13 QUESTIONS THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE
Over at a friend’s dinner the other night I was having a long conversation with a rather interesting woman. A little older than me (double my age), and certainly a little wiser than me. Oh, how much I love these precious encounters!
Anyway, we got deeply entangled with the subject of not only questioning ourselves, but also asking ourselves the RIGHT questions. There’s a big difference between the two, and I got curious.
So this article came to life after a little more research and reading, realising that most of us got it the other way around. Our instinct is to look for answers, when in fact it is questions that teach us most.
Rhetorical questions, the ones that don’t even seem to have answers, push the hardest and can be rather uncomfortable, even painful, to ask.
But the right question at the right time can change the course of a life, can quiet a turbulent mind, and can heal the wounds of an angry heart. Asking yourself the right questions will certainly help you get clarity and make better decisions.
While every situation is unique, I came up with 13 (lucky number) essential questions that deserve to be asked not just once, but many times over the course of a lifetime, and even over the course of a day.
There is great value in letting them challenge you. Meditate on these questions, journal on them if you like. Let them do their work on you, and let them change your life for the better.
1. Who Do You Spend Your Time With?
Goethe would say “Tell me who you spend time with, and I will tell you who you are.”
What we do and who we spend our precious time with influences who we are more than any other factor. What you do puts you around people, and the people you’re around affect what you do. Do your friends and colleagues inspire and nourish you, or do they drag you down?
There’s a saying that you’re the average of the five people you spend most of your time with. If you’re spending your time with people who tolerate unhappy lifestyles you’re going to find yourself making similar choices. Same goes for what you read, what you watch, and what you think about. Your life comes to resemble its environment. Choose your surroundings wisely.
2. Is This In My Control?
The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus would say that our main task is to make the distinction between what is in our control, and what is not.
We waste an incredible amount of time on the latter and leave so many opportunities on the table by mislabeling the former. Our actions, our thoughts, and our feelings - these are up to us. Other people, the weather, and external events - not up to us.
But your response to other people and external events IS in your control. Making this distinction will make you happier, stronger and more successful because it concentrates your energy in the places where they matter.
3. What Does Your Ideal Day Look Like?
If you don’t know what your ideal day looks like, how are you ever going to make decisions or plans for ensuring that you actually get to experience them on a regular basis?
Make an inventory of the most enjoyable and satisfying days of your life. What did you do and why did you like them? Does your job and your personal life take you towards these, or away from them? What changes can you make long-term, and what steps can you take today?
4. To Have Or To Do?
Which way will you go? That is, will you choose to fall in love with the image of how success looks like, or will you focus on a higher purpose? Will you pick obsessing over your title, your number of followers, and the size of your bank account, or on real tangible accomplishment? Will you choose pretence, or do the things that are truly meaningful - no matter what?
5. If I Am Not For Me, Who Is? If I Am Only For Me, Who Am I?
The alternative translation of that last part is “If I am only only for me, what am I…” The answer isn’t pretty.
Of course it doesn’t make you a bad person if you want to make it to the top and provide for yourself. But if this is all you want we have a problem. There is a balance. Ego, self-interest, pride, dignity and ambition are not necessarily bad traits, if they are tempered by a sense of humility and selflessness. Human beings thrive on cooperation and community, we rise by lifting others. Be humble, be caring - it’s very attractive.
6. What Am I Missing By Choosing To Worry or Be Afraid?
Gavin de Becker writes in The Gift of Fear: “When you worry, ask yourself, what am I choosing not to see right now? What important things are you missing because you chose worry over introspection, alertness or wisdom?”
Another way of putting it: Does getting upset provide you with more options?
Obstacles in life make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those distracting emotions in check. Only if we can keep steady no matter what happens, and no matter how much external events fluctuate, can we see what’s going on.
The Greeks had a fabulous word for this: apatheia. It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions.
Easier said than done, I know. I struggle with this big time. But when you find yourself overcome by these emotions, regain control of your mind, get quiet, and remind yourself of the cost of this highly charged, negative state of being. We need a little “apatheia” otherwise we’re missing the solution. And we can’t afford that, can we?
7. Am I Doing My Job?
Do you actually know what your job is, today and in life? It’s important to remember that we can be very busy, exhaustingly busy, and still not be doing our job.
Being busy makes our ego feel sooooo important, we literally pride ourselves by declaring “I am so busy”.
But we can be caught up in silly things that don’t matter, we can be interfering and encroaching on someone else’s job, or we can be wasting time with restless behaviour and unfocused actions. All these things keep us working, but not on the job that actually matters.
8. What Is The Most Important Thing?
If you don’t know what your most important thing is, how do you know if you’re putting it first? How do you know if you’re taking the right steps to get it?
Maybe family and friends matter most to you. Great, so that is your priority. Make the right decisions every day that support your happiness, and stop comparing yourself to people with different priorities. Maybe success is the most important thing to you. That’s perfectly fine. Know that and own it, but don’t lie to yourself or others.
You have to know and own whatever your most important thing is. Only then can you understand what matters, and what doesn’t.
Only then can you say no and refuse stupid races that don’t matter (or even exist). Only then can you develop the quiet confidence and belief that you’re on the right path. You can ignore all other distractions, shiny objects, and people who are hopelessly lost but pretend to know and have it all.
9. Who Is This For?
If you’re making something, selling something, or trying to reach people, you have to be able to answer this question.
It is shocking how many entrepreneurs, writers, teachers, and even politicians never bother to stop and go: Who the hell is my audience here? The result is that the message is out of tune. Or we are trying to please everyone and thus failing to please anyone.
Every creative must stop and really think about who their audience is. What do these people want? What do they need? What value am I offering to them? Don’t try to get lucky. Get it right. Ask the question, and make sure the answer is clear.
10. Does This Actually Matter?
The reason that wise people never let the very real fact of their mortality slip too far from their mind (memento mori) is because it helps them ask this question: Given the shortness of life, does this thing I’m thinking about, worrying about, fighting about, throwing myself into, even f…ing matter?
The answer is usually no. We want to ask ourselves this question before we waste more energy (and life) than we have to.
“You could leave life right now,” the stoic philospher Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
11. Will This Be Alive Time or Dead Time?
The author Robert Greene says that there are two types of time: Dead Time - when we are just waiting and wasting. And Alive Time - when we are learning, creating and playing. Which one do you choose? Alive time or dead time?
So let that question catch you next time you find yourself sitting around with your phone or goofing off as you wait. Let it jolt you back into line. Pick up a book, pick up a pen and get back to work. Resist the temptation to get distracted with silly time wasting. Make the most of every moment as you prepare for the next move or the next event. If you want to have a deep and meaningful life, then you need to be fully alive.
12. Is This Who I Want To Be?
Our mind has the cunning ability to make the distinction between what we do and who we are. The problem is that this is complete nonsense. You can’t be a good person if your actions are consistently bad. You can’t be a hardworking person if you take every shortcut you can. It doesn’t matter if you say you love someone, it only matters if you show that love to them.
Ask yourself whenever you’re doing something: Is this reflective of the person that I want to become?
How we do anything is how we do everything. It is who we are. So ask this question about every action, thought and word. Because it adds up in a way that no amount of self-image or belief ever will.
13. What Is The Meaning Of Life?
And finally, the last question comes from the great Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist who survived Auschwitz and wrote the beautiful book A Man’s Search for Meaning. He tried to address that perennial question that every philosopher and hungry young person has struggled with: What is the meaning of life?
Frankl struggled with this question too, surely the horrors of a concentration camp and the loss of one’s entire existence will do that to you. But he found that the answer was simple, though there was a problem how the question was posed.
“You see,” he said, “it is not us who get to demand of the world: what is the meaning of life? Rather, life is demanding of us that we answer the question with the actions and decisions we make. That we create meaning with our choices and our beliefs”.
And so I hope that we can create meaning and purpose by challenging ourselves with these questions. Let’s do it every day and see what happens.
If you have any other question you’d like to add then please comment below, I would love to know.