Einstein, it is rumored, was once seated beside Marilyn Monroe at a dinner party. “Oh, Mr. Einstein,” she cooed, “with your brains and my looks–just think of the perfect children we could produce.” The physicist paused for a moment and then asked, “But what if they had your brains and my looks?” Party and playful questions aside, there is no doubt that passion ruled Einstein’s life, if only his passion for uncovering the universe’s secrets.

And passion, says Yo Yo Ma, “is one great force that unleashes creativity, because if you’re passionate about something, then you’re more willing to take risks.” The two go hand-in-hand—passion and curiosity-provoked creativity—but how do we find passion in the first place and then develop it in the second place?

Sometimes the origin of curiosity is hard to discover–we simply cannot explain how or why we are drawn to a particular pursuit. At other times, we stumble upon the passion. A hobby, for example, can become an all-consuming obsession. Or, an aptitude test reveals a leaning toward a given sphere. 

For some people, a simple question leads to the uncovering of a passion. “What would you do if you didn’t have to do what you are doing to make a living?” is a good example of the way some people make the decision to follow their passions. This question and its answer might even help guide you to a new path for your life.

But how do you develop the passion, once you’ve identified it, even if you don’t know the mysterious source that explains why you find a particular thing fascinating? One way is to ask questions.

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein’s emphasis on questions is echoed by another brilliant mind: Peter Drucker, Father of Modern Management Science, reminds us that exceptional leaders “know how to ask questions—the right questions.”

Which questions are the right ones? Those that probe beneath the surface—either initially or subsequently. Those that expand upon a given answer. Those that create “spiralized” thinking—viz., the kind of thinking that refuses to accept a monosyllabic answer, but instead cause the listener to diverge into related arenas. (As Voltaire observed so many years ago, we should “judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.”)

Those who listen intently invariably ask the right questions. In doing so, these listeners manifest their interest in the person who has just spoken. Such listeners have learned to “listen between the lines.” They sense there might be more the speaker wishes to say and they probe gently to learn what emotions or concerns might underlie a given statement.


In conversation: 

“How are you liking your new job at the college?” 

Answer: “It’s fine, I guess.”

The right question:      “What constitutes the ‘guess’ part of your reply?”

In a job interview:
“Tell me about a personal weakness.”

Answer: “I find that, while I can function adequately on a team, I prefer to work alone. And, I suppose, that could be construed as a weakness.”

The right question: “Why would you think that?”

In a PTA meeting

“We’re in agreement, then, that our next step as parents is to approach the school principal and share our concerns.”

Answer: “Yes,” (Silence and nonverbal nods are all interpreted as affirmative answers to the question.)

The right question: “What should our next step be?” Or: “Are we overlooking something that should be done before we meet with the principal?” 


The Total Quality movement expanded our definition of the word “customer” to mean the individual who receives the output of our positive actions. Long before that movement, we know the ancient Greeks asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living. Life, of course, is examined by seeking answers to questions.

Keeping these precedents in mind, here are questions that may improve your interactions with those who are part of your life, especially in circumstances that may be difficult.

   Is my tone of voice professional or at least nurturing?

   Do I attempt to allay concerns the other person may be feeling?

   Do I offer verbal assurances that I am listening?

   Do I use the person’s name?

   Do I take notes when appropriate?

   Do I keep my anger in check if I disagree with the speaker?

   Do I ask what I can do to help?

   Do I accept responsibility (and express regret) if I have made a mistake?

   Do I empathize with the individual’s concern?

   Do I avoid arguing?

   Do I mirror or repeat the crux of the problem to show that I understand it?

   Do I interrupt?

   Do I offer assurance that the problem can be resolved?


Stephen Hawking likened his own curiosity about the world to a child’s ceaseless wonder. “I am just a child,” he maintained, “who has never grown up. I still keep asking these ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Occasionally,” he modestly observed, “I find an answer.” To be sure, he knew “the important thing is not to stop asking questions.”