What is Your Most Important Question?


When I was in high school, I learned a new concept about how students can approach an assignment. I found the concept could be applied more broadly to how people approach life. As with any principle it can be taken too far, but I find the generalizations helpful.

It’s based on the idea that when faced with an assignment, students will ask one of three questions first: what, why or how.

  • ‘What’ people ask, “What do I need to do for this assignment?”
  • ‘Why’ people ask, “Why do I need to do this assignment?
  • ‘How’ people ask, “How do I need to do this assignment?”

The idea is that students will eventually ask all three questions but one will be more important to them than the others. They will then ask the second most important question followed by the least important. The degree of importance may vary between people so two questions may be very important to one person while to another only one question really matters.

This of course can be applied to many things in life, not just assignments.

I’m a ‘what’ person

Back in high school I identified myself as a ‘what’ person. If I was to get an assignment the first thing I would ask is, “What is it about?” not “Why do I have to it?” or “How do get it done?” This matches up with how I am in general as I’ll ask questions like, “What are you talking about?” and “What are you trying to say?” I also have a bit of a motto: “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it.”
Clearly I’m a ‘what’ person. In my mind you need to know what you’re dealing with before you can make a decision about it. Only when I know what will I care about asking why or how because if there’s no ‘what’, why and how don’t matter.

Having said this, ‘why’ is very important to me. Even if I know the ‘what,’ if I don’t have a sufficient ‘why,’ I won’t do it or care about it. In this way, ‘why’ becomes more important than the ‘what.’

‘How’ doesn’t register very highly with me at all so much so that it seems foreign to me. The closest way I could get to understanding it was to think of a ‘how’ person. I think of ‘how’ people as fix-it types. They enjoy taking things apart and putting them back together to see how things work.

Know your question

Once you know which category you belong to, I think you can avoid frustration that comes from not having enough information to satisfy the question you ask first.
For example, the first thing I did when I started my new job as a children’s coordinator was gather information about what was working and what needed improvement. The first question a ‘how’ person might ask is, “How should I lead my team?” or “How do I implement a new program?’ A ‘why’ person might first ask, “Why was I brought into this position?” or “Why did I accept this job?” Each person will eventually ask all of these questions but not until our most important question is answered.

There isn’t a wrong approach; all the questions are important, people just work differently. If I was getting a lot of answers about how to lead before I knew what I was dealing with, I would feel exasperated. Even though I know the information is valuable, I wouldn’t be able take it in until I’ve answered my most important question- I’m not going to know how to lead unless I know what I’m leading. Yet a ‘how’ person will think- it doesn’t matter what I’m leading if I don’t know how to lead it.

Regardless of what questions are important to us, we all ask questions.

I believe you should know the way you work and then work with it. Go out and find the answers to your most important question then you will be free to ask the next question.

What is your most important question?


4 responses »

  1. My most important quest (-ion) are all of them: Why? Who? What? How? When? Where? They all embark me upon some quest, and, for me, it is the quest more than the question that moves.

    I never properly welcomed you as the newest contributor, so welcome. And I enjoy greatly your posts, as well as your personal blog.

    • That’s cool, great perspective. I’m very much a details and facts person, comes with my personality, so I need to know the what before anything else. They’re all equally important but I’m lost without the what. One of my sayings is, “Just tell me what you want me to do it and I’ll do it. Spit it out!”

      And thank-you so much. I’m enjoying being here and just love this topic of the mind and think it’s so great other people do, too. Thanks for having me!

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