Wait, What?

Summary Written by Andy Budgell
"...questions are just as important as answers, often more so. The simple truth is that an answer can only be as good as the question asked. If you ask the wrong question, you are going to get the wrong answer."

- Wait, What?, page 12

The Big Idea

Life’s Essential Questions

"These are the questions you should ask yourself and others on a regular basis. If you get into the habit of asking these five questions, you will live a happier and more successful life. You will also be in a position, at the end of the day, to give a good answer to what I will call the bonus question—which is probably the most important question you will ever face."- Wait, What?, page 1

Ryan acknowledges that this claim might “seem grandiose and even a bit outlandish.” However, hear him out. He has narrowed down five questions that he deems life’s most essential. They are:

“Wait, what?” is at the root of all understanding.
“I wonder…?” is at the heart of all curiosity.
“Couldn’t we at least…?” is the beginning of all progress.
“How can I help?” is at the base of all good relationships.
And “What truly matters?” helps you get to the heart of life.

There is also a bonus question, perhaps the most important one of all: “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?” This quote is from a poem by the great American writer Raymond Carver, who was suffering from cancer at the time he wrote it. It’s an important question, Ryan says, because while it acknowledges life’s challenges, it speaks to our power to rise above them to attain “joy and contentment.” It also helps you “consider now what will likely matter to you when your time has run out.”

While we don’t have the space to delve into each of the questions individually, the remainder of the summary will go into a deep dive on two of them: “Wait, what?” and “What truly matters?”

Insight #1

Wait, What?

"‘Wait, what?’ is first on my list of essential questions because it is an effective way of asking for clarification, and clarification is the first step toward truly understanding something"- Wait, What?, page 26

The question that inspired the book’s title is an important one, both in our personal and professional lives. It is, as Ryan writes, “remarkably flexible.” It can be used to ask someone to repeat what they just said, or to express incredulity. Its lack of grammatical correctness can be compensated for by its power to illuminate something we don’t understand, which is at the crux of what makes this question so crucial.

So many of us are reluctant to ask clarifying questions. I’m certainly guilty of it from time to time, and I bet you are, too. We don’t want to appear dumb in front of our colleagues, or our boss, so we keep our mouth shut and nod our head in assent rather than put our hand up and ask for clarification. The next time you don’t understand something, or want to understand something better, politely interrupt with “Wait, what?” You’ll be surprised how it can improve not only your understanding of any given situation, but your relationships with others.

And, as Ryan reminds us, “it is better to ask clarifying questions first and to argue second,” something else we’ve all been guilty of on occasion.

Words to live by!

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Insight #2

What Truly Matters?

"...you should ask this question of yourself, and you should answer it honestly and fearlessly. If you do, this question won’t just help you get to the bottom of an issue or problem. It will also help you get to the heart of your life."- Wait, What?, page 125

“What truly matters?” is perhaps the question that resonated most strongly with me. It cuts to the heart of what’s important in any situation. On a deeper level, it’s a question that many of us spend our lives attempting to answer (unfortunately, many of us in vain or until it’s almost too late). Ryan, who has read more than his fair share of obituaries and memorials, has noticed a common theme that seems to run throughout each of them, and believes “what matters” boils down to four categories:

  1. Family
  2. Friends
  3. Work
  4. Acts of kindness

This sounds deceptively simple—or perhaps even monotonous. As he explains, “within these broad categories, you still have to figure out for yourself what truly matters.” It’s going to be entirely different for each of us, and that’s a beautiful thing.

James E. Ryan’s Wait, What? is a slim volume, but its size belies its potency—it packs a mighty punch and speaks to the importance of crafting good, incisive questions. If you still need more convincing on the necessity of cultivating the art of asking good questions, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book: “[Albert] Einstein, who was a big believer in the importance of asking questions, famously said that if he had an hour to solve a problem, and his life depended on it, he would spend the first fifty-five minutes determining the proper question to ask.”

Read the book

Get Wait, What? on Amazon.

James E. Ryan

James E. Ryan is the eleventh dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Before joining Harvard, he was the Matheson & Morgenthau Distinguished Professor at the University of Virginia Law School, where he founded the school’s Program in Law and Public Service. A former clerk for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, as well as a former rugby player, he has argued before the United States Supreme Court. He lives with his wife, Katie, in Lincoln, Massachusetts, with their four kids, two dogs, two cats, and nine chickens.

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