01/09/2011 06:37 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Right Questions

We are a practical people who take pride in quickly finding answers to our problems. Whether working on ourselves, for which the self-help industry has an inexhaustible set of remedies, or our society, for which politicians and interest groups have an unending series of proposals, we are constantly in search of answers. But answers only help if we are asking the right questions.

'Do I use this or that diet?' may be the wrong question if, in fact, weight gain is due to factors that a diet alone may not address. We thus recognize that the question: 'why do I constantly lose and then regain weight?' might lead us down a different and more revealing path.

Similarly, 'how do we pass stricter gun control measures?' is one question to ask in confronting the number of gun-related deaths in our society, especially in the aftermath of the tragic automatic weapon attack that critically wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and killed six others in Arizona. But it's a different question entirely to ask: 'what in our culture increases the potential for violence against each other?' This problem of finding the right questions shows up in most aspects of our personal lives and public policy.

The right questions matter. Poor questions often curtail the thinking process, sometimes leading to quick but terribly wrong conclusions. 'How can I make a quick profit on rolling this house?' led many into disastrous investment decisions in the past several years. Poor questions present conclusions masked as questions. 'How do we get the government to give us back more of our own money?' presumes its own answer -- we need to cut programs and taxes. Poor questions misdirect our resources, closing off fruitful avenues of exploration. How do we get more oil? forecloses how to supplement oil with renewable sources of energy.

In the national arena, the impact of asking the right questions is starkly displayed in two historical situations. In 1947, exhausted from two world wars, the depression, and two decades of personal sacrifice, Americans were ready to turn inward and direct our energy to our own consumption. Yet Europe was facing growing poverty, hunger, and the spread of communism. America's leaders asked the right question: how can we foster European recovery so it brings lasting peace to Europe and thus peace and prosperity to America? The answer was the Marshall Plan, a conscious decision to limit short-term consumption at home, promote an integrated European economy, and strengthen Western governments in the long term against Soviet expansionism.

In 2001, we faced terrorism at home and fundamentalist inspired unrest throughout the Middle East. The primary question we asked was how do we find and kill the terrorists? The result has been two wars, a military depleted by a decade of combat, and loss of respect abroad. While this investment may have produced some gains, alternative questions might have led us down other avenues of fruitful exploration: what produces fundamentalism and terrorism? How is the U.S. perceived in the Middle East and why? If we want to spend a trillion dollars in that region of the world in the next ten years to foster peace there and prevent terrorism at home, how might we best spend it? How do we, as a nation, come to understand the countries in that region in a way that neither simplifies nor demonizes them? What policies and what manner of interaction with that region of the world will be consistent with our values and maintain our moral force as a component of our national strength? In the fall of 2001, we were too consumed with the desire for revenge to ask such questions.

As a nation of tinkerers, we often lack the patience to get the questions right, consumed as we are with doing something, anything when faced with a problem. American impatience and the desire for action have been strengths in many cases. But any strength can become a weakness when pushed too far or used to often.

Albert Einstein once said that if he had only one minute left to live and only one question he could answer, he'd spend 59 seconds framing the question and one second answering it. He knew the power of a well-framed question. Asking the right question is a hard task and worthy of a greater investment than we usually give it. We need not be a nation of Einsteins. But we can be a nation that spends more time making sure we get the questions right.