The Single Most Important Question Someone Asked Me While I Was Doing My PhD

The Single Most Important Question Someone Asked Me While I Was Doing My PhD

When I was working on my doctorate, my supervisor would constantly ask me a question that was as infuriating as it was useful: so what?

  • You’ve come up with a great idea here, so what?
  • You’ve argued this point intelligently, so what?
  • This part is completely groundbreaking, so what?
  • You’re way off the mark on this, so what?

Over time, I realized she wasn’t being confrontational or condescending, but rather providing me with an extremely valuable tool for pushing ideas beyond their initial state. Those two simple words have a lot of power, and the reason why is that they contain dozens of other possibilities:

  • Why does this argument/idea/issue matter to me?
  • Why am I making this argument in the first place?
  • How does this add to a greater purpose in the world?
  • Why will it matter for others?
  • How does it enter into a larger conversation?

Or, put in terms of your own goals:

  • I failed to do something interesting, so what would work better?
  • I may have laid some groundwork, but where can things go now that’s done?
  • I’ve identified an interesting pattern, what else can I do with it? What possibilities has it opened up?

They go on and on, and because the question is such a minimalist approach to critique, it opens up a smorgasbord of questions that you can tailor to the particular needs of your project. You can use it to bust open clichés (The grass is always greener on the other side, so what are you going accomplish by worrying about it?) You can use it to challenge stereotypes (Men aren’t as good at raising children, so what are you going to do to change the status quo?) You can even use it to get bargains on big purchases (This car has a sunroof, so what does that matter to me?)

There you have it, possibly the single most important question you can ask: so what, now?

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  • Iris

    March 7, 2016

    Two other incredibly useful questions, in my opinion are:
    What are you going to do about this?
    Especially useful if someone has brought you only a problem and no thought about a strategy or solution …
    And…. What does this mean to you? Asking this repeatedly in the same discussion often help a person get to the root of the issue as related to him or her personally.

    What not to ask: why questions.

    • Ryan Melsom

      March 7, 2016

      Love ’em. One leads to specific action, and the other helps understand the personal contexts for your work, in addition to getting you talking and articulating. You make an thought-provoking point about “why” questions — do you mean that they’re too direct, or lead to defensiveness?


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