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What’s your question, on any subject? Think of a great one for 2019.

Nancy Napier
Nancy Napier

One of my favorite websites is Its goal is to bring together smart people from all kinds of disciplines from all over the world to discuss interesting questions. Topics cluster under categories such as life, mind, culture, the universe and technology. The website curator, John Brockman, claims that solving big problems can’t be done in silos; that putting smart people together and looking at something from many angles is a better way.

To spur thinking and discussion. Brockman has offered up an “annual question.” Then, up to 150 contributors post short essays on the question. They range from physicists to artists, from philosophers to medical specialists, from astronomers to economists. Even the actor Alan Alda has joined the conversation over time. Some of the past questions include:

▪  What questions are you asking yourself?

▪  What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?

▪  What’s your dangerous idea?

▪  What are you optimistic about?

The question for 2018: “What is your last question?”

Brockman claims that, after 20 years of annual questions, he has run out. So he asked the contributors for theirs.

Some of the responses grabbed me because they were short, deep and provocative. Here are a few:

▪  Oliver Scott Curry, director of the Oxford Morals Project at Oxford University, asked simply:

“Why be good?”

▪  New York University philosophy professor Tim Maudlin posed a different sort of question, especially pertinent for today’s discussions:

“Why are people so seldom persuaded by clear evidence and rational argument?”

▪  Steven Pinker, Harvard professor of psychology and recent author of “Enlightenment Now,” put another succinct query out there:

“How can we empower the better angels of our nature?”

▪  Olivier Sibony, former consultant and professor at the London Business School, urges us to think about where we work:

“Will we ever find an organization form that brings out the best in people?”

What strikes me about these questions, in particular, is that they push us to improve. They focus on how we might get better as humans, work more successfully with others, and find ways to bring out the best in ourselves and others.

So now to you: What question would you raise that might keep you thinking for a year? We are about to hit 2019, but I fear many people will already focus on 2020 and breeze over 2019. Instead, make it a purposeful year, with a good question to gnaw on for a few months.

Nancy Napier is a distinguished professor at Boise State University.