Inquiring Minds Succeed

Cork, Ireland
Cork, Ireland

The expression "inquiring minds want to know" came, ironically, from an ad campaign for the National Enquirer which has actually been known more for sensationalism than solid journalistic practice. However the expression " inquiring minds want to know" actually speaks to a very important truth. I talked about it in a Huffington Post blog called "The Virtue of the Noisy College Student" written in 2013 ( . Now three years later a piece in the New York Times Business section called The Power of "Why?" and "What if?" makes some of the same points but in a workplace context. Asking is a good thing. Inquiry is important.

In working recently on a soon to be released PBS documentary called All the Difference I was impressed by the wisdom of one of the young protagonists who says wisely "If you don't ask, how are you going to know..." And that is the point. Asking is about learning. And the New York Times piece asserts that firms are looking for people who don't just march along with the crowd but those who ask questions and want to know how and why and if. They are the ones who move the needle, who create new ideas and who drive innovation.

I also have long noted that college is dress rehearsal for the rest of your life ( It is where you practice skills ranging from the ability to write and engage in finding solutions to problems to the ways to address crises. One of those key skills is learning to inquire, to ask questions. And you can't always worry about whether the question is a good one. In a large lecture your question may be the one everyone has but is afraid to ask. By asking it you may become the hero to many and impress your professor. My late husband used to say that folks needed to be worried if I started a question by saying "... This may be a silly question but..." because it was often a tough question. There are no silly or stupid questions. If you don't know then asking makes it a smart question.

Questions can also blow up long held assumptions that don't still make sense. There is the story of the grandmother, mother and granddaughter who always made the Christmas ham in two pans. The granddaughter finally asked why and the mother said we always have done it that way and the grandmother said it was only because for years she did not have a big enough pan. The granddaughter's question became a game changer. "Why" and "What if" questions lead to change and invention. Those are the things that drive innovation. Innovation has become the driver of the economy.

We used to value "management" which is just a way of saying we are holding the course. But business is looking for the new, the better way, the paradigm breakers. Those come from inquiring minds. The idea that asking a question in class means you look stupid does not hold water. The reality is that college is about inquiry. That is what the research that professors do is all about. They thrive on questions and seeking answers. That is what they do. So if you are asking questions you are in their wheelhouse.

And that is the other factor to consider. College is also about making impressions and building relationships. Asking questions is one way to do that. The professors, deans and advisers you meet along the way become part of an essential network of people who will recommend you for opportunities, write recommendations, and connect you to others who can help along your path. Asking for help or asking good questions signifies maturity and a desire to learn and succeed.

The reality too is that employers want people who manifest the ability to write and speak well and to solve problems. They are not looking for particular majors unless the skills imparted by that major are specifically aligned with the field like engineering. Mostly they don't care as long as the GPA is solid (high) and reflects the ability to read, write, research, and draw reasonable conclusions. That is pretty much any subject area or major. Engaging in inquiry and finding solutions is the work successful people do and can learn as History or Sociology or Math or English majors. Firms do not want to groom students they want students who are already polished writers, culturally literate, know how to find information, and are curious. They will teach the knowledge needed to navigate their particular industries or firms. In talking to human resource leaders in some key firms they speak of the curiosity factor as significant. Applicants should show that on their own they have explored the field the firm occupies. Those who want to work in the financial sector do not need to major in economics--History or English is just fine as long as the student/applicant shows that they have curiosity about the sector by following the Wall St. Journal or Inc. Curious, interested, inquiring minds are the ones that will get ahead. Employers look for those inquiring minds.

Marcia Y. Cantarella Ph.D is a consultant focusing on issues around higher education, diversity, access and success. A long time college administrator she is the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. You can find more, including blogs, on her website