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What Jane Goodall can teach us about questioning why things are done a certain way…

Last Updated:

March 22, 2024

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the official newsletter of Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules. Each week, you’ll receive one story from the past, one study from the present, and one strategy for your future.

My goal: to give you—in the time it takes to finish on the toilet—one piece of practical career wisdom you can apply today, no matter if you’re a student or a seasoned professional.

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Did You Know? The world needs you to question things more!

A story from the past

It’s 1960 and 26-year-old Jane Goodall just made a groundbreaking observation in the jungles of Tanzania: Humans aren’t the only species that can use tools and have emotions; chimpanzees have the ability, too.

How did Goodall make the discovery? By questioning the age-old research methodology of identifying animals as objects—and not as individuals. Whereas other scientists numbered the chimpanzees they were observing, Goodall took a different approach: She named her chimpanzees Fifi, Freud, and Frodo.

By transforming herself from distant observer to close companion in her community of chimpanzees, Goodall was able to see what others could not: Chimpanzees had distinct personalities, not to mention habits in how they held hands, hugged, and smiled.

Fast forward, and by 1965 Goodall had reached worldwide fame. To date, Goodall has over 50 awards, including recognition as a UN Messenger of Peace and a Time 100 Leader.

So, the next time you find yourself wondering, Why do we do things this way?, remember Goodall, who questioned an approach—and changed how humanity views itself. 

Jane Goodall by Hugo van Lawick (via National Geographic)

A study of the present

While you may not be a chimpanzee researcher, Goodall’s story is still worth learning from. Earlier this year, Nature published a study showing an alarming decline in “disruptive” research—new ideas that fundamentally change what we think we know about a topic. Researchers found that, over the last 65 years, disruptive research dropped from the peak by…

  • 100% for physical science papers
  • 92% for social science papers
  • 92% for drugs and medical patents
  • 79% for computer and communication patents

What does this data suggest? According to researcher Michael Park, “A lot of innovation comes from trying new things or taking ideas from different fields and seeing what happens.” Scientists just aren’t taking such an approach anymore. 

So what? If we want to keep progressing as humans, we need to ask more questions. We need you to ask more questions. 

A strategy for your future

How can you unleash your inner Jane Goodall? 

Try this:

1. Think of something you do every day as part of your job or extracurricular activity.

2. Try completing this sentence: “Why do we ______ when we could ______ instead? It makes so much more sense because then we’d be able to ______.”

3. Share your idea with a friend or mentor you trust and get their feedback.

Not every new idea will make sense. But some might. Your single question could just be what changes your life—and the world.

I know it because I’ve experienced it: If I hadn’t asked myself, “Why do we let new grads figure out how to succeed in the workforce through trial and error when we could simply teach them instead?” I wouldn’t have written The Unspoken Rules and become an author in the process. 

Keep questioning!