Nation & World

Want to be happy? Be curious

5 min read

Dean James Ryan on big questions, wrong answers, and what matters

Last year, James Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, gave a Commencement speech that went viral. To his surprise, a literary agent contacted him and persuaded him to write a book. The result, “Wait, What? and Life’s Other Essential Questions,” was published earlier this month.

The Gazette interviewed Ryan about his book, the Ed School, and the questions he considers essential to a rewarding life.

GAZETTE: Last year, a speech by a graduating student, Donovan Livingston, also went viral. Why do you think two speeches from the Ed School resonated so much with the general public? 

RYAN: I just think there is something in the water at the Ed School [laughs]. I do think people are looking for inspiration, especially when it comes to education. I think Donovan’s speech was spectacular in that respect. It was incredibly moving and incredibly inspiring. I don’t think my speech was nearly as inspiring or as moving but I think it was useful to people in ways I wouldn’t have predicted.

GAZETTE: Let’s talk about your five essential questions in life. What are those and why are they essential?

RYAN: The basic argument of the speech and then the book is that if you ask these five simple questions regularly, you will live a more rewarding life.

The first question is “Wait, what?,” which is at the root of understanding. It’s making sure that you understand what the person is saying.

The second is “I wonder …,” which can be paired with “if” or “why” and is a way to remind ourselves to remain curious about the world.

The third is “Couldn’t we at least …” and this can be paired with “Couldn’t we at least agree?” or “Couldn’t we at least get started?” — and this a big question to ask in order to make some progress.

The fourth question, “How I can help?,” is a reminder that not only is it important to help, but it really matters how you help, and so asking someone how you can help is likely to make your help more effective.

And the last question, “What truly matters?” is obviously worth asking with respect to life’s big decisions, but I also think is a question worth asking on a daily basis.

GAZETTE: You use stories from your personal and professional life to illustrate the five questions. To illustrate “I wonder” you tell the story of how you were led to find your birth mother. 

RYAN: I had never been that curious about my birth parents because I had a very happy childhood. And when I thought of it, I thought that it must have been a sacrifice on the part of my birth mother. But I also thought I knew the story. I figured my birth mother was probably a teenager too young to have a child and get married, and so I was never that curious. At the insistence of a friend, I finally decided to see if I could find out information about my birth mother, and in a sense, that was the first time I had asked, “I wonder if I could find information about my birth parents?” And that led ultimately to my meeting my birth mother for the first time when I was 46 years old. This was four years ago. And it has been an incredibly enriching experience.    

GAZETTE: In your book, you also say that it’s important to think of good questions to get the right answers. But teachers always say there are no wrong questions or silly questions. What’s your take on that?

RYAN: I don’t think there are any silly questions or wrong questions. I do think there can be wrong answers. Part of the point I make in the book is that just as it is important to take the time to ask good questions, it is equally important to listen for good questions even if they’re asked in an awkward way. Sometimes people will take offense at a particular question and not realize that it may just be an innocent way for the person asking the question to get to know you better.

GAZETTE: As the dean of the Ed School, what questions have you been asking yourself?

RYAN: Are we doing enough? Are you as a dean doing enough to ensure that there is not a large gap between people’s aspirations and reality? It’s an ongoing question because your aspirations should always be ahead of where you are at the moment. But at the same time, I don’t think that there should be a large and persistent gap between the two.

GAZETTE: Let me ask you a silly question. You have two dogs, two cats, and nine chickens. Why nine chickens?

RYAN: That is as many as we could possibly fit in the coop we built for them. And we really like the eggs.

GAZETTE: Let’s end the interview with the bonus question you include in your book. It’s from the Raymond Carver poem “Late Fragment”: “And did you get what you wanted from life, even so?” Is there a right time to ask this question?

RYAN: This is a question that you shouldn’t wait until the very end to ask. It’s worth considering whether you’re satisfied with your life as it is unfolding so far, and whether you are on a path to achieve what you hope to achieve, and so it is a question I ask myself already, and I feel blessed to say that the answer is yes. I have a family I adore, and I’m in a job I absolutely love, and I’m blessed to have a lot of very good friends.

 Interview was edited for length and clarity.