A wildly popular graduation speech has transformed a series of queries into a life philosophy.
Last year, James Ryan delivered a commencement speech that, to his surprise, struck a chord far beyond the graduates in his audience. The dean of Harvard’s graduate school of education proposed five essential questions to always keep in mind on the path through life.
The questions are simple, but expansive and powerful. “Wait, what?” is a way to pause, clarify, and understand. “I wonder…?” encourages curiosity. “How can I help?” suggests a level of thoughtfulness that should accompany our instincts to be of use. “Couldn’t we at least…?” offers a way of broaching an impasse. And “What truly matters?” is that kind of home-base question many of us lose sight of in the crush of daily concerns.
The speech has gotten more than 8.5 million views online to date and spawned a book, Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions. Here, Ryan talks about why being curious is worthwhile and the other useful question that didn’t make it into the book.
What have you heard from people about why your speech spoke to them?
What I heard from people all across the country, and from all walks of life, was that they found one or more of the questions really useful. I was pleasantly surprised by that. Teachers said that they were using the questions in their classrooms. Business executives said that they had organized a retreat around the questions. I [also] heard from lawyers, judges and a few pastors. They’re pretty simple questions. Yet if you actually start using them, you realize that they’re actually a good way to either start a conversation or make progress in a conversation.
I honestly didn’t appreciate that the questions would resonate as much with other people as they did with me. To cite an example, I think that the question “Couldn’t we at least…” is incredibly useful, especially in work contexts. I do ask that question all the time, to the annoyance of my colleagues. But I didn’t quite expect that someone would come back and say, you know, our office motto has become “Couldn’t we at least.”
Let’s talk about one of your questions, “I wonder…” You say that wondering why, or wondering if, can open up stories in the world around us that will enrich your life. But you also write that curiosity has health benefits. What are some of those?
There’s a cottage industry in the social science literature about the various health benefits of being curious, which range from the mildly pleasant to the really crucial. Social science evidence suggests curious people are more attractive to others. If you show that you’re curious about someone else, that person is likely to find you more attractive—not necessarily in a physical sense, but just in an overall sense, in part because you’re showing an interest in them.
There’s also social science evidence that suggests people who are curious are likely to be less anxious. There may be a chicken and egg thing here—that is, people who are less anxious are likely to be more curious, so I think it’s probably hard to disentangle the causal arrows there. But that also makes sense, right? If you think of new situations as an opportunity to learn, rather than as a chance that you’ll make a mistake, you’re likely to be less anxious.
I’m not a social scientist myself, so I don’t know whether these studies need to be taken with a grain of salt, but there’s also evidence to suggest that people who are curious live longer lives. The theory, I assume, is if you’re more curious, you’re likely to be engaged in the world. There’s a good deal of evidence that engagement, rather than isolation, is conducive to longevity.
One poignant scene in the book involved you volunteering at a home in Kentucky for disabled children. What was that experience like, and what did that teach you about the question of “How can I help?”
It was a residential home for mostly very young kids who had life-limiting disabilities: kids who were not likely to live into their teenage years, so, pretty serious problems. I was just a volunteer, and I didn’t really have any idea of what I was doing. There was a girl there who was probably 12 or 13—I’ll call her Cindy—who had Down Syndrome. I realized she knew what the smaller kids needed just as well as any of the other aides. Instead of asking the kids, “How can I help,” because they wouldn’t be able to answer me, I followed her direction, because she had learned enough to know how these kids needed to be helped.
It was a remarkable experience in a couple of ways. One is that it made me think of Cindy in a very different light. I quickly stopped thinking of her as someone who had Down Syndrome and instead as someone who was as useful to me and as helpful to me in that context as anyone could be. I also came to appreciate that anytime you offer help to someone, you should be open to the distinct possibility that you are going to be helped in return, in ways that you might not even appreciate at the time. That story and that experience just brought home to me how important it is to approach the idea of offering help to someone else with a great deal of humility, without thinking that you know exactly what someone else needs, and without thinking that you yourself don’t need any help.
As an educator, what do you think we need to be doing to teach people to be more curious and oriented toward solving problems?
I’m a big fan of project-based learning, which a number of schools follow. It’s just what it sounds like. Students are tasked with completing a project—it could be a written report, it could be some kind of performance. In order to produce it they typically have to learn things along the way, and they typically have to work with others. I think that kind of approach to education is a way to engage students and to cultivate their curiosity.
If you pick the right project, students are going to be motivated to learn what they need to know in order to complete it. It’s a way, really, of stimulating curiosity. I think it does that much more effectively than standing in front of a class and just reciting a number of facts that the students are supposed to absorb. Most if not all kids are born being at least somewhat curious. The real task for schools is to cultivate that and not to dampen it.
You close your book with a bonus question. Can you talk about that one and any other questions you thought about including?
The bonus question comes from this poem by Raymond Carver called “Late Fragment.” The question is, “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”
I came across this question and the poem at the memorial service of a very good friend of mine, Doug Kendall, who passed away a couple of years ago at far too young an age. To me the question captures perfectly the ultimate question that all of us are going to face at some point. The fact it’s written in the way that it is—ending with “even so”—is a nod toward the fact that in any full life there is going to be some pain and disappointment. But at the same time it expresses hope that even so, you could live a fulfilling and rewarding life. I think it’s an incredibly powerful question posed in an incredibly poignant way.
Part of the point of raising it as a bonus question is to make the claim that if you do live your life by asking questions, and asking good questions, that’s as good a path as any to live a fulfilling and rewarding life, where you stay focused on what genuinely matters to you.
If I had to do a sequel, the other question that would be included is, “What do you think?” It’s a question that’s not only useful to ask, but it’s a good reminder to make sure that you are soliciting the views of other people in a room. Too often—it could be in a conversation around a dinner table or around a table in a meeting—some people dominate the conversation. If you don’t consciously invite people to participate, they might remain silent and the conversation typically suffers because of that. So asking what do you think is really just a way to draw people into a conversation.
I can also imagine you’re getting lots of unsolicited questions from people.
[laughs] Well you know, what’s actually happening is colleagues and students are making requests of me of various sorts by posing them as one or more of the essential questions in the book. So a student just wrote me an email a few days ago objecting to a change in policy that she thought made no sense. The subject line was “wait, what?” And then she went on to say, “couldn’t we at least agree” to put off this change, and if we ask, “what truly matters…” You reap what you sow, I suppose.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.