. The key, he says, has been the drive to continually ask.

“Modern science,” Dr. Harari writes, “is based on the Latin injunction ignoramus – we do not know. No concept, idea or theory is sacred or beyond challenge. The scientific revolution has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions.”

In science or any other realm, keep being inquisitive. Ask what counts. If you’re looking to give a graduate (or yourself) advice, don’t get hung up on the answers to the great questions of life. Focus on the questions themselves.

Stuart Foxman is a Toronto-based freelance writer, who helps clients’ products, services, ideas and organizations to come alive. Follow me on Twitter @StuartFoxman, connect with me here on LinkedIn, or check me out at foxmancommunications.com. I would love to hear from you. More articles like this coming, with original posts every week about communications, writing, branding, creativity, media, marketing, persuasion, messages, etc., etc.

June 7, 2017

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