Ask better questions

February 4, 2021
Bestselling author Kelly Corrigan, W'89, says a simple but powerful idea is driving her latest projects: Great questions are the secret to connecting more deeply with one another. She shows us how with a short essay and interview excerpts from her new PBS show, Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan.
By Kelly Corrigan, W'89

We were hiking The Dispea, a famous 8-mile trail in Marin County, California, that starts with 1,000 steps. My 17-year-old, a casual athlete who might amuse herself with a swim, a run, and a speed bag session all in the same long pandemic day, was forever just up around the next corner. Finally, the lunch break that was my raison d’être was upon us, and we sat down side-by-side looking at the Pacific Ocean. After a few deep breaths, Claire passed me my egg sandwich and said, “So I was thinking on the trail, what do I need to know from you before I go to college, and here’s question No. 1: What is the biggest thing you’ve learned? Like, ever?”

“That’s getting right to it, isn’t it?”

“No time to waste,” she said, needling me with the idea of her imminent departure, which will leave me and my husband alone in a nest I feathered for four.

“It’s about the people. That’s the biggest thing. Every job, every trip, every project — with the right people, it’s a dream. With the wrong people? Oy. The wrong people can ruin paradise. The wrong people could ruin this,” I said, extending my arms to frame up the world-class view.

“Got it,” she said, squirreling it away as she mowed down some chips.

On the long ride home, it occurred to me that there’s something else I believe, a related belief that is crucial to living a full life: If you want better connections, ask better questions. It’s problematically easy to mistake one kind of person for another. And the only way to know if you’re teamed up with the right people or the wrong people is asking questions. My husband tells a funny story about a very strange guy he was seated next to at a work dinner. The guy was so strange, in fact, that Edward texted me from the bathroom “brutal, be home sooner” but then somehow they got talking about Thailand, where we had been on our honeymoon, which led them to Madagascar, where this man — wait for it — had been a political prisoner for 90 days.

How could I have missed it — asking people questions is my life’s work. I mean, I wrote a book called Tell Me More that encourages more questions and less answers. I have a children’s book coming out in April called Hello World! that makes the case for curiosity as a way of being and asking questions as a way to make more of wherever you are and whoever you’re with. I interview people every week for my podcast, Kelly Corrigan Wonders, and sit down for extended sessions for my PBS show, Tell Me More with Kelly Corrigan.

Of course, it’s funny to think I was so worried about conveying all this to Claire, who had just proven she already understood intuitively the potential of one good question to change any moment, any conversation, any day, any life.

Tell me more with Kelly Corrigan | Episode 1 | Bryan Stevenson

KELLY CORRIGAN: You go to Harvard Law School, and you’re also taking classes at the Kennedy School. ... And a first impression you had was, there’s not much connection here between the people that we’re making these policies about and the work that we’re doing.

BRYAN STEVENSON: It was interesting because I went to law school because I was concerned about inequality and injustice, and it didn’t seem like those were priorities in my first year of law school. And it was really only in my second year of law school that things turned around.

There was a professor there named Betsy Bartholet, and she had this idea to use the January term not keeping people in the classroom, but to send them to human rights and civil rights organizations. And so I signed up for that and ended up coming to Atlanta, Georgia, to work with this group, which was then called the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee.

I had been there a couple of weeks when one of the lawyers said, “Bryan, we need you to go to death row and explain to someone that he’s not at risk of execution anytime in the next year.”

KC: How old are you?

BS: I’m, like, 22. But I drove down to Jackson, Georgia, which is where death row is.

KC: Just by yourself?

BS: By myself. I was trying to rehearse exactly what I was going to say to this man, and I felt so unqualified.

KC: And how old was he?

BS: He ended up being exactly my age. And they brought this man in, and he had chains everywhere. They asked me whether I wanted him to be unshackled. And I said yes, because it just seemed rude to say no, and they unchained this man.

And I got so nervous that when he walked over to me, I just said, “I’m so sorry, I’m just a law student. I don’t know anything about the death penalty. I don’t know anything about criminal procedure, but they sent me down here to tell you that you’re not at risk of execution anytime in the next year.”

And I never will forget that man just slowing me down and saying, “Wait, wait, wait. Say that again.” And I said, “You’re not at risk of execution any time in the next year.” And he closed his eyes and he said, “Wait, wait. Say that again.” And I said, “You’re not at risk of execution any time in the next year.”

And that’s when that man grabbed my hands. And he looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. You’re the first person I’ve met in the two years I’ve been on death row who’s not a death row prisoner or death row guard,” He said, “I’ve been talking to my wife and kids on the phone, but I haven’t let them come and visit because I was afraid I’d have an execution date, and I didn’t want them to have to deal with me. Now because of you, I am going to see my wife. I’m going to see my kids.” He said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

And I couldn’t believe how even in my ignorance, just being present, just showing up can make a difference in the quality of someone’s life. And it taught me something really important about being present, about proximity. ... It’s so clear to me that we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I think if someone tells a lie, they’re not just a liar, and they should not have to go through life branded only as a liar. I think if someone takes something, they’re not just a thief. Even if you kill someone, you’re not just a killer, and we can’t do justice until we understand the other things you are.

Tell me more with Kelly Corrigan | Episode 2 | James Corden

KELLY CORRIGAN: When you see 27-year-olds in Hollywood going bananas with their new moment, are you super-empathetic?

JAMES CORDEN: I’m empathetic for anybody, certainly today now in this current climate of social media. I’m empathetic to anybody who gets blasted into a world of recognition. Bill Murray said, “When anybody becomes well known, when anybody comes famous, you’ve got to give them 12 months of grace.” Because the whole world’s changed, and you’re the same. You’re getting showered with praise. People want to talk to you who didn’t want to talk to you before. People want to be around you who didn’t want to be around you before. People want to spend the night with you who didn’t want to spend the night with you before. It’s an unnerving mix.

My only regret is that the work that I was putting out at that time just wasn’t nearly good enough. I started making a sketch show with my friend Matt, who played Gavin in Gavin and Stacey, and the BBC were like, “You should make a sketch show. We were like, “That’s a great idea. Yeah, we can do this.” And we didn’t do nearly enough work for it, and it got judged accordingly.

KC: Kind of half-assed.

JC: Yeah, and you can’t do that.

KC: You can’t be hung over and think hard thoughts.

JC: You can’t take any of it for granted. You can’t think, “This is my life now,” because it isn’t. You’re only as good as the work that you’re doing. And I’ve learned way more about myself in criticism. You learn next to nothing in praise.

KC: Do you look at the criticism?

JC: I have, yeah, for sure. Not online sort of criticism because I think that’s a whole other thing. But I mean, yeah, like reviews of work and things. And I do think it’s different if you’re an actor. I think being an actor, you’re at the mercy of a lot of other people. I think stage is an actor’s medium. I think television is a writer’s medium. And I think film is a director’s medium.

KC: Do you like being at the mercy of a director?

JC: I do.

KC: You do?

JC: Mostly because I just enjoy the doing of it.

KC: You’re a team person.

JC: There are two trains of thought. Some people are in it for the legacy. They’re in it for the legacy of “What do I leave behind?” and I have great respect for that. I’m in it for the experience. I’m in it for the journey of it. The doing of it’s the thing. Everything else is a bonus. The doing of it’s the prize.

KC: You said something about Cats that I saw, that it wasn’t your favorite end product?

JC: Well, I haven’t seen it, and I will say this, genuinely. When I came back from shooting Cats, my friend said, “How was it?” I was like, “I had the best time. I have no idea what it’s gonna be. No idea whatsoever.”

KC: I just thought it was admirable that you could separate the doing of the thing and the joy in working on that set, and whatever outcomes there may be.

JC: You have to because you cannot judge the success of something on its success. There’s got to be what it did within you because if you’re only defined by things that are outside of you, that I think is a lost cause. This is something I struggle with all the time. It’s something I try to tell myself, that you are not your career. You are separate to that. You are here, and your work is here, and they are linked but not joined at the hip. I try to remind myself of that all the time.

Tell me more with Kelly Corrigan | Episode 3 | Jennifer Garner

KELLY CORRIGAN: Tell me about growing up in West Virginia.

JENNIFER GARNER: I feel like the luckiest ... I mean, first of all, it’s not unusual for you to tell me that I’m the only West Virginian you’ve ever met because statistically speaking, you’re less likely to meet someone from West Virginia outside of the state than from anywhere else. There aren’t very many of us, and we don’t tend to leave. It was a real childhood. Marge down the street had the extra key if the door was locked when we got home from school. I was raised by a community.

KC: I grew up on a street where all the Irish Catholics lived. So it was like the Walshes and the Kellys and the Connors, and any one of those parents could smack you on the bottom or feed you dinner or remember it was your birthday. Tell me about your parents.

JG: My parents are just salt of the earth. My mom grew up really poor in Locust Grove, Oklahoma, on a farm. I said to her, “Mom, does it bother you when I talk about your poverty as a child? Does that bother you?” And she said, “I’m never ashamed of growing up poor. Rather, I am amazed by the grace and dignity that my parents had throughout my childhood.”

I just thought, “Oh, OK.” She was a mom and went back to school and got her graduate degree when I was little, and then she taught at West Virginia State for a long time. She taught kind of remedial reading, where she had a lot of kids who had traveled through the public school system in West Virginia and were in college but were also illiterate.

KC: And what’s your dad like?

JG: My dad is, he’s so great. He’s Billy Jack. When I was younger, I would have just said Bill, but I feel like the older he gets, the more the Texan just spills out of him. He is Billy Jack Garner. When I was little, my dad could be in South Africa — and in West Virginia, like I said, no one leaves. I’m now realizing that he had to take a connecting flight from our tiny airport to this tiny airport to this to this, but he was all the time, he has really traveled the world.

KC: I think of you as a pretty worldly person, in terms of your point of view, like you’re interested in things well beyond yourself. I think to have people in your house who are telling stories about other places is really valuable that way.

JG: Oh, for sure. I think my mom was so poor that it is just unbelievable that she managed to leave. As a matter of fact, when I moved to New York after college, my mom said, “Jennifer, no matter what you do, it will never be as big of a deal as it was for me to leave that farm.”

She just wanted to travel. She babysat for somebody down the road who had a little bit of money. They had five kids. She’d get $1 a day on Saturdays to babysit them for 12 or 14 hours, and they had Life magazines. In Life magazine, she saw pictures of other places, and she just wanted to go. She found an ad to be a Girl Scout counselor in Maine, and she applied and got on a bus and went to Maine. It was kind of the beginning of my mom’s real itch to see and understand the world, and now she has been to 50 states and to seven continents.