Asking Beautiful Questions

What is a beautiful question? It’s one that challenges assumptions, considers new possibilities, and has potential to serve as a catalyst for action and change.
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Beautiful Questions

It Started with a Question

“Questions can transform the world as we know it”

In April 2014, while on a Southwest Flight from Chicago to Salt Lake City, I picked up the inflight magazine Spirit. I was expecting to mindlessly pass some time away from destination A to destination B. Ironically, my “spirit” was touched by Warren Berger’s article “Chasing Beautiful Questions”. The article took me on an inspirational journey of the life of Van Phillips.

38 years ago Phillips leg was severed 6 inches below the knee in a boating accident. Upon being fitted with a prosthetic he quickly realized how ineffective the leg (that attempted to look like a leg) would function in the real world.

“Van you’re just going to have to learn to accept this,” his girlfriend told him. “I bit my tongue,” Phillips recalls. “I knew he was right, in a way. I did have to accept that I was an amputee but I would not accept the fact that I had to wear this foot.”

If you witnessed the historic run by Oscar Pistorius at the 2012 Summer Olympics, as he became the first amputee to compete, then your are familiar with the life changing work of Phillips.

Through a series of beautiful questions Phillips was able to change his reality and the real world experience of amputees across the world.

“If you can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a better foot?” But it did not become a beautiful question–one that leads to invention and profound change–until Phillips changed a pronoun. Gradually, he found himself taking ownership of the question. Instead of asking, Why can’t they make a better foo, he asked, Why can’t I?

What are beautiful questions? Ones that challenges assumptions, considers new possibilities, and have potential to serve as a catalyst for action and change.

Questions That Can Change Your Life

Why? This question lets you confront a problem, articulate the challenge at hand, and try to understand it better. Why does a particular situation exist? Why does it present a problem? Why has no one addressed this problem?

What if? While why questions help us understand our present reality, what if questions help us envision what might be. What if I come at this problem from a different direction? What if I try some combination of X and Y? What if I borrow an idea from an unrelated area?

How? Now you begin to turn speculation into reality. How questions tend to be practical and actionable. How can I get this done? How might I take the first steps? If my idea isn’t working, how can I figure out what’s wrong and fix it?

It was as if I was reading the instructional manual to what I had applied to my life, its the blueprint for change, everything from changing your behavior to changing the world. Years previously, after reading the Traveler’s Gift by Andy Andrews, I asked the first of Beautiful Questions.

David Ponder, the protagonist of The Traveler’s Gift, visits many of the greatest minds throughout history. Iconic heroes like Abraham Lincoln, King Solomon, and Anne Frank, who overcame personal struggles and diversity and emerged stronger for it.

One of the people Ponder met with was Joshua Chamberalin, someone with whom I was not familiar. Joshua was a 34 year old teacher and member of the Union Army. On July 3rd 1863, he was informed that his position was the weakest and most vulnerable spot on the battle line.  If the South were able to compromise the battle line at his position, they would then have a downhill charge on the rest of the troops and the Union would ultimately suffer defeat. So, with 80 men, Chamberlain was able to withstand several surges by the South. As the South prepared for another surge, Chamberlain was informed that the troops were out of ammunition.  Even ammunition from the dead had already been used in previous surges. When asked by his troops what they should do, Chamberlain commanded that they affix bayonets and CHARGE! Chamberlain and his men were able to capture 400 soldiers of the South and defend the battle line.  The North won the battle at Gettysburg, ultimately the Civil War and the rest is history.

Many historians suspect that if Chamberlain had not commanded a charge that the South would have won the battle at Gettysburg, and the Civil War. The history of these United States would be very different then we have experienced for the past 150 years. In 1963, Edward Lorenz wrote a doctoral thesis called the Butterfly Effect: “the phenomenon whereby a minute localized change in a complex system can have large effects elsewhere.

Inspired by the fictional story of David Ponder and his visit with Joshua Chamberlain , I asked myself what actions could I take that would cause an effect on humanity so great that it would be considered worthy of history books? What could I do? What is the action I could set into motion that could change the world as we know it? Like a fictional character in a book the idea came to me quickly. If I could change the divorce rate in the country by 4%, I could be the catalyst to affect change.  Less children raised by single mothers, more fathers playing an active role in their kid’s lives, less families participating in the welfare system. The list of positive effects seemed limitless.


Why does it present a problem?

Stereotypically, divorce results in children being raised by a single mother, and fathers playing a less active role in their lives. The average divorce costs taxpayers an average of $30,000.

Why has no one addressed the problem?

Why do we continue to participate in marriage when its rate of failure is so high?

Why do we believe we were born with the ability to do the hardest thing in the world with little, to no training whatsoever?

Cost of Divorce - Beautiful Question


What if?

What if I borrow an idea from an unrelated area?

Insurance.  So the idea came to me that most couples in a long term relationship will, at some point in time, visit with an insurance agent.  They want to take advantage of the multi-car discount, change the beneficiary of the life insurance policy, etc. We insure everything of value in our lives: homes, automobiles, jewelry, each other, etc. What if I could demonstrate the value of setting aside money for a rainy day, in case of divorce? Most people see the value of car insurance in case of an accident, or medical insurance just in case of hospitalization.

Mortgage Industry, putting our money where our mouth is: is our family our most valuable possession? The housing market is founded on the belief that those who borrow large sums of money in the form of a mortgage are more likely to take care of their property in comparison to those that rent. What if I could insure marriages?

What if in the case of divorce, (widely considered as the most negative outcome of any marriage) you had prepared yourself financially to offset the cost of this tragedy to the family (widely considered as the most valuable asset of our lives)?  I don’t believe there is a single person in our country who has not been affected by divorce. What if, stereotypically speaking, the money you had put into a policy could offset the monthly cost of divorce sufficiently enough that the dad still could play a role in his children’s lives, and the mother doesn’t have to figure out how to make ends meet or chase a deadbeat dad?


How can I get this done? I was surprised to know that it was possible to insure marriages as the state sees your partner as “property & casualty”. My father sold Life Insurance for a living, so when I reached out to those contacts, they informed me that the premiums of a marriage policy would be too great to create the result I was seeking.

If my idea isn’t working, how can I figure out what’s wrong and fix it? Insurance was not the answer, but let’s return to a What if? question.  What if people saw the value of insuring their marriage enough that they would be willing to purchase a policy (roth ira, annuity, etc.), and contractually agree that the policy could only be used in the case of divorce, or they raise all children to 18 and both parents reach 59 and a half?

How will I get people to trust this process?

How will I get anyone to write these policies?

How will I be able to make the contracts legal?

How was I going to be able to help marriages succeed where mine had failed? I wasn’t a therapist, counselor or life coach. I had no skills other than experience and willingness to have others learn from my experiences by sharing them with individuals who wanted to avoid divorce.

I answered the How when I discovered Mediation.

Mediation - Beautiful Questions

It sounded like a match made in heaven, “intervention in a process or relationship”. It sounded like I had found the tool set that I needed in order to help marriages. To my shock, the very first words out of the professor’s mouth were, “your advice is worthless”. My initial reaction was denial, followed by anger and ultimately acceptance. Not only is advice worthless but in mediation it is unethical to give advice.

The professor asked for volunteers who had a problem that they would like to resolve and to participate in a mediation process founded by Quakers. My eagerness to solve the marriage/divorce problem in the world had me volunteering to be the experimental lab rat at every turn. At the time, I wanted to quit my day job for an idea (isn’t that the definition of entrepreneur).

The real world application of this mediation process goes as follows. When you have a problem with which you would like clarity or resolution, you invite trusted members of your community or family to participate in  your conflict resolution process. The people you invite to this process are informed of your problem and can only ask you questions; NO ADVICE. You have control of the process as you get to determine inappropriate questions.  You can provide as much detail or as little detail as you would like when answering the questions, and you get to end the process whenever you want.

The first question asked of me for my problem was, “Do you have a business plan”? I wanted to react with how dare you ask a creative entrepreneur for a business plan, that is an inappropriate question. As I reluctantly answered honestly “no”, it became more and more obvious with each question that I would not be quitting my day job.  At least, until I had created a plan. It was in this moment that I gained clarity on the problem that has seemed to plague men for centuries.  Why do women bring their problems to men and yet complain when they provide advice or possible solutions? Had the people who were asking me questions in order that I could solve my own problem started to provide me advice, I would have spent all of my time defending myself from their opinions and advice, instead of coming to my own actionable answers and resolution.

Shortly after completing my  Conflict Resolution / Mediation training from the University of Utah http://communication.utah.edu/programs/conflict-resolution/, I asked the second of my Beautiful Questions.


Why don’t I have a better relationship with my family”?

What if?

Most families literally “grow apart” as members move across the country for school and jobs. And when kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews are introduced to the dynamic, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain the connection between all the members of the growing family.

What if I could apply the tool set of mediation to my family? What if, in an effort to learn more about and gain a greater understanding of my siblings and parents, I asked one question a week for 52 weeks of all the members of my family? What might happen if I asked questions, cared about the answers and gained insight into the members of my family? Would it be possible to improve upon the relationship?


I started by sending my family members the following email:

I don’t believe it will come as a shock to any of you that I don’t consider us the poster family for closeness. This is not a complaint as much as it is an observation. We can continue to go the way we have always gone and I am sure it will be just FINE. As a restaurant manager I considered a guest leaving who informed me that their experience was fine, to mean that they had a less than memorable experience.

I informed each of you  that I like to play a game with complete strangers in which I ask them to tell me their lives in 30 seconds. As all of you know I have had the opportunity through divorce  to meet and bring new people into my life. In this process I often describe my family members, your spouse and children… I must admit I am probably providing less than accurate information on all of you. So if interested I would like to play a game, a game that doesn’t particularly have an end. I would like to play a very slow, yet more detailed version of “tell me your life in 30 seconds”.

There are no rules exactly however my idea is to ask one question a week  and each of us can respond to the group.

With everyone having busy lives I think that a question a week is plenty and if we answer 52 questions a year we might just get to know each other, more than the strangers we are now. Follow up questions to answers are appropriate. I don’t want to be a control freak and I also don’t want this to be an assignment or burden. If you have questions that you would like asked of the group, by all means…

Question 1: Inspired by David Letterman – What are the Top 10 Highlights of your life?

We transitioned from an email platform to a blog platform. I started to share with friends and associates what I was doing with my family, and many expressed a desire to do the same thing with their family. Most people asked for assistance with the questions. I realized the potential of this scaleable, life changing process, but I didn’t want to be distracted from my mission to change the divorce rate in our country. One of my trusted life advisers, Jay Jacobs, then asked me some very Beautiful Questions. What if you, your software and/or brand became a household name because you were able to strengthen the connection of families around the world? Do you think changing the divorce rate in our country would be even more possible?

That is how Beautiful Questions can change the world.  If you have had beautiful questions change your world, please share in the comments below.

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