The best questions

Famously, there are five questions that every news story should seek to answer: Who, What, When, Where and Why? And there’s no doubt, of course, that these are all worthwhile.

Of the five, however, it’s ‘Why?’ that is most interesting to me. It seeks to discover a person’s motives for a particular course of action, to get to the core of their reasoning. The four other questions are purely factual – there’s usually little debate about the empirical facts of a certain situation. Something happened, and it’s generally easy to record what it was and who was involved.

But why? That’s a whole different level.

When we’re young, the ‘why?’ question is possibly the most important one we can ask – and the one that drives parents insane. Everyone who’s ever spent much time with a toddler will know how infuriating it is to have their precious bundle incessantly demand to know ‘why?’. You answer the first question, only to get ‘why?’ as the follow-up. So you answer that, and get the same question again. Until finally you’re unable to answer. You’ve been stumped by a two-year-old.

Indeed, ‘why?’ is such a powerful question that whole books have been written on its importance and value in modern life. Be more like a child, we’re told, and it’ll open up a new world of discovery for you that will drive your personal and business success.

I don’t know that I entirely agree with that. Yes, up to a point. But I think an enquiring mind can have an even more important question. What is it?


Yes, how? How does something work? How do I get to the shops? Do a Google search for ‘How do I’ and you’ll find a load of answers along the lines of ‘How do I live without you?’. It’s clearly a pressing topic.

Government thinks so too. The Department of Homeland Security has its own How Do I? page.

So yes, the ‘why?’ question is important from a philosophical standpoint, searching for answers to matters that may be very hard to quantify. But ‘how?’ is much more practical, the non-identical twin of important and deep questions.

Whether you’re asking ‘How many Lego bricks are there in the world?’,‘How do I make a cup of tea?’ or ‘How bright should my flashlight be?’, remember that ‘how?’ is a far more down-to-earth question that’s just as important as ‘why?’.