Based on its title, you might expect this article to cover questions like “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is my purpose?” It doesn’t. Those are better left for a college philosophy class or a deep discussion with friends.
These five questions are different. They will challenge your beliefs and motives. By honestly answering them, you will hopefully make better choices about what you do and how you think.
The average person thinks 12,000 to 70,000 thoughts per day. Most of those them are part of an ongoing, one-way lecture in their head: They judge, complain, excuse, blame, and “should” all over themselves.
I’ve found that asking myself one or more of the following questions gets me out of the one-way lecture, and into a two-way conversation (still in my head) and solution for whatever situation I’m in.
Just a word of warning: You can’t answer these questions without a moderate level of discomfort. Reconsidering the beliefs behind the tales we tell ourselves doesn’t feel good.
Facing the answers might force you to think and behave differently. Change isn’t easy, but it’s almost always worth it.
It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.Eugene Ionesco
Question 1: What if I’m wrong?
The perfect question for checking your ego and controlling your emotions.
This question isn’t an easy one to answer. Before you ask this question of someone else, I suggest wrestling with it yourself first. The reality is, more of your beliefs are likely to be wrong than they are to be right. That’s the case for me, too.
My Biased Beliefs
I am biased. My beliefs are often biased based on my life experiences, education, media consumption, and the people I listen to. Often, these biases are unconscious.
Those biases create a specific lens through which I view situations. Someone else with different experiences, education, and unconscious beliefs could have a completely different set of biases. Those biases become even more engrained when feeling fear or anger.
You’d think that our experience would be the best source of information to form our beliefs, but experience creates memories — and memories are often wrong.
Positive circumstances are often remembered as better than they were, while negative circumstances are often remembered as worse than they were, especially over time.
Here’s an example of how misinformed our memories may be, as told by Marcia K. Johnson of Yale University.
“When I was a college freshman, during dinner with friends and my parents, I was reminded of an incident from when I was about 5 years old and recounted it:
My family was driving through the central valley in California when we had a flat tire. My father took the tire off the car and hitchhiked up the road to get the tire patched. My mother, brother, sister, and I waited in the hot car. We got very thirsty and finally my sister took a couple of empty pop bottles and walked up the road to a farmhouse. The woman explained there was a drought and she had only a little bottled water left. She set aside a glass of water for her little boy and filled my sister’s pop bottles with the rest. My sister returned to the car, we drank the water, and I remembered feeling guilty that we didn’t save any for my father (Johnson, 1985).
When I finished, my parents laughed. They said we did take a trip during a drought, had a flat, and my father did go get it fixed. The rest of us waited a long time in the car, my sister complained about the heat, but nobody went anywhere for water. Evidently, what I had done at the time was imagine a solution to our problem, simultaneously getting rid of my fussy sister and getting us something to drink. In remembering the incident years later, I confused the products of my perceptual experience with the products of my imagination — I had a failure in reality monitoring, or a false memory (Johnson, 1977, 1988; Johnson & Raye, 1981, 1998).
Johnson MK. Memory and Reality. American Psychologist. 2006
Think about that. She actually believed her sister did something she never did, spoke to someone she never spoke to, and drank water from a soda bottle that was never there!
This isn’t an unusual case. Wired magazine published a fascinating article on false memories and crime you might like to read, called “False Memories And False Confessions: The Psychology Of Imagined Crimes.”
Though I don’t always get it right, I do my best to check myself, whenever I feel strongly about something, and ask the question, “What if I’m wrong?”
Others’ Biased Beliefs
Of course, our family, friends, and favorite media channels are loaded with biases as well. This makes the skill of critical thinking more important than ever.
On top of my own biases, I often remind myself of the biases of others.
I might get information about a topic from the media or other people who share the story through their own biased point of view, based on their their own experiences, education, media consumption, the people they listen to, and their unconscious beliefs.
Additionally, some people’s opinions are based on loyalty to a company, family member, or political party. Even if they believed something different, they might not share it with you. They could sway you toward a way of thinking without actually thinking that way themselves.
If people contemplated this question, it could change the tone of their posts and comments on social media.
I’d be a fool to get angry and ruin friendships over something that I cannot be certain of. Yet this happens all the time in politics, religion (including different religions of the same faith), nutrition — even in debates about iPhones and Androids.
It’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.Mark Twain
The wisest people will often acknowledge that they’re not right about everything. They’re just less wrong than they were when they were younger. There’s very little in life for which we can be absolutely certain.
If you want to avoid unnecessary stress, try to better understand the world around you, avoid creating an ego that’s as fragile as an egg shell, and limit the number of bad decisions you make, consistently ask yourself, “What if I’m wrong?”
And then be OK with it when you find out you are.
Question 2: Is it impossible?
The perfect question for overcoming your excuses.
This is such a powerful question to ask when you feel stuck, frustrated, or feel like giving up on something.
I love to pose this question for clients when they’re feeling frustrated about eating more protein, making time for strength training, remembering to take their supplements, or getting to sleep on time.
Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.Arthur Conan Doyle
If you ask someone if something is possible, their brain gets lazy and falls back to, “Well, anything is possible,” sometimes said with a snarky tone. But they may not really believe it.
When you change the question and ask someone if the obstacle they face is impossible to overcome, their brain goes to work. Nobody wants to admit that something is impossible to solve. Often, they come up with multiple solutions.
Whether you call it an excuse, an obstacle, or a “reason,” almost any thing becomes an excuse if you let it. Ask yourself if your desired outcome is impossible in light of that excuse. In almost every situation, you’ll find a solution.
It’s perfect for excuses like these:
- I don’t have time.
- I don’t know what to do.
- I don’t know anybody.
- I can’t afford it.
- I eat out too often.
- I don’t know how to cook.
- I can’t get to bed early enough.
- I have a desk job and can’t get out and walk.
- My spouse doesn’t support me.
- I have a bad knee/hip/shoulder/finger/ear lobe.
Once you admit that it’s possible to overcome your excuse, the next question is, “What do I have to do to make it possible?” And that’s where you must face an uncomfortable question: “Am I willing to do what it takes?”
Question 3: What’s the worst that could happen?
The perfect question for overcoming your fears.
Your heart was pounding. Your hands were cold and clammy. You probably made five trips to the bathroom in the hour before. You couldn’t help but wonder, What if I fail? Then the deciding moment came . . . you had to parallel park.
And you knew one terrifying fact: Hitting that cone could cause immediate failure. And that would mean telling your friends that you failed. And then the whole school would know and your life would be over.
Not really. But you probably had some sort of story like this built up in your mind back when you took your driving test. Today, you laugh because it seems so silly.
If you’re truly scared of something, sometimes you just need to identify what the worst possible outcome could be. In most cases, it’s unlikely you’d die, so anything short of death will probably be short-term.
I think of most fears like visiting haunted houses. Some people are absolutely terrified at the idea of going to a haunted house, much less actually going to one. But let’s say that you do muster up the courage to go to a haunted house, and then ask yourself this question: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
Well, the absolute worst possible thing that could happen is that you’d die from terror. The next worst is that you’d soil your pants because you’re scared.
Actually, come to think of it, the worst thing would be to die and soil your pants at the haunted house. But the chance of that happening is almost zero.
So now that you know that won’t happen, what might?
Perhaps, you’ll walk through the haunted house, get surprised a few times, and have someone grab you somewhere he or she shouldn’t. You’ll exit and join your friends, feeling victorious for overcoming your fear, and then have fun sharing stories with one another about the experience.
When we do the stuff we’re afraid of doing, we’ll get surprised by a few things and maybe end up in some uncomfortable situations. In the end, we often feel glad we did it.
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.Steven Pressfield, The War of Art
Seriously, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you bruise your ego? Endure some embarrassment? Lose a little money or time?
What are you giving up on by not taking that chance?
Just to cover my bases, this question is to be used for the stuff you’re afraid to do but that you know would be good for you. It’s not a question to ask when you’re the 16-year-old who just got his license and is thinking about doing doughnuts with his dad’s pickup truck, thinking his dad won’t find out (sorry, Dad).
Question 4: Why not now?
The perfect question for getting important stuff done.
One of the most difficult transitions from childhood to adulthood is the transition from a parent holding you accountable to you holding yourself accountable.
Parents have the authority to hold their kids accountable (or, at least we think we do). Bosses have the authority to hold their employees accountable.
But once you graduate to adulthood, it’s up to you to hold yourself accountable to expectations and deadlines.
You can’t build a reputation on what you’re going to do.Henry Ford
Enter Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
“I need to join a health club.” Give yourself a month to sign up a gym membership, and it’ll take a month. Give yourself until the end of the day and you can get it done by the end of the day. Decide to do it right now, and you could call the gym or sign up online in 10 minutes.
“I need to start on my diet.” Tell yourself you can wait until Monday to start your diet, and you’ll binge all weekend, rather than putting your foot down and starting right now.
“I need to start building my business.” Tell yourself you’ll start reaching out to contacts to talk with them about your business after your office is set up, your business cards are printed, and your Better Business Bureau membership has been accepted, and you’ll find a way to put it off for a few more months. Or, you could do it right now.
In The 12 Week Year, Brian Moran and Michael Lennington convincingly argue that most of our one-year goals could be accomplished in just 12 weeks, and most of our tasks with one-week deadlines could get done in a day.
It’s all about the deadline.
We like to bully deadlines. Pick on them; make fun of them; even spit on them sometimes. But what a terrible thing to do. Deadlines are actually our best friends.Jason Fried
See, the benefit of doing now what you could do later is that when you put it off, it’s still on your mind. It’s still something that needs to get done. So no matter what else you do while you procrastinate, you’ll never shake the fact that you have something important to do and haven’t gotten it done.
On the other hand, if you can do it now, you not only save yourself the time, but also open space in your mind.
A personal trainer who can’t create deadlines and hold him or herself accountable ends up going broke, without enough clients to make ends meet.
Someone who wants to turn their side hustle into a multimillion dollar business flatlines and flounders, because they don’t take action on their most important tasks every day.
It’s also why the wake-up call for some guys to get back in shape isn’t when their beer belly outgrows their belt: It’s when their doctor gives them an idea of how soon they’ll die if they don’t change their ways. It’s about the deadline.
The best part about doing it now is that once it’s done, you can forget about it. You also have more time in your schedule to either do other important things, or relax and celebrate the fact that you got it done.
Question 5: What if I’m the problem?
The perfect question for overcoming victimhood.
If answering the first question “What if I’m wrong?” seemed like a tough question to contemplate (but easy to ask someone else), this question pretty much sucks.
In case nobody has told you, you are the problem. So am I.
Nobody likes to admit they are the problem. In fact, today’s trigger-happy, microaggression, victimhood culture turns anything that makes someone uncomfortable into a serious offense. People put meaning into the comments, words, and actions of others that aren’t there, making others out to be the problem rather than first looking at themselves.
They cast blame to take the weight of responsibility off their shoulders. They make others out to be the problems in their own messes. I get tempted into this as well.
We create almost all of the problems we face. And even if we don’t create a problem, our situation might still be the result of our choices.
If we don’t like the way someone treated us, that’s our problem, not theirs. They were just being themselves. If a relationship, business, fitness program, or your career isn’t going the way you’d like it to, your explanation can’t start with pointing the fingers at others. It always has to start with you.
Are you too easily offended? Did you put expectations on someone else when you shouldn’t have? Do you expect others to see the world the way you do, so you can get what you want while you live in their world?
Let me share one personal story with you to reinforce the importance of this question.
I sold Cutco Cutlery in college. I loved it. One evening, I had an appointment with a woman named Lucy Miner, just outside of Duluth. I looked at the clock and realized my appointment was in 20 minutes. I assumed it would take 20 minutes to get there and rushed toward the door of my house to head to hers.
I grabbed my sample kit of knives and accessories, and happened to brush my face with my hand. I realized I hadn’t shaved yet that day. Ugh, I don’t have time, I thought. I grabbed the door and stopped. I set my stuff down and ran upstairs to shave, knowing I was going to be a little late for my appointment.
I apologized after arriving a little late, one of my pet peeves.
After my presentation, I found out Lucy was a big fan of Cutco, having bought her first set about 20 years earlier. She ordered a few new sets as a gift, which turned out to be a huge order (she ordered many more sets during my “career” with Cutco, and became one of my best customers).
As I was wrapping up my stuff, she got her son’s attention. “Jerry,” she said, “Do you see Tom’s face, freshly shaven? If he would have come over here with whiskers like you have right now, I wouldn’t have ordered a thing from him.”
I was dumbfounded. The comment came out of nowhere, and I thought back to my dilemma at my back door, just before driving over.
If Lucy would have given me the boot because of my beard, that wouldn’t have been “her problem,” that would have been mine.
We live in a world with other people. We might not agree with them all the time. We might not always like what they like and we might not agree on topics of culture, dress, language, politics, or religion.
But if our success depends on other people, it’s our problem if our choices don’t fit with what they want. It isn’t their problem that they don’t fit with what we want.
Grown ups need to let stuff go or they’ll spend their entire lives feeling victimized by trivial stuff.
Before looking to your spouse about your marriage, your boss about your career, your employees about your business, or your nutritionist about your diet not working, start with you.
Honestly answer the question, “Am I the problem?”
Meditate On These Questions For A Month
If you feel a little defensive, that’s OK. Give these questions a try anyway. It’s often difficult to take ownership over our lives, to take 100 percent responsibility. But that’s also the only way to avoid playing the victim.
Walk through the questions each day for a month, and see how much your thinking changes. Eventually, you’ll roll through these questions in seconds, which will help you make better decisions each day. That’s when the magic really starts to happen.